Igor Shesterkin humbly deferred.
Two days before the Rangers opened their conference final series against the Lightning with Game 1 on Wednesday night, Shesterkin was asked about his counterpart in the net, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Shesterkin, the Rangers’ 26-year-old goaltender, who’s a virtual lock to win the Vezina Trophy and who has given the Blueshirts the distinct advantage in net in the first two rounds, said he was going to be meeting his match in Vasilevskiy, with whom he has played on some Russian national teams.
“He is the best goalie in the world right now,” Shesterkin said after the Rangers’ Game 7 win over Carolina.
Vasilevskiy wasn’t the best on Wednesday night.
Not in the Rangers’ 6-2 victory over the Lightning, a result that was as stunning as it was convincing. The Rangers produced more goals (four) in the first two periods than Tampa Bay had yielded in its four-game sweep of Florida in the previous round (three).
Yes, Vasilevskiy is considered by all in the hockey know as the best goalie in the world. On Wednesday, though, Vasilevskiy met his match in Shesterkin.
“Igor’s better!’’ chants rang through the sold out Garden halfway through the third period.
Not even a blow to the facemask by Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos two minutes into the third period could stop Shesterkin from owning the Lightning on this night.
The 27-year-old Vasilevskiy has spearheaded Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup wins the past two seasons. He also won the 2019 Vezina Trophy and the 2021 Conn Smythe. But he’ll enter Game 2 on Friday night at the Garden down 1-0 in this series to Shesterkin and the Rangers.
Shesterkin, riding his standout performances in the seven-game Carolina series, was sharp Wednesday night, stopping 37 of 39 shots, a number from point-blank range.
It seemed as if Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos were taking turns peppering Shesterkin all night, but he refused to relent. Every time he made a big save it energized the Garden faithful and generated loud, “Igor, Igor, Igor’’ chants.
Shesterkin, after a somewhat shaky start, settled down and set a tone in the first period when he thwarted Kucherov on a tip-in attempt from the front of the crease on a give-and-go from Alex Killorn.
He stoned Kucherov again after a dangerous feed from Nicholas Paul four minutes later and he frustrated Kucherov again with a sliding save from point-blank range.
A minute later, Shesterkin stoned Stamkos from in close and the Garden crowd erupted into its “Igor’’ chants again.
With the Rangers leading 3-2 in the second period, Shesterkin stopped Killorn on a two-on-one Tampa Bay break. Three minutes later, the Rangers took a 4-2 lead on the second of two Filip Chytil goals in the period and they never looked back.
Before the game, Rangers winger Chris Kreider called this matchup “the best two goalies are playing against each other.”
Fellow Rangers winger Barclay Goodrow, who played with Vasilevskiy on the Lightning and is now Shesterkin’s teammate, said before the game: “I think it’s pretty unanimous, they’re the best two goalies in the league. I don’t think anyone could put up an argument for that.”
On Wednesday night, there was little argument who was the better goaltender.
Even Vasilevskiy would have to defer on that one.