Game #61 Shesterkin steals the show as Blueshirts show guts in huge 3-2 win over Sharks, Four out of wildcard, Fast comes up clutch

The game’s First Star Igor Shesterkin salutes the crowd following another jaw dropping performance. He made 44 saves to improve to 9-1-0.

AP Photo credit New York Rangers

It’s not always going to be easy. Playing for the second consecutive night and third day over the last four, the Rangers were far from perfect on Saturday night’s final game before Monday’s trade deadline. In fact, they were downright awful for almost two periods.

However, thanks to the brilliance of sensational rookie Igor Shesterkin and the character this improving team has, they were able to pull out a gutty 3-2 win over the Sharks at home before a louder atmosphere. Indeed, fans are buying in. Why not? The way they’ve played on the road and since the break, the Rangers deserve the kind of support they got at The Garden.

Let’s Go Rangers chants were heard finally through the TV. The crowd helped their tired team rally to defeat the Sharks, who played about as well as they can. They might not be the same team that reached a Stanley Cup Final and Conference Final. However, they sure made life tough. Even without Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, San Jose was the more rested team.

It showed early and often. In about as lopsided a first period as you can have, the Sharks were all over a flat Rangers, who had no legs. They looked like Deontay Wilder, who got dominated and TKO’d by Tyson Fury in a one sided heavyweight championship prize fight I watched just before.

The difference is the hockey team was able to survive the 22 shot onslaught by the Sharks in the early going. They were outshot 22-3. However, Shesterkin wouldn’t allow his team to get overwhelmed. They should’ve been dead and buried after one. Instead, they somehow were tied at one.

Sometimes in hockey, the play of the goalie can be the great equalizer. Shesterkin made more NHL history by becoming the first netminder to win nine of his first 10 starts. He also is the only player to ever have four 40-plus save games in such a brief span at the start of a career. The show he put on was jaw dropping. He made 44 saves to improve to 9-1-0. It was his seventh straight win.

Nearly half those saves came in that crazy first. He stopped 21 of 22 Sharks shots from all angles. The best of the lot coming on Evander Kane when he flat out robbed him on a breakaway with a great glove save that got the MSG crowd up chanting, “Ig-or, Ig–or!” In a word, astonishing is how I’d describe the play of the poised 24-year old. He doesn’t look like a first-year player. Maybe all the pro experience dominating in the KHL for St. Petersburg SKA has helped. He did the same thing with Hartford that he’s now doing with the Blueshirts in the NHL.

If Steve Valiquette can see it, anyone can. Shesterkin is the real deal. The calm with which he plays along with the lateral movement makes it very hard on opponents. It has to feel good if you are his teammate. He is quick and pushes off well while reading and reacting. The way he performed yesterday was similar to the kind of games a much younger Henrik Lundqvist used to give this team. Great goalies can steal games. That’s exactly what Shesterkin did to get the Rangers up to 70 points. They’re four behind the Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets for the wildcard.

Right now, it’s the Islanders in the first wildcard due to one less game played than the Canes, who got an unreal 6-3 win at Toronto due to emergency backup David Ayres, who had to come in and make eight saves due to injuries that knocked out both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. The Hurricanes occupy the second wildcard. The Isles host the same Sharks Sunday evening at 5 PM. By virtue of one point in another three point game, the Blue Jackets also have 74 points. But with only 19 games remaining and just three points during an eight game winless streak, they’re in trouble. They lost to Nashville in a shootout 4-3.

With both the Leafs (72 points) and Panthers (70) still struggling, the Rangers have to feel good about their chances. The issue is they have to climb over three teams in the Metro Division to make the playoffs. With 21 games remaining including a huge game at the Islanders that our Dad is going to on Tuesday, it’s all in front of them. They still have three games left with the surging third place Flyers, whose 4-2 home win over Winnipeg pulled them within only three points of first place.

Both the Penguins and Capitals lost in regulation. The Pens got routed at home by the Sabres while the Caps gave up a late power play goal to Damon Severson in a one goal loss at the Devils. That tarnished a great moment for Alex Ovechkin, who finally scored his 700th career goal to become the eighth member of the 700 Goal Club. Jaromir Jagr was the last.

Congrats go out to Ovechkin on reaching 700. It obviously has been a distraction for the Caps, who haven’t been playing well. The Pens had until the last two games. This division is wide open. Anything can happen. Though I do expect either the Caps or Pens to still win it. The Flyers are a bad road team. So, I don’t think they’ll do better than third.

Ten total points separate first place from seventh. The Rangers still are seventh, but have made up a lot of ground. They’re now 10-3-0 since the break. Their 29 wins in regulation are more than anyone else inside the division. That in itself is nuts. The Caps have 28. Everyone else has 26 or less.

That’s another reason why the league needs to change the point system. Stop rewarding teams for making overtime. That’s the only way to separate the contenders from the pretenders. In fact, only the Bruins, Lightning and Avalanche have more regulation wins than the Rangers in the entire league. Craziness.

Let’s get into the game. After beating Carolina 5-2 on Friday, the Rangers knew the importance of this one. Every point matters. But to win, sometimes you gotta be lucky. They were. That’s how great Shesterkin was. There are way too many examples of him standing on his head. In fact, I was so disgusted when they fell behind by a goal, I Tweeted out this during the second:

I meant it too. I was pretty annoyed after Joe Thornton scored his second of the game on a neat redirect of a Brent Burns one-timer that made it 2-1 San Jose at with 6:13 left in the second. Following that power play goal, I immediately went downstairs to put on the TV. I had watched the first half on my Android that I use to do most posts. I didn’t know if I would put the hockey game back on. That’s how disgusted I was.

After some channel flipping, I eventually gave in and put on MSG. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest. A funny thing occurred with only 2:33 remaining. Kane had the puck behind his net and looked like he’d get it to a teammate to get out of trouble. Only in the blink of an eye, Artemi Panarin stripped him and then for what felt like an eternity, he sent a brilliant pass across for Mika Zibanejad. The play felt like it was in slow motion. When he received the pass, Zibanejad quickly fired the puck in past a shocked Aaron Dell.

It was that stunning. I don’t know why. But it just developed slowly for me. Maybe it was different for fans who attended, or others who watched this strange play. I was really surprised when Zibanejad scored to tie the game. It felt like they were down by much more. That’s how well the Sharks played and how bad the Rangers were. To be fair, Dell made some good stops in the second. I didn’t even realize it was the Blueshirts who led in shots 16-10 for the period.

All I knew was they made a lot of mistakes. Turnovers. Bad penalties. Hardly any puck possession. Every time the Sharks had the puck in the Rangers end, I felt doom. The only reason they survived was the play of Shesterkin. Although the players also did a better job getting in front of San Jose attempts. The attempts felt like 134665857 to 17 in favor of the Sharks. I’m not kidding. They seemed to be firing shots from everywhere. Somehow, they only wound up with 46 on goal compared to the Rangers registering 33.

At one point, I think San Jose led in shots 27-8. It was that pitiful. But they somehow managed to find their legs and game. Even in between the undisciplined penalties that threatened to ruin this all important 61st game. I even commented that they seem to play better on the road. Look at the proof. They tied a franchise record with a seventh consecutive win away from MSG. All three defeats since returning have come at home. Those came versus Dallas, Boston and that woeful dud against Buffalo. The Jimmy Vesey revenge game.

The Rangers blocked 16 shots. Another 13 Sharks attempts missed completely. So that’s 29 shots that never reached Shesterkin. Total attempts actually wound up 75-50 San Jose. If you were using Corsica to measure this game, you lost. Nerdy statistics like that don’t apply when you have a great goalie who’s in a zone. Look at how many times Carolina over passed the other night. That even included Sebastian Aho. This is exactly how opponents used to treat Lundqvist in his prime. They start over thinking.

If not for the goalie, the game could’ve been decided early. Instead, it was actually the Rangers who got on the board first. On an absolutely brilliant play from Panarin, he somehow managed to make a ridiculous pass through Dell to an open Fast for his second goal in two games at 9:35. Ryan Strome did a nice job setting it up by passing the puck across to Panarin, who worked his magic. That dynamic play was literally the only scoring chance they had in the first.

But in a mistake prone period, a turnover allowed Thornton to get a step following a Timo Meier lead pass and surprise Shesterkin by beating him through the five-hole at 17:55 to tie the score. Mario Ferraro picked up the secondary helper. In a period where they had nothing, somehow they were even.

They continued to look like they were skating in quicksand at the start of the second. But Shesterkin kept them in it. Despite having to kill off a pair of Sharks power plays, they remained tied until Tony DeAngelo took a needless delay of game minor penalty. Finally, the Sharks connected thanks to some good puck movement. Area local Kevin Labanc passed for a Burns one-timer that the big Thornton tipped in for his second of the game. He entered with only two goals. By night’s end, Jumbo Joe doubled up his output. Was it the final game he played in teal? That depends if the Sharks decide to hold him out later today. The future Hall of Famer could get moved to go chase a Cup.

In a period they had played better in as it went on, the Rangers were unable to cash in on a boarding penalty taken by Jacob Middleton. Full credit to Dell, who’s now the Sharks starter over Martin Jones. Someone might want to cue Valiquette in. He referred to him as a backup. Not now Mr. Chart Nerd. Maybe he can go work on some more clear sighted shots and screened shots for a weird graphic. Of course sponsored by Bud Light. They now are pitching seltzer. Holy moly. You wouldn’t catch me passed out on that crap. I hardly drink as it is.

Shortly following the power failure, here came the play that swung the momentum. It was Kane with the puck in good position. However, he relaxed. He thought he had more time. That laziness got him benched. Not with the Bread Man around. Panarin took the puck away and in one motion made that pass across to Zibanejad that felt like it was in slow-motion. Just like that, tie game. I didn’t even go crazy. I was in a state of disbelief. I just did a short hand pump.

Zibanejad’s 28th goal from Panarin came at 17:27. Over a minute later, Adam Fox sent Julien Gauthier in on a breakaway. He was hooked from behind by Middleton. Penalty shot! The most exciting play in hockey. Bidding for his first NHL goal, Gauthier made a good move by faking forehand and going for a backhand. But his shot wasn’t high enough, allowing a cool Dell to get across and make the key stop with 1:26 left.

I know he hasn’t played a lot due to being on the fourth line. I really like what I see from Gauthier so far. He’s got good size and good speed. It’s obvious that he has a scorers instinct. That’s a plus. Whatever happens in two days (60 hours), this kid looks like he has a bright future.

The whole third period felt like one of those games in the early Lundqvist Era. It was tight. Very nerve racking. Every time the Sharks got the puck in and forechecked, I was concerned. They didn’t play like a team that’s out of it. You even had old hat Patrick Marleau gaining the zone and testing Shesterkin with low tough shots that he handled with ease. Marleau even drew a tripping minor on Fox, who was up and down.

It was nitty gritty time. The Sharks couldn’t quite setup Burns for his rocket shot. However, he tried for some redirects on shot passes. But a couple missed the mark including one for Meier, who should have more than 20 goals. Last year, he got 30. That sums up things for San Jose.

Whenever they generated chances, Shesterkin was there to shut it down. The same way Team USA pulled off the memorable Miracle On Ice 40 years ago yesterday in Lake Placid. It would’ve been nice if MSG had shown their video tribute to that team in 1980 coached by Herb Brooks. Of course, they didn’t. I don’t get it. That remains the greatest upset of the 20th Century. Even more than Buster Douglas shocking Mike Tyson. I wish I could do a tribute to that special moment. It deserves its own post. I was only three.

What makes USA stunning Russia great is they came back and won Olympic gold against Finland. Had they not, it wouldn’t be as fondly remembered. Al Michaels said something about it in a tribute that airs Monday. He is the legendary voice of that Miracle. It’s hard to believe they showed that game on tape delay. But back then, the NBA Finals were shown on tape too. Crazy stuff.

Still tied at two, the Rangers got a key offensive draw in the Sharks zone. This is an area they’ve been better at. Winning big face-offs to set up goals. Sure enough, Strome won it back to Jacob Trouba, whose shot caromed out to Fast. He doesn’t score pretty goals. He scores dirty ones. He did it again by outworking Sharks in front to chip a rebound past Dell and in for the go-ahead goal at 6:54. For a guy that isn’t a big finisher, he sure can deliver in the clutch. That gave him his third goal in two games.

Don’t forget his hustle that led to Derek Stepan dropping the puck for Ryan McDonagh in overtime to stun the Caps in Game Five of the 2015 Conference Semifinal. That isn’t possible without Fast keeping the play alive. That’s who he is. I have no idea what will happen on Monday. But hopefully, it’s not the last time we’ve seen Fast or top deadline target Chris Kreider in a Rangers jersey. They’ve been instrumental during this turnaround. Kreider at a point-per-game for over two months. Fast as the perfect complement to Panarin and Strome.

When he scored his 11th, you better believe I pumped my fist and let out a “Yeah!” It’s been a while since I was that excited about this team. They’ve made it that way. Fifteen points to the 85 point prediction. Hopefully, they’ve got more in them than that.

The remaining 13:06 felt like forever. I was locked in on every shift. Whenever the Sharks attacked, I found myself talking to the TV giving instructions. It was nuts. Don’t do that. Do this. Come on.

I haven’t been like that probably since 2015. I knew it was over after that. That’s how emotionless I became. So, yeah. This means something. It’s not supposed to happen yet. That’s what makes it so much fun. For those naysayers or foolish bloggers who are never happy, go root for someone else. Or just do us a favor and don’t watch. If you can’t get excited for this, you are a fraud. I think anyone who reads this space knows exactly who I’m referring to.

The teams were evenly matched in the final period. Shots were 14 apiece. The Rangers could’ve had more. However, Dell Computer wouldn’t allow it. My lame attempt at humor. I had to get that in at some point. Pavel Buchnevich got a good shot off that Dell denied. There was a close call for Kreider, who I wish had scored. Nobody knows if he’ll still be here on Tuesday night in Long Island. Shout out to Leslie who is the biggest Kreider fan I know. Follow her on Twitter.

With each passing minute, the clock wasn’t moving fast enough. But that’s how it’s supposed to feel now. These games matter. No matter what happens, this is going to be a great experience for the younger players. Nobody can predict what will happen. I’m talking about the playoffs.

Not more trade bs. I wish people would just shut up already. The deadline is too early. Don’t tell NHL brass. They’re bleeping clueless.

When the final clear was made, it was great. What a win. It doesn’t matter who it is against at this time of year. They’re all worth the same amount of points. I have run out of things to say. This post has gone long enough. I said enjoy this weekend for what it is. They got it done. Four more points. Inching closer.

Let’s Go Sharks! Hahaha.

Battle Of Hudson Three 🌟

3rd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, Rangers (2 great assists that were breathtaking including the unreal play to setup Zibanejad, up to 83 points in 60 GP)

2nd 🌟 Jesper Fast, Rangers (2 goals including the game-winner with 13:06 left in regulation, clutch stuff)

1st 🌟 Igor Shesterkin, Rangers (44 saves including 21 big ones in a lopsided first, 9-1-0 in first 10 games)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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