Rangers need Igor Shesterkin to find his magic again

The Rangers have received brilliance in nets from Igor Shesterkin on such a regular basis that when the goaltender stubs his toe it can seem like a five-alarm fire.

There has been some smoke around the goaltender and the crease lately, perhaps a reminder not to take the club’s superiority in nets for granted. We all probably have done that, marveling at the peaceful transition of power from Henrik Lundqvist to Shesterkin as if it all had been preordained.

The Blueshirts have hit a bit of a lull in their drive to clinch their first playoff spot since 2017 in losing four of their last six games (2-3-1) against clubs out of the tournament picture with Sunday’s 4-3 shootout defeat to the Flyers at the Garden.

Probably not all that coincidentally, Shesterkin has all but concurrently hit a lull in his campaign to have his No. 31 raised to the pinwheel ceiling right beside where The King’s 30 is displayed at the Garden. Shesterkin is allowed, just as Lundqvist was permitted his infrequent slumps.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to process when Shesterkin gives up a goal that would qualify as a 10 on the 1-to-10 softie meter as he did 5:54 into the first period of this one when Cam York’s 55- footer from the left side sailed over the netminder’s left shoulder to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead.

Igor Shesterkin
Igor Shesterkin struggled again against the Flyers.
Robert Sabo

That one remained fixed in memory even when Shesterkin stopped Hayden Hodgson on a breakaway just 40 seconds after Philadelphia had gone up by two on Owen Tippett’s goal off a neutral-zone turnover and coverage error at 7:26.

The goaltender did kind of restore order by stopping Tippett twice on breakaways before denying Morgan Frost in alone in overtime — but still, the memory of the bad one was not erased even when the Rangers scored three times after falling behind 3-0 just 44 seconds into the third to send the match to OT.

The Rangers led the league in both overall save percentage and in five-on-five save percentage through March 9. But while going 8-5-1 since, the Blueshirts rank 29th in overall save percentage and 30th (better than only the Red Wings and Devils) in five-on-five save percentage. That’s shocking. Does it need to be said that no one can expect to win that way in the playoffs?

Shesterkin has made nine starts beginning March 10, going 4-4-1 with a 3.11 GAA and an .886 save percentage that kind of seem like typographical errors. They aren’t. And while the goaltender has had to clean up even more than the requisite number of messes left by his teammates, the wonky goals have begun to accumulate.

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Indeed, the 26-year-old has appeared to have some trouble tracking pucks through traffic after turning that skill into one of his great assets the first five months of the season. As a result, there have been more loose pucks around the net off first saves. There have been more second chances. Maybe some of that is fatigue. Maybe some of that is simply remembering that the season is long and the man is human.

Shesterkin rarely toots his own horn. He has swatted away praise as routinely as he has directed long first shots into corners and out of harm’s way. It doesn’t matter if he has faced 40 or more shots in a game. The goaltender habitually praises his teammates for their effort. That’s what he did as well this night when he allowed the only score of the shootout to Kevin Hayes in the top of the third inning.

Igor Shesterkin defends the net during the Rangers' loss to the Flyers.
Igor Shesterkin defends the net during the Rangers’ loss to the Flyers.
Robert Sabo

But Shesterkin had no interest — or patience — in evaluating his work over this recent stretch. “I don’t want to talk about my game,” he said.

A while later, asked if he were frustrated, the goaltender expounded just a bit. “I’m a little bit frustrated,” he said. “You really want to keep winning but I’ll keep working on my game.”

The Blueshirts are in Newark on Tuesday to face the Devils, by whom they were beaten 7-4 in New Jersey on March 22, before the Penguins come to town on Thursday. There is every chance that Alex Georgiev will get the assignment in New Jersey so that Shesterkin can get in a couple of days of practice before his next start.

The magic number for clinching a playoff spot is eight points. But 70 games into the season, we all know what the Rangers’ magic number is… or what it must be in order for the team to dream impossible dreams.

That number is 31.

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