So here are the Rangers, four victories from reaching the Stanley Cup Final just four years after The Letter and in their first season since president and general manager Chris Drury replaced John Davidson and Jeff Gorton and coach Gerard Gallant replaced David Quinn.
Here are the Rangers in the NHL’s final four for the first time since 2015, with less than 48 hours between Game 7 against the Hurricanes — a 6-2 win at PNC Arena — and Game 1 against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Here we are again, extolling the special attributes of goalie Igor Shesterkin — who helped the Rangers improve to 5-0 in elimination games in these playoffs — and greatly anticipating his upcoming personal matchup against the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“He’s the best goalie in the world right now,” Shesterkin said after admitting he felt a little “shaky” before Game 7 yet was brilliant again with 37 saves. “I think it will be a good battle.”
The two Russians, just one year apart in age but more professional acquaintances than friends, undoubtedly are the two best netminders on the planet. It’s a giant step up in competition for the Rangers after two rounds of Louis Domingue, Tristan Jarry, Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov.
“Two of the top goalies,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “Vasilevskiy has his track record speak for itself. But I think Shesty’s kind of does, too. What he’s done this year has been insanely impressive. Definitely two good goalies coming together, and I have a lot of faith in Shesty.”
“Igor’s a great goalie, we’ve seen it and we know what he’s going to win this year,” said coach Gerard Gallant (Shesterkin is a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie and is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP). “He’s been outstanding. Vasilevskiy has won two Cups in back-to-back years. I think it’s going to be outstanding, the next series.”
Of course, Shesterkin was not the only reason the Rangers eliminated the Hurricanes as the road team finally won a game in the series. The Rangers were 2-for-3 on the power play as they built a 2-0 lead in the opening eight minutes, blocked 25 shots and killed three of four penalties.
They got their power-play goals from Fox and Chris Kreider, who added a second goal, and any successful playoff team needs production from its top players. Kreider’s 15 career goals in elimination games are the most among active players.
But Shesterkin effectively snuffed out the Hurricanes as they took control of the five-on-five play through the end of the first period and start of the second. Carolina won 49 of 72 faceoffs, but Shesterkin’s work kept that from being any sort of puck-possession advantage for them.
By the end, PNC Arena sounded like the Garden South, with alternating chants of “I-Gor, I-Gor” and “Let’s Go Rangers.”
Yet Vasilevskiy is the absolute gold standard of goaltending until proved otherwise.
He has led the Lightning to back-to-back Cups and has a career 2.24 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage in the playoffs. The Panthers had an NHL-leading 340 goals and plus-94 goal differential in the regular season, but Vasilevskiy, 27, held Florida to three goals in a four-game sweep in the second round.
“I watched when he played against the Florida Panthers,” Shesterkin said when asked if he’s learned anything from watching Vasilevskiy. “He played so good. It’s so tough to watch something when you look on the TV. When we play against him, it will be more easier.”
This is not to say Shesterkin isn’t up to the task. Just that he will have to be for the Rangers to advance to their first Cup Final since 2014.
It was four years later, on Feb. 8, 2018, that then-president Glen Sather and then-GM Gorton released The Letter, foretelling a rebuild that included trading captain Ryan McDonagh to the Lightning 18 days later.
But here now are the Rangers, after their second Game 7 victory in two weeks.
And here’s to now getting to watch Shesterkin compete against Vasilevskiy.