Igor Shesterkin #31 of the Rangers makes a save against...

Igor Shesterkin #31 of the Rangers makes a save against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on June 07, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Mike Carlson

TAMPA, Fla. — To be great is to play great in the biggest moments and to convince teammates they can trust that will be the case. The Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin hits all the checkmarks there.

The Russian goalie has risen to the occasion all season, enough to backstop the Rangers to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday night at Amalie Arena against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning with the Blueshirts facing playoff elimination for the sixth time in this run.

“He’s been a big, big part of our team all year long,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s a candidate for the MVP [the Hart Trophy]. He’s a Vezina Trophy candidate. So, obviously, he’s been a big part of our group. He’s played really well. He’s played good. Two pucks he didn’t see last night [in Thursday night’s 3-1 loss in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden]. Those are the only ones to go by him.”

The Rangers went 5-0 in elimination games through the first two rounds, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit against the Penguins in the first round then winning Games 6 and 7 against the Hurricanes in the second round. Shesterkin, of course, was a big reason why, compiling a 2.57 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in those five games.

But Shesterkin’s counterpart in this series, fellow Russian Andrei Vasilevskiy, has truly defined goalie greatness in leading his team to 10 straight playoff series wins in their Cup runs. That’s particularly true in games in which the Lightning had a chance to clinch a series.

Overall, Vasilevskiy is 12-9 in potential series-clinching games. But he’s compiled a 1.65 GAA and a .942 save percentage in those contests with an NHL-record six shutouts.

Of late, he’s been unbeatable.

The NHL’s daily media notes highlighted that Vasilevskiy had allowed just one goal over his last three potential series-clinching matches, with an 0.33 GAA, a .990 save percentage and two shutouts. That includes 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 and 22 saves in a 1-0 win over the Canadiens in Game 5 of the 2021 Cup Final.

Strangely, the NHL did not mention Vasilevskiy’s 18 saves in a 1-0 win over the Islanders in Game 7 of the 2021 conference finals. But that was a big-time performance as well.

Of course, elimination games or series-clinching games never come down to one player, no matter how great a goalie can play.

But goalies have always been singled out, either praised too much in victory or nitpicked after losses.

“That’s a goalie’s life,” retired Rangers great Henrik Lundqvist used to say.

Gallant won’t go there.

“No different responsibility than anybody else,” Gallant said. “We don’t put pressure on him. I don’t go to him and say, ‘Igor, you have to be the best player on the ice.’ He does his job every night.”

To be fair, Gallant leaves most of the daily communication with Shesterkin to goalie coach Benoit Allaire. Either way, Shesterkin understands his importance to the group’s effort.

And he welcomes that responsibility.

Andrew Copp joined the Rangers via trade from the Jets on March 21 and Shesterkin’s confidence made an immediate impression on him.

“Throughout the season you kind of heard about how well he was playing,” Copp said. “I didn’t get to see the Rangers play until February. Just a lot of confidence. I think he believes he can stop every shot.

“You see the way he plays with his puck handling. It just kind of gives the team a lot of confidence back there that even if mistakes are made that he can bail us out. Especially the way he plays the puck, it kind of changes the way teams forecheck and how easy we can break the puck out sometimes. Just his confidence is probably the first thing I noticed about him.”

No doubt, his teammates know Shesterkin is great.

But his challenge in this conference finals was to be greater than Vasilevskiy.

And Vasilevskiy has come to define greatness for playoff goalies.


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