The Rangers had a two-goal lead, Madison Square Garden was happily abuzz, Igor Shesterkin was doing his customary Vezina Trophy-level work in goal and the game was nearly halfway over.
Then here came Nino Niederreiter, a member of the visiting Carolina Hurricanes, skating toward Shesterkin and lifting a gentle, seemingly harmless backhand shot in his direction.
Somehow, it went in, slipping between Shesterkin’s body and left arm and into the net. Shock. Silence. Stunned disbelief.
Stuff like this happens, even to the best of them. But for a young goaltender and a team needing another big performance out of him to keep its realistic playoff hopes alive, it was a potentially devasting turn of events.
Then it wasn’t.
Shesterkin shook off the blunder, helped by the fact Rangers fans immediately started chanting his name in support, and he did not falter again.
He made 43 saves to lead the Rangers to a 3-1 victory on Sunday in Game 3 of the teams’ second-round series, which Carolina now leads, 2-1.
“You get little disappointed for a second, you say a few mean words and you forget about it,” Shesterkin said through an interpreter in explaining his approach to the setback.
Asked what happened on the play, he said, “I mean, what can I say? I saw that I gave up a goal. I let down the team and I had to fix the mistake that I made.”
If anyone employed by the Rangers doubted that, they were not saying so after the game, when they mostly did what they have done all season – give credit where it is due.
“Obviously, Igor was outstanding for us, and that was the key,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
Said Chris Kreider, “I think it's something that we've talked a lot about, how much confidence he instills in us, especially when he's making hard saves look easy.”
To hear Shesterkin tell it, while the Hurricanes shot in volume, they had relatively few “dangerous” chances.
Hmm. It often did not seem that way, as the Hurricanes got off 7-0, 9-1 and 12-2 leads in shots on goal and generated plenty of pressure as the Rangers offense searched for its missing production.
It came, finally, when Mika Zibanejad and Kreider scored to give the home team a 2-0 lead early in the second period.
Shesterkin is 7-1 this season when facing 40 or more shots in a game. His 339 saves through 10 games in a playoff year are the most for a Rangers goalie since 1955-56, when the league first started officially counting shots.
Game 3 was a more wide-open contest than the two that Carolina won in Raleigh, which can play to the Rangers’ strengths – one of which is that Shesterkin is there to clean up their messes when necessary.
“He’s (been) doing that the whole season,” Filip Chytil said. “We know what he's capable of. He’s one of the best goalies in the game . . . We just trust him. He’s doing what he can do.
“Yeah, he's unbelievable, but we still have to help him, and I think we did today.”
They did, thanks to some clever line-shuffling – and then un-shuffling – by Gallant and some of the energy and production they need from stars such as Zibanejad, Kreider and Artemi Panarin, the creative trio behind the first two goals.
Truth is, each of the three games in this series could have gone either way. Shesterkin has allowed one goal in regulation time in each. That’s a pretty good pace if his teammates can give him the help he needs moving forward.
They did on Sunday – as did the Garden fans who went from chanting his name in encouragement after that soft goal to chanting his name in tribute as the clock wound down.
Later Shesterkin said he understands the “gravity of the situation” as the team seeks to end another long championship drought and said the city deserves another Cup.
“I’d honestly like to thank the fans for the energy they provided,” Shesterkin said. “They supported me even though I kind of let them down in that one spot.
“But the energy at MSG is always great. They're always charged up, and I can't thank them more for that.”
The best way to thank them would be to do it again in Game 4 on Tuesday night.