Hockey is a game of inches. It was literally for Igor Shesterkin. With over a minute left and his team nursing a one-goal lead, he gathered the puck and took a good shot at the empty net. It looked like it was going in. The excitement in Sam Rosen’s voice was palpable. It just missed.
He was that close to scoring an empty net goal. For the Team MVP, it isn’t a shock that he can handle the puck and is a threat to score an empty netter. One day, it’ll happen. Instead, Shesterkin made a difficult stop with Brady Tkachuk in front to help preserve a 2-1 win for the Rangers over a pesky Ottawa team that skated without several regulars.
Shesterkin finished the game with 29 saves. Over half came in a good third period. He stopped all 15 Senators’ shots. The win improved him to a remarkable 24-5-3 in just 32 games. It’s that kind of superior goaltending he provides that has him as the frontrunner for the Vezina and possibly in the Hart discussion. Nobody has been better.
As special as Shesterkin is, he got enough help from his supporting cast in the win. Particularly Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin. Strome entered the contest in a scoring slump with no goals in the last nine. He snapped out of it with a goal and assist to have a good game.
So did Panarin. The leading scorer for the Blueshirts helped set up Strome’s 10th and got the game-winning power play goal. With the Senators focused on stifling Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider (no goals in three straight), they needed the second line to step up. They got the job done.
Starts have been an issue lately. The first few shifts were controlled by the Rangers. Facing an opponent playing a back-to-back and sixth game over nine days, they looked better than the previous couple of games. However, they couldn’t get to third string goalie Filip Gustavsson early.
Instead, the Senators took advantage of a Filip Chytil turnover to start a quick counter and get the game’s first goal from Tim Stutzle at 4:52. Chytil carried the puck into the Ottawa zone, but lost it due to Nikita Zaitsev. Adam Gaudette moved it up for Stutzle who pulled up at the right circle and whipped a perfect shot past Shesterkin blocker side for his 11th.
In a tightly contested period, the Blueshirts were able to come back to tie it less than three minutes later. Patrik Nemeth made his return to the lineup after missing time due to COVID Protocol. In for Zac Jones on the third pair with Braden Schneider, he had one of his best games. It was his keep in that allowed Panarin to set up a good Schneider shot that went right to Strome, who kicked it to his stick before firing it in at 7:27. That was his first goal in 10 games.
With the game knotted, it was that third pair of Nemeth and Schneider was the Rangers’ best. They did a good job in their zone and jumped up offensively. That led to some sustained pressure. Schneider continues to play with confidence. His primary assist on the Strome goal gave him five points (1-4-5) in his first 13 games. He has assists in two of the last three. With the way he uses his size and defends along with the unique combination of skating, there’s reason for excitement. The third pair no longer feels like a weakness.
With no penalties called in another first period, the game remained even. Ottawa held a slight edge in shots 8-7. Both netminders played well. If there’s one noticeable difference since the extended break, the Rangers aren’t drawing many penalties. That means more play at five-on-five. An area they must improve at.
After a fairly even opening period, it was mostly Blueshirts in the second. At one point, they led in shots 10-2. Able to forecheck more effectively, they had a territorial edge in play. That included some good work from the third and fourth lines. Dryden Hunt did some grunt work throughout. Chytil improved his game. Ryan Reaves and Kevin Rooney worked diligently.
It was a strong shift from the second line that finally drew a penalty. The trio of Panarin, Strome and Barclay Goodrow had a good game. Finally, Panarin was hooked by Zaitsev for the game’s first power play.
On it, Ottawa really focused on stopping Mika Zibanejad from the left circle and Kreider in front. That meant more room for Panarin. He took a Zibanejad feed and took his shot. It beat Gustavsson for the key power play goal at 9:14. His 14th from Zibanejad and Strome proved large.
As well as they played throughout the second, Ottawa responded with a few good shifts to regain the momentum. Brady Tkachuk was active as usual. But it wasn’t just his line. A couple of turnovers allowed the Tyler Ennis line to apply some pressure. Ennis has always been a solid player. He was noticeable along with Connor Brown and Parker Kelly.
Hanging onto a one-goal lead, the Rangers never could find the insurance marker to pull away. Instead, it was the tenacity of Ennis that resulted in another strong shift. After K’Andre Miller was unable to clear the zone with the puck trapped in his skates, that allowed the Ennis unit to extend the offensive play in the Ranger zone. Finally, an attacking Ennis drew a tripping minor on Jacob Trouba.
On the power play for the first and only time, Ottawa created some chances. But Shesterkin wouldn’t allow them to draw even. The Senators had five shots on their one man-advantage. The Rangers had Shesterkin, who can be the difference maker in low scoring games. He was this afternoon.
The Sens never stopped pressing. They fired 15 shots in the final period. It wasn’t as if the Rangers didn’t get their own opportunities. They had 11 shots. That included a second power play when Panarin drew a hold on Nick Paul with 4:15 remaining.
Following a first half where they couldn’t get it done, a couple of whistles allowed Gerard Gallant to get his second unit off back in favor of the top unit. They never did get another puck past Gustavsson, who played well in defeat. He finished with 31 saves on 33 shots.
A couple of effective shifts spent in the Senators’ zone killed some clock. For a while, it didn’t look like Gustavsson would get to the bench for an extra attacker. However, after he finally did, Shesterkin saw the chance of a lifetime. Here is how close he came.
It really looked like it was going in. I thought so. I know my brother did after we discussed the exciting play that wound up turning into an icing with 1:15 left.
He might not have made history there joining the likes of Ron Hextall and Martin Brodeur. But one day soon, Shesterkin probably will do it. That’s how good he is at playing the puck. Something Mike Richter and Henrik Lundqvist could only dream of doing. That’s saying something. We’re talking about Rangers legends.
There was still the matter of the final 75 seconds. The Sens got one really tough point shot on Shesterkin with Tkachuk setting a great screen. Somehow, he saw it all the way and calmly gloved the puck away from harm’s way. He’s very focused. It is tough to beat him.
That save was the one that allowed him to already pick up his 50th career win. He made a little bit of history by doing so in his 79th game.
The win allowed the Blueshirts to pull within a point of the Penguins for second in the division due to Pittsburgh losing to Carolina 4-3 in regulation. With their next game not until Thursday against Washington, the Rangers have two games at hand on the Pens, who they still haven’t played. That’ll change real soon. Those will be big games.
For now, they’ll have the next three days off. Then, the schedule picks up. In between that, we’ll be thinking about Emile Francis. The Cat passed away on Saturday night at age 95. He was a huge part of the Rangers franchise. I’ll devote a separate post on what he meant to people like our father and the older generation who saw him turn around the team into Stanley Cup contenders during the 1970’s.
RIP Emile “Cat” Francis 💜🙏😥