Lightning’s physical plan for Igor Shesterkin getting Rangers’ attention in Eastern Conference Final

Igor Shesterkin Lightning Rangers
Tampa Bay Lightning center Riley Nash (16) crashes into New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) during the second period in Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals Sunday, June 5, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. Nash was called for a penalty on the play. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

With an inability to consistently find a way through New York Rangers star goaltender Igor Shesterkin, the Tampa Bay Lightning resorted to more direct measures in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday.

Physicality and pestering and the Vezina and Hart Trophy candidate was the name of the game for the two-time defending champions, who scored just four goals combined over the first two games of the series at Madison Square Garden — both losses. 

With desperation setting in while staring down the proverbial barrel of an 0-3 hole — and after Shesterkin blanked them in the opening 20 minutes of Game 3 — the Lightning got in Shesterkin’s face. 

Corey Perry was called for a slash on New York’s netminder 6:38 into the second period after entering the crease and making contact with his head while Tampa was on a 4-on-3 power play.

While there was definite contact, making it an obvious penalty, Shesterkin made the most of it by dramatically falling back to the ice while throwing his stick high into the air and clutching his face. 

“We were on a 4-on-3 power play,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We aren’t trying to take ourselves off it, trust me. We’re not trying to hit the goalie. I think Corey Perry’s found himself in that spot. I think we were more angry than maybe the Rangers were at that point.”

The Rangers made them pay with the game’s opening goal — Mika Zibanejad slotting his 10th goal of the postseason.

Just 46 seconds later, Riley Nash’s rush toward Shesterkin’s goal ended with the defenseman barreling his way into the New York star. Again, the Rangers made the Lightning pay when Chris Kreider’s clean-up in front doubled the advantage. 

But the Lightning finally found a response, scoring three unanswered goals while prodding around the Rangers’ net with pokes and nudges to the netminder and the teammates trying to defend him.

Rangers Lightning Igor Shesterkin
New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) reacts after giving up a goal to Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat during the third period in Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals Sunday, June 5, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

That was all Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant needed to see, as he scheduled a conversation with the NHL’s goaltending supervisor, Kay Whitmore, for Monday afternoon.

“It phases me more than him,” Gallant said of Tampa’s game plan to rattle New York’s goalie. “I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s a big part of it and hopefully, when we talk to the supervisor, they’ll take care of some of that.”

Cooper isn’t really sure how that’s going to be a possibility. 

“I don’t think they could have called it any tighter,” he said. “Is part of this game being net-front? Yes. Was that in our game plan to knock him over? No.”

Shesterkin was still superb in the loss, stopping 48 of 51 shots that came his way as he continues to be the foundational piece spurring on the Rangers’ improbable run toward Stanley Cup contention.

“Whenever there’s a really elite goalie playing that way, that’s kind of the mantra from the other team,” Rangers forward Andrew Copp said. “Get in his face, try to rattle him a little bit. It seemed like Shesty handled that really well… It’ll be a focus for us winning the blue-paint battle over the next couple games.”

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