WINNIPEG -- In the end, this fell one bounce short of what would have gone in the books as a "team shutout." The Rangers will happily settle for what they got instead, which was in every sense a team win.
If the Blueshirts had questions going into Tuesday night's match in Winnipeg -- How would step one go on this heavy road stretch? How would it unfold for Jacob Trouba back in his former home? How would Igor Shesterkin handle his first NHL road start? -- they had all the answers coming out of it. They got 43 saves from Shesterkin and crafted a picture-perfect road game in front of him, all resulting in a 4-1 win over the Jets in the opener of a three-game trip.
Chris Kreider scored twice, and Ryan Strome and Mika Zibanejad scored 35 seconds apart to blow the game open early in the third period -- all of it making a winner out of Shesterkin, although the only thing that was new and different about that was the fact that this one, for the first time, occurred somewhere other than Madison Square Garden.
"I just really liked our game -- I thought we defended really well, I thought we managed the puck very well, I thought we did a good job defensively," David Quinn said afterward. "We really put ourselves in a great position tonight, and I couldn't be more proud of our guys."
Quinn's guys won for the fifth time in their last seven games, and facing a three-games-in-four-nights road trip, and a stretch of eight out of 10 games away from New York, "This was a huge start," Zibanejad said.
Taking his seventh NHL start and his first in a hostile rink, the change of scenery didn't faze Shesterkin in the least -- so add that to the list. That much was clear right from the game's opening minute, when the rookie made himself big to knock away a rising wrist shot from the streaking Patrik Laine, on down to the final minute, in which he stopped five final shots and his teammates blocked three more.
Shesterkin made saves on all 24 shots he saw through two periods, then faced 19 more as the Rangers salted away the game in the third, stopping 18 of them as he and the Rangers threw cold water on some red-hot Jets and broke up Winnipeg's three-game winning streak. Shesterkin was beaten only by a bounce off a teammate's skate, a goal credited to Nikolaj Ehlers at a point when the game already was comfortably in the visitors' hands.
Asked how he could explain his rookie goaltender's latest sterling performance, Quinn offered three simple words:
"Six and one," the Coach said, citing Shesterkin's record through seven NHL games. "I mean, really. From where I sit, it doesn't matter what league he's in, it doesn't matter what building he's in, it doesn't matter about anything. All he knows is, there's a net behind him and he's going to keep the puck out of it. Which is a very simple approach, and it works."
This was the third consecutive game that Shesterkin has carried a shutout bid into the third period, although had the Ehlers bounce not broken it up, it would have been recorded as a team shutout and not any one goaltender's. That's because Shesterkin was forced to leave the game and spend the final 6:04 of the first period in the dressing room -- someone saw something that made them designate him for concussion protocol, which came some six minutes of game time after a collision in his goalcrease caused him to have a problem with his ankle.
"The League needs to take a look at that procedure," a perplexed Quinn said afterward. "(If) it's a head issue, then I understand taking him off for precautionary reasons. But if the trainer tells you it's an ankle issue, I don't understand why you have to go through concussion protocol."
In any event, the whole thing forced Henrik Lundqvist to come on cold, and within 15 seconds of entering the game he was forced to make a sharp kick save on an Ehlers blast. It turned out to be the only shot Lundqvist would face in his 885th game for the Rangers, before Shesterkin returned to resume his seventh.
Lundqvist was still in the game, though, when Kreider snapped the scoreless tie just 34.1 seconds before first intermission, burning Sami Niku through the middle and beating Connor Hellebuyck with a deke to his backhand. It was a 200-foot play from the Rangers' top line: Zibanejad winning a battle at his own goal line, Pavel Buchnevich moving it up the wing and finding Kreider for the finish.
"We've been on the other end of that, and that can really be demoralizing," Quinn said of the goal late in the period. "And I thought it really gave us a little bit of life. It was a huge goal. That line, our top lines, were good tonight."
"There are a lot of games I find we would come out really good at the start, and it's one breakdown and then all of a sudden we're down 1-nothing," said Zibanejad, whose assist on the play was his 200th in the NHL. "So it was really nice to be able to get that lead."
Each member of that line had two points in the game. Kreider's second goal came 7:30 into the middle period, when he buried a Strome rebound on the Rangers' lone power play of the night. Strome then cleaned up blocked shot off Jesper Fast's stick for his 13th goal 53 seconds into the third, followed by Zibanejad's finish of Buchnevich's feed from behind the net at 1:28, all of a sudden making it a four-goal spread.
Trouba, meanwhile, once again led all Rangers with 22:24 on ice in his first game as a visitor in Winnipeg. "I thought Trouba had a great night," Quinn said. "I'm really happy for him and proud of him the way he played tonight. This isn't an easy situation to come into. He played a really good game."
"Nice to get a win for him," said Zibanejad, "and for Pepe as well coming back, can't forget about him" -- meaning ex-Jet Brendan Lemieux, who was part of a fourth line that turned in some effective and physical shifts keeping play in the Winnipeg end.
They had a hand in this win just as each Ranger did, just as they will need to when the Rangers play their first of three back-to-backs in the next two weeks, on Thursday in Minnesota and Friday in Columbus.
"We know how big it is," Zibanejad said of this road trip. "I thought we played a really good road game, and just a really good game overall. And that's obviously a huge start, and a huge game for us."