Andrei Vasilevskiy has won a Vezina Trophy and two Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Igor Shesterkin is a finalist for the Vezina this year as he leads the New York Rangers in their pursuit of their first championship since 1994 and second in 82 years.
The Russian goalies will be front and center as the two-time defending champion Lightning and never-say-die Rangers meet in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I think it’s unanimous they’re the two best goalies in the league,” said Rangers forward Barclay Goodrow, who played for the Lightning during their championship runs the last two years.
Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos knows the attention going into the series will be on the men in goal.
“We know what we have in our guy,” Stamkos said. “(Shesterkin) had a tremendous year in New York. Great regular season, and he’s on a really good run right now. But I think for us, no matter what goaltender we’ve played over the past couple years it’s not the main focus, we have to go out there and play our best.”
Asked who he thought was better between the two goalies, Goodrow simply said: “I’ll take Shesty all day.”
Vasilevskiy has a league-best 188 wins over the last five seasons, including a 39-18-5 mark this season with a 2.49 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He’s 8-3 in these playoffs, allowing just four goals on 185 shots over the last five games, and his 57 career playoff win ties him with Tuukka Rask for 17th on the all-time list.
“He’s the best goalie in the world right now,” Shesterkin said. “I think it will be a good battle.”
The 26-year-old Shesterkin was 36-13-4 with a 2.07 GAA and .935 save-percentage — both tops in the league — in his third season in the NHL. 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 goalie, obviously a great season, a great regular season for him,” Vasilevskiy said. “Great challenge for us and for our team, but it’s not about one guy on the other side. It’s about the whole team, they’re pretty consistent, pretty complete team – offensively, defensively, good goalie. So great challenge for us.”
When asked how it feels to face a young Russian goalie, Vasilevskiy — who is finishing his eighth season in the NHL — noted their close age difference.
“I’m a young guy still,” said Vasilevskiy, 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 first round — Tampa Bay outlasting Toronto and and the Rangers rallying from a 3-1 series hole to beat Pittsburgh. The Lightning then swept Florida while the Rangers again went seven games — coming back from 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits — to outlast Carolina to arrive at this matchup.
The Rangers won all three meetings in the regular season, with the last coming more than two months ago.
“We played them well in the regular season, which means nothing,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.
This is the team’s first postseason matchup since the 2015 conference finals, won by the Lightning in seven games. This is Tampa Bay’s fifth appearance in the semifinal round since, while the Rangers had only won one playoff series before this year.
“Our core is quite a bit the same, their team has changed over quite a bit, different coach,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “Two really good teams that have earned their way to this moment and it should be a fun series.”
LONG AND SHORT LAYOFFS
The Lightning have not played since finishing their sweep of Florida on May 23, giving them nine days between games. The 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 his team is 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 the games, prepare for the game. So hopefully it’s gonna be good for us. They had a lot of days. … I’ve had that in the past, too, and it definitely helps you get some some jump out of it. But also there’s a little rust in your game, too. So we’ll see what happens.”
LIGHTNING ON A RUN
The Lightning have won 10 consecutive playoff series, dating to the start of the 2020 playoffs in the bubble. They are the third franchise to win at least 10 straight series. Montreal did it twice — winning 13 in a row from 1976-80 and 10 from 1956-60. The New York Islanders hold the record, winning 19 straight — including four Stanley Cups — from 1980-83.
“We’re as hungry and desperate and willing to do whatever it takes at this point to try and keep this journey going,” Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall contributed to this report.
Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP