Igor Shesterkin nearly bailed out the gassed Rangers and nearly bailed out his coach, Gerard Gallant, for a questionable lineup decision.
“He was great,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “Great goalie. Great season. Best player on our team and biggest, most important player on our team. He’s a special goalie.”
But so is Andrei Vasilevskiy. Even more so as he remains unbeatable of late when the Lightning have a chance to clinch a series.
The two-time Stanley Cup champions won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, 2-1, on Saturday night at Amalie Arena and will face the Avalanche in the Cup Final. The Rangers headed back to New York for breakup day after losing for the first time in six elimination games in their stirring playoff run.
It was stirring and strength-sapping as the Rangers played their 20th game in 40 days after going the full seven in the first two rounds.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Gallant said after the Rangers scored five goals in four straight losses to the Lightning, only one skating five-on-five. “There’s no doubt it showed up.”
Vasilevskiy made 20 saves as the Lightning carried the play almost from start to finish.
Gallant left himself open for questioning — not that he was willing to answer — by making Kaapo Kakko a healthy scratch for the first time and dressing a clearly compromised Ryan Strome even after the second-line center missed a good portion of the pregame warm-ups and exited after the second period with a lower-body injury. Gallant inserted Dryden Hunt on the fourth line.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” Gallant said. “Not tonight. Not the time right now. For me.”
Strome, who returned in Game 5 after missing Game 4, logged 8:42.
Gallant’s choice certainly didn’t seem wise when Steven Stamkos gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead at 10:43 of the second period. Stamkos easily skated past Strome to get to the top of the right circle and beat Shesterkin past his blocker on a shot that Shesterkin likely stops a vast majority of the time.
Stamkos’ second goal at 13:28 of the third period, 21 seconds after Frank Vatrano’s power-play goal, survived a video review to see if Stamkos kicked in the rebound.
It was odd that Shesterkin allowed that first one after the goalie heroics that kept the Rangers in the game to that point. He made 28 saves and was the only reason the Lightning didn’t rout the Rangers.
The Rangers were comically bad handling the puck in their zone throughout the first period. They generated little despite Gallant’s constant line- juggling.
Shesterkin used his pads to rob Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Anthony Cirelli in the first period and again robbed Cirelli at the crease to start the second period. Moments later, Shesterkin splayed and reached out with his glove to deny Nikita Kucherov on a two-on-one chance at the crease.
Sheer brilliance that was just not quite good enough against Vasilevskiy.
Shesterkin was a big reason why the Rangers had staved off elimination three times against the Penguins in the first round and twice against the Hurricanes. He compiled a 2.48 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage in the six elimination games.
But Vasilevskiy has truly defined goalie greatness in clinching games as the Lightning have won 11 straight playoff series. He improved to 13-9 in potential series-clinching games with an NHL-record six shutouts and brought a 1.65 GAA and .942 save percentage into Saturday night in his first 21 tries.
Vasilevskiy has allowed only two goals in his last five potential series-clinching matches. That included 49 saves in a 2-0 win over the Panthers in Game 4 of the second round, 30 saves in a 2-1 road win over the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the first round, 22 saves in a 1-0 win over the Canadiens in Game 5 of the 2021 Cup Final and 18 saves in a 1-0 win over the Islanders in Game 7 of the 2021 conference finals.
Shesterkin did all he could Saturday to bail out the Rangers and Gallant.
But Vasilevskiy was in the opposite net.