Rangers-Islanders had playoff feeling thanks to outstanding goalies

This was an immersive playoff game played in a celebratory playoff atmosphere at the Garden, which is the best we get these days between the Rangers and Islanders, teams that somehow haven’t met in the playoffs since 1994.

This “sort of” might be explained by the fact that our two teams have both made the playoffs at the same time in just four of the intervening years — 2007, 2013, 2015, and 2016 — since the Blueshirts failed in four games to one overall 22-3, which was the first step in ending the 54-year cup drought.

Not only are the Blueshirts marching toward their first playoff spot since 2017, but they’re also battling for home field advantage. The Islanders, who have been in the semifinals twice in a row, are 17 points behind second wildcard Washington while holding three games in their hands even after winning 5-2 in their last seven games.

But you can be sure that the visitors all sang to the soundtrack of the “Man of La Mancha” and dreamed the impossible dream sequence 2-1 win over Rangers on Thursday in such an entertaining episode of the Battle of New York as we have not seen for some time.

Goalkeeping was outstanding at both ends of the ice, with Ilya Sorokin showed two circus parades, which allowed him to trump his buddy Igor Shesterkin at the other end of the ice. The Rangers carried the game for the most part in a fast and physical game where they gave more than they took.

As head coach Gerard Gallant noted, the Blueshirts didn’t just react, they initiated. They set the physical tone early on when Ryan Reaves downed Zdeno Chara first with a backstroke and then pinned Cal Clutterbuck to the wall seconds apart midway through the first period.

Igor Shesterkin
Igor Shesterkin
Getty Images

But, unable to score with equal strength, they were eventually beaten as Kyle Palmieri broke a 1-1 tie by slamming one in from the front, staying 2:44 in the third after Oliver Wahlstrom’s blatant Elbow/shoulder to Ryan Lindgren’s head hit the other end of the ice uncalled.

Directing was dodgy all night, but without Sorokin’s acrobatics and brilliance the blueshirts could certainly have gotten over it. For that one night, Rangers had that sinking feeling that so many opponents have had this season after being knocked out by Shesterkin.

“I think for the future this effort is the standard,” said Jacob Trouba. “We know we can play like this. If we do that, we will appreciate our chances in many games.”

The odds, yes, the blue shirts had more than a few, none more, as Artemi Panarins drive to a wide open left side of the net from the left circle where Sorokin somehow got his paddle after falling over the crease. That was at 5:20 of the first period.

The shot came from a feed from Frank Vatrano, who was inserted into the prime right spot on the Panarin-Ryan Strome line by Gallant a day after he was acquired from Florida in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. That’s pretty exhilarating for the 28-year-old, who has generally been a bottom sixer for the Panthers, who are brimming with talent.

Ilya Sorokin
Ilya Sorokin
Getty Images

“It’s a great opportunity to play with two such world-class players,” said the winger, who started the game in 14:47 Eiszeit. “I’m just trying to get my speed and get to the dirty spots and make room for them.”

Vatrano, who had 10 goals (eight at five-for-five) for Florida in 12:12 of average ice time, is the sixth winger to play with Strome and Panarin on the right. Dryden Hunt, who had played the last 10 games and 25 overall at this spot, was moved to an energetic third row with Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow.

The move — likely only the first before the 3 p.m. Monday trading deadline — gives Gallant options. It also creates internal competition, not just for a spot in the top six, but for lineup. It’s unknown if the likeable newcomer has what it takes to race with the big dogs in the long run, but Gallant will give the UMass product a shot.

So a defeat for the islanders. A loss that saw Chris Kreider’s 40th goal come on the power play, meaning nothing for the Blueshirts at five against five. On many nights this would be a more prominent part of the story. But not this one when a playoff game involved a playoff-style goalie duel.

One day Shesterkin and Sorokin may meet in a real playoff fight for New York. Twenty-eight years without one is more than enough. Rangers-Islanders had playoff feeling thanks to outstanding goalies


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