Igor Shesterkin the difference-maker in Rangers domination of Capitals

One of the biggest advantages the Rangers figured to have entering their first-round series against the Washington Capitals was head-to-head, goalie versus goalie.

Charlie Lindgren – the brother of Ranger defenseman Ryan Lindgren – has finally established himself in the NHL at age 30, taking over the Caps’ gig this season.

But he’s no Igor Shesterkin. Who is, really?

And that’s why the Rangers have to be heavy favorites to win Sunday night’s Game 4 and get a comfortable sweep of the overmatched Caps. For all the talk about the Blueshirts’ sharp penalty kill, which went a perfect 6-for-6, Shesterkin was the biggest player in the Rangers’ 3-1 victory in Game 3 in Washington on Friday night, his 16th career playoff win, which tied John Davidson for fifth-most in team history.

Shesterkin only had to make 28 saves – only! – but so many of them were difficult sprawls from one side of the crease to the other that there were highlights aplenty. There was a right pad save on a crease-sitting Max Pacioretty and a point-blank stop on Hendrix Lapierre after a pass from Alex Wennberg went awry and right to the wide-open Caps’ forward. There were other eye-popping saves, too, but we only have so much space in this column.

“It wasn’t volume, but there were a couple of big ones there,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette told reporters at the Capital One Arena in D.C.

“We know what kind of goalie he is,” Mika Zibanejad added. “Just to see him play the way he did was huge for us, especially in the moments when they had their pushback.”

It all helped show – again – why the superlative netminder is probably the most indispensable Ranger, especially in the playoffs. He struggled, for him, in the first half of the regular season and was a somewhat reluctant All-Star – he didn’t believe he’d earned it. The Rangers even gave him some re-set time during the season, a luxury open to a team that has a future Hall-of-Famer (Jonathan Quick) as its backup.

And then Shesterkin was back to being Igor again and he certainly will have a huge part in however far the Rangers go in these playoffs. So far, he has a .932 save percentage and has allowed only five goals in three games, all wins.

Funny, as well as he played Friday night, he gave up what appeared to be a soft goal to start the scoring, a wobbly shot by John Carlson that Shesterkin did not appear to see. Zibanejad said it was a bad bounce. The Rangers never worried and scored an equalizer 34 seconds later, the first of three unanswered goals that led to a 3-0 lead in the series.

So many things are going right for the Rangers. Their PK has been outstanding, wiping out 13-of-15 power-play attempts by Washington and scoring as many shorthanded goals (two) as the Caps have power-play goals. They are flexing their depth – nine different players have scored goals and 13 different players have at least one point.

They have managed Alex Ovechkin, Washington’s best scorer, who has zero points and only five shots on goal, four of them in Game 3. They haven’t given in when the Caps have extended invitations to chippy play, even as they have remained physical against a tough team.

And, of course, Shesterkin has been brilliant.

So it’s been a darn good series for the Blueshirts. How to make it even better?

How about finishing it in four games?

That way, the Rangers won’t be unduly stressed by an inferior team that wants to draw them into a sharp-elbowed style, one of Washington’s few potential paths to a win. And they won’t be exposed to injury by playing extra games. Time off could come in handy. This is a grueling point of the year and potential future opponents such as the Carolina Hurricanes, up 3-0 over the Islanders, could clinch as soon as Saturday.

So much is working for the Blueshirts that they have multiple ways to get that last win. Doubtless, Shesterkin will have something to do with it. He is one of their biggest advantages in these playoffs, after all.