There is an understated sense of confidence exuding from Igor Shesterkin that has permeated his team throughout the season, if not since the moment he arrived on Broadway the first week of January 2020.
Is there misuse of a pronoun in the previous sentence? I don’t think so. Are the Rangers “his team?” To a large degree, yes they are. The presumptive choice for the 2021-22 Vezina — that’s Shesterkin — provides large doses of equilibrium to a team whose attention span is sometimes too short.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Blueshirts may be faster and deeper than the Penguins, but their perceived significant edge in the Shesterkin-Casey DeSmith matchup in goal is the primary reason the Blueshirts are a consensus pick in this first-round series that opens Tuesday at the Garden.
But that apparent advantage comes with no guarantee, or do you need to be reminded about 2016 or even 1996?
Six years ago, the Rangers went into Pittsburgh for the opening two games of the first round with Henrik Lundqvist on their side while both No. 1 Matt Murray and backup Marc-Andre Fleury were injured. And so the Penguins turned to 28-year-old journeyman Jeff Zatkoff, who’d spent most of his career in the AHL.
Zatkoff and the Penguins took Game 1, 5-2. The Rangers won Game 2, but were humiliated through the final three games once Murray returned on their way to a five-game ouster. The Rangers’ perceived edge in nets did not hold up.
Twenty years earlier, the Rangers went into Pittsburgh for the opening two games of the second round after having come back to beat Montreal in six games after dropping the first two at home. Mike Richter was the difference in that series, elevating his game to heights he attained in the 1994 playoffs, the 1996 World Cup and the first two rounds of the playoffs in 1997.
Richter held a perceived significant edge over Pittsburgh netminder Ken Wregget. Five games later, perception had turned into a fractured fairytale, the Blueshirts had been buried by an onslaught from Mario Lemieux (eight goals) and Jaromir Jagr (seven) while Wregget was exceptional.
Following the Game 5 elimination in Pittsburgh, GM Neil Smith held an impromptu press conference in which he vowed that changes would be coming. They were. I switched beats with Mark Everson and took the Rangers while he moved to the Devils.
Oh, right, and Wayne Gretzky signed as a free agent. That, too.
Shesterkin is no kid. He is 26. And though this will mark his first NHL playoff experience, he does have a postseason résumé from the KHL, where he recorded a 1.92 GAA and .919 save percentage in 16 games and 14 starts for SKA Saint Petersburg.
“I think it’s the same as the regular season. I think for goalies, nothing changes,” Shesterkin said in English following Monday’s prep work. “Maybe better focus. You don’t need to look around, I think [Tuesday] will be crazy at the Garden.
“I just need to work hard, see the puck and stop the puck.”
Shesterkin said he spoke to BFF Ilya Sorokin a couple of days ago about the mental and physical challenges of the playoffs. Sorokin was part of the Islanders’ 2021 run to the conference finals in which he got five starts — going 4-0 against the Penguins in the first round — but none after Game 1 of the second round against the Bruins with Semyon Varlamov taking the net for the final 12 contests.
“He told me it was a very good experience for him,” Shesterkin said. “And he told me to just realize it and have fun.”
Shesterkin is coming off a season in which his .935 save percentage was the third-best in NHL history among goaltenders with 50 games. He led the league with a 2.07 GAA while his 44.83 GSAA (goals saved above average) per Evolving Hockey pretty much lapped the field, with Sorokin the runner-up at 29.51.
“[It was] a good season, I think,” Shesterkin said before matter-of-factly adding, “I can play better.”
The Rangers are going to have to come with their best 200-foot hockey, period after period, shift after shift. They are going to have to support Shesterkin at their end and will need to get to the front of the opposing net and create traffic in front of DeSmith just as they would if they were playing the 1974 and 1975 versions of Bernie Parent.
They are going to have to play in the Pittsburgh zone and force the Penguins to commit penalties so unambiguous the referees will be forced to call them. The Rangers only had six power plays (1-for-6) in the four-game season series while Pittsburgh had twice as many (3-for-12). That does not represent a winning equation.
These are the playoffs. Goaltending can have an inordinate effect on the outcome of games and series, plural. But perceived advantages must be turned into tangible ones. The Rangers cannot afford to take anything for granted. Not for a minute.