By the time Igor Shesterkin coolly steered a rebound away from the middle of the ice and out of trouble, he had already stopped 40 of 41 shots to reach his net. Nino Niederreiter’s weak, dribbling backhand, which uncharacteristically slipped right through him, was a distant memory at that point—a blip on an otherwise clear radar; a potentially troublesome hitch rendered irrelevant by the unflappable Russian goaltender’s otherwise stirring performance.
The 26-year-old stopped three more shots and was New York’s finest in Sunday afternoon’s Game 3 win over a Carolina Hurricanes team that appeared more than poised to open up a 3-0 series lead with their first road win of these playoffs. He was the Rangers’ driving force this season, the main reason they made it into the dance, the key cog in an improbable, come-from-behind, seven-game win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, and his offering at Madison Square Garden on this day is something to tether hope to for his teammates.
Isn’t that what it’s about in the playoffs? Your best being your best when it matters most?
The Rangers have had that from Shesterkin all year. He was named a Hart and Vezina finalist for putting up a .935 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average and coming up with the big stops at key moments through all 53 of his appearances, and he’s following that up in crunch time—and against teams that have completely outplayed his.
Did it help that Mika Zibanejad (previously pointless through Games 1 and 2) scored a power play goal late in the first period, after the Rangers were caved in and Shesterkin made several 10-bell saves? Obviously.
Chris Kreider, who scored 52 goals in the regular season and had zero goals and only one shot on net through the first two games against Carolina, managing the winner—a roof-job from a sharp angle 5:55 into the second period—felt like a necessity.
But it probably wouldn’t have mattered at all had Shesterkin not come flying off the goal line to challenge a Jesperi Kotkaniemi breakaway earlier in the game. It definitely wouldn’t have mattered had he not come up with the goods on Carolina’s power play with just over six minutes to play in the third period. And yeah, Kreider’s goal would’ve been the blip on the radar had Shesterkin not stopped all 17 shots he faced in the first period.
The goaltender left Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour telling reporters in attendance, “I would take that game most nights.”
Obviously, Brind’Amour wasn’t taking it on this one, with the result offering the Rangers life he had hoped his team would’ve completely snuffed out during this afternoon game.
The Hurricanes were the better team, but not in every department. Their power play, which had scored on just nine of its last 89 chances dating back to the regular season, had three opportunities and didn’t appear threatening enough outside of one shot Andrei Svechnikov rang off the post from the second unit. Their penalty kill, which ranked tops in the NHL this season, failed to close off the seam Artemi Panarin used to setup Zibanejad for the opening goal, which proved to be the most costly mistake in the game.
But it’s not as if the Hurricanes didn’t do enough at 5-on-5 to win this thing outright.
“Everyone had opportunities,” Brind’Amour said of the 37 scoring chances his team generated at even strength.
The Hurricanes pressed from all angles, missed the mark with just 14 attempts and had another 17 blocked.
“We’ve gotta find a way to get it into the net,” Brind’Amour said twice.
Shesterkin, who was named the game’s No. 1 star, wouldn’t allow it.
He made it look easy for the most part, which is something Kreider said Shesterkin customarily does. He made most of it look like he did pushing aside that 41st Hurricanes shot before stopping three more.
“Obviously, Igor was outstanding for us,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant.
“I think it’s something that we’ve talked a lot about is how much confidence he instills in us,” said Kreider.
It’s that confidence the Rangers take with them into Game 4, which is set for Tuesday night at MSG on Sportsnet.