When the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals began there was every reason to be at least somewhat skeptical of the New York Rangers chances.
They were getting carried by goaltending and special teams through the first two rounds, and were going to be facing a matchup with the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning who also happened to have a goalie that could match Igor Shesterkin. It was going to be a big test to see just how far the young Rangers have come.
Through two games they are passing that test with flying colors.
Thanks to their 3-2 win over the Lightning in Game 2 on Friday night, the Rangers now have a 2-0 lead in the series as it shifts to Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon and are just two wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
Before this game the Lightning had been 18-0 in their previous 18 playoff games following a loss.
The two key factors in Game 2: Shesterkin outplaying Andrei Vasilevskiy for the second game in a row, and the Rangers’ young players continuing to make a massive impact.
Let’s start with Shesterkin.
He has been the Rangers’ MVP all season and has continued that level of play into the playoffs. Outside of those two nightmare games early in the First Round in Pittsburgh he has been as dominant as a goalie can be in the playoffs, shutting down top offenses and standing tall no matter what sort of work load he is asked to face. In terms of scoring chances and expected goals against the Rangers have been one of the bottom teams in the playoffs defending, but Shesterkin has sensational when they have needed him. That includes in the final two minutes in Game 2 on Friday where he helped the Rangers preserve a one-goal lead.
After Friday’s win he now has a .930 save percentage for the playoffs and has been at .912 or better in each of the past 11 games. He has been above .930 in seven of the past eight games. It does not matter what else is happening on the ice, goaltending like that will take you a long way.
But it is not just Shesterkin right now that is carrying things for the Rangers.
Their other young players are also continuing to make a huge impact.
Their “Kid Line” scored another goal on Friday when Kaapo Kakko scored to give the Rangers their first lead of the night, and defenseman Adam Fox continued his recent dominance from the blue with a monster game that included a pair of assists. He now has 24 points in 16 playoff games, including four consecutive multi-point games. He has had at least two points in five of the past six Rangers’ games while also playing major minutes as the Rangers’ top defenseman.
The Rangers are not a perfect team, but their talent at a lot of key positions is legit and they have a great core of young players that are rapidly developing into stars. Shesterkin and Fox leading the way, but the emergence of Kakko, Alexis Lafrenière , Filip Chytil and K'Andre Miller (who also scored a goal on Friday) is a game-changer for both the short-term and long-term outlooks. Add in veterans like Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider, and there is the foundation of a really good team here that is starting to put everything together.
NEW YORK RANGERS v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (NYR leads 2-0)
Game 1 – Rangers 6, Lightning 2
Game 2 – Rangers 3, Lightning 2
Game 3 – June 5: Rangers at Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
Game 4 – June 7: Rangers at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
*Game 5 – June 9: Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. ET, (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
*Game 6 – June 11: Rangers at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
*Game 7 – June 14: Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. ET, (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
* If necessary
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.