Andrei Vasilevsky has won one Vezina Trophy and two Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Igor Shesterkin is a finalist for Vezina this year as he leads the New York Rangers to their first championship since 1994 and second in 82 years.
Russian goalkeepers will be front and center in the Eastern Conference finals starting Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, as will two-time defending champion Lightning and the never-die Rangers.
“I think it’s unanimous that they are the two best goalkeepers in the league,” said Rangers forward Barkley Goodrow, who played for the Lightning during their championship over the past two years.
Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos knows that going into the series the focus will be on the men scoring goals.
“We know what’s in our boy,” Stamkos said. “(Shesterkin) had a tremendous year in New York. Great regular season, and he’s on a very good run right now. But I think for us, whatever goalkeeper we’ve played over the years, it’s not the main focus, We have to go out there and play our best.”
Asked which of the two goalscorers he likes better, Goodrow simply said: “I’ll have Shesty all day.”
Wasilewski has scored a league-best 188 wins over the past five seasons, including 39-18-5 points with 2.49 goals this season-average and .916 saving percentage. He is 8–3 in these playoffs, allowing just four goals on 185 shots in the last five games, and his 57 career playoff wins put him alongside Tukka Rusk in 17th place on the all-time list.
“He’s the best goalkeeper in the world right now,” said Shesterkin. “I think it will be a good fight.”
The 26-year-old Shesterkin was 36-13-4 in his third season in the NHL with a 2.07 GAA and .935 save-percentage – both top in the league. After struggling in Games 3 and 4 against Pittsburgh in the first round, he is 7-3 with a 2.09 GAA in the last 10 games.
“Great goalkeeper, obviously a great season, a great regular season for him,” Vasilevskiy said. “Big challenge for us and for our team, but it’s not about a guy on the other side. It’s about the whole team, they’re pretty consistent, pretty much a whole team – offensive, defensive, good goalkeepers. Such a big challenge for us.”
Asked what it’s like to face a young Russian goalkeeper, Vasilevsky – who is just finishing his eighth season in the NHL – noted their close age difference.
“I’m still a young man,” said Vasilevsky, who will turn 28 in July. “He’s like, what, just two years younger than me, so there’s not much difference. … Obviously I just have to step up and show him my best game.”
Both teams survived a seven-game matchup in the first round – Tampa Bay outclassed Toronto and the Rangers rallied from the hole of a 3–1 series to defeat Pittsburgh. The Lightning devastated Florida, while the Rangers again took seven games – coming back from 2-0 and 3-2 series losses – to overtake Carolina to reach this matchup.
Rangers won all three meetings in the regular season, with the last coming more than two months earlier.
“We played them well in the regular season, which doesn’t make any sense,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.
It is the team’s first postseason matchup since the 2015 Conference Finals, which was won by the Lightning in seven games. This is Tampa Bay’s fifth appearance in the semifinal round, while the Rangers had won only one playoff series earlier this year.
“Our core is pretty much the same, their team has changed a lot, different coaches,” said Tampa Bay coach John Cooper. ,
long and short cut
The Lightning have not played a game since finishing their sweep in Florida on May 23, giving them nine days between games. Rangers have been playing every other day since the start of the playoffs, including the series-finale against the Hurricanes on Monday night.
Gallant wasn’t sure which scenario he preferred, but noted that his team was thriving right now.
“I think our players like it,” he said. “You get ready for one game at a time, you don’t practice anymore, you just get ready for games, prepare for games. So hopefully it’s going to be good for us. They have a lot. There were days. … I have in the past too, and it definitely helps you get some help out of it. But there’s a little bit of rust in your game too. So we’ll see what happens.”
power on a race
The Lightning have won 10 consecutive playoff series, leading up to the start of the 2020 playoffs in the bubble. They are the third franchise to win at least 10 consecutive series. Montreal did it twice – winning 13 in a row from 1976–80 and 10 from 1956–60. The New York Islanders recorded 19 consecutive victories – including four Stanley Cups from 1980–83.
“We are just as hungry and desperate and ready to do whatever we can at this point to try and continue this journey,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Associated Press Sports writer Fred Goodall contributed to this report.
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