While Shesterkin stands on his head, Rangers seek way to break through the persistent Panthers

Rangers Panthers Hockey
Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk, left, attempts to tip in a shot against New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) during the first period of Game 4 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs, Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

For the New York Rangers, their mission is simple: Win two of the next three games, and earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The trouble is, the mission is exactly the same as the Florida Panthers — who knotted up the Eastern Conference Finals series Tuesday night with a 3-2 overtime victory, setting up a pivotal Game 5 showdown at Madison Square Garden Thursday night that could make-or-break either club’s season.

Throughout the series, the Rangers — whose offense has been held in check by a relentless Panthers defense — have relied on goalie Igor Shesterkin to stand on his head, and he continued to deliver during Game 4. Shesterkin made 37 more saves Tuesday night, and even though he allowed the game-winner, his incredible effort was not lost on Rangers Head Coach Peter Laviolette. 

“He was (dialed in),” Laviolette said, “especially in the second, there was a lot of heat there.”

But if the Rangers are going to win this series, their offense will need to become just as aggressive as their Panther counterparts and find a way to get past Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. His play has been almost equally excellent to Shesterkin’s throughout the series.

New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin looks back as a puck hit by Florida Panthers center Sam Reinhart gets past him to score during an overtime period of Game 4 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs, Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

At the start of Game 4, it looked like the Rangers found a spark. They jumped out to a one-goal lead at 8:51 of the first when Vincent Trocheck fired a shot past Bobrovsky that ricocheted off the crossbar into the net.

It was the Rangers’ first power-play goal of the series after they’d gone 0 for 8 entering the game, and it reflected an energetic start that dissipated as the game went on.

Florida took the lead on goals from Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe in the second period, when the Panthers seemed to completely overpower the Blueshirts.

Laviolette knows that his club has “got to be better” in order to overcome the Panthers this series.

“We can’t afford lapses like that. I don’t have an explanation. It was the same thing, they come out, they’re chasing it, they press, and I didn’t think the response was good to start the second period,” Laviolette said. “We went in there, we had to kill some penalties from there. I definitely think we need to be better.”

Still, Shesterkin gave New York a chance. He made a huge stop against Florida’s Kyle Okposo after Alexis Lafrenière had tied it 2-2 in the third, denying Okposo with his right pad to help send the game to overtime.

That was one game after Shesterkin made 33 stops and withstood a late Florida barrage in which the Panthers unleashed 24 shot attempts at him in the final eight minutes of regulation.

The 2022 Vezina Trophy winner is allowing around two goals per game through the postseason with a .925 save percentage and has been one of the central pieces to New York’s run.

Less than a minute into overtime Tuesday, Blake Wheeler, playing his first game for the Rangers since breaking his right leg in February, was called for hooking Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov.

Barkov then set Sam Reinhart up for the winning power-play goal.

“Listen, we’re playing a team that’s good on the power play and the penalty kill,” Laviolette said, “and we have been as well. You’re right, they got us tonight. Tomorrow is a new day.”

Game 5 is at 8 p.m. Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. ESPN will have coverage.