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Igor Shesterkin and Alex Georgiev combined to start 18 of the Rangers’ final 19 regular-season games last season, so the tandem certainly should have felt comfortable getting behind the wheel this season following the buyout of Henrik Lundqvist.
But if it was one thing for the young Russians to take over around the midway point of 2019-20 while the King was still there as kind of safety net/security blanket if things had gone wrong for Shesterkin upon his Jan. 6 promotion, it is another now that they have inherited the keys to the Kingdom.
And the pressure of following the greatest run of goaltending in franchise history and the expectations that naturally accompany the assignment as the No. 1 has fallen primarily on Shesterkin, who has wobbled for the first time in his 12-plus months in the NHL. Maybe there is some cause and effect.
“I remember talking to Hank last year in February in Carolina, he wasn’t playing a lot, and we were talking about the team and the situation with our young goaltending,” David Quinn said following Sunday’s bitter 3-2 defeat in Pittsburgh in which Shesterkin yielded a pair of questionable ones in the third period after the Blueshirts had led 2-1 after 40 minutes. “And that’s exactly what we touched on.
“When now when you’re staring the job in the face, it is a different feeling. That being said, these two guys to me, they play with swagger, they play with confidence. It’s early. I know we’re going to get really good goaltending, but it is different. It is definitely a little bit different.”
No one is calling the team’s mundane netminding a five-alarm fire through this 1-3-1 getaway. But for nearly a decade-and-a-half, Lundqvist not only gave the Rangers their best chance to win every game, he was the fundamental reason they won, when they won.
So far, except for Georgiev’s shutout of the outclassed Islanders in the second game, neither goaltender has given the Rangers their best chance to win. Indeed, there have been too many marginal goals and too many allowed in critical spots. The Rangers entered this season believing they were going to get superior netminding, and perhaps there is every reason, as the coach said, to believe that will be the case.
Still, and in this one especially when the Blueshirts were able to possess the puck below the hash marks rather consistently and seemed in control of the match throughout a third period in which the Penguins had just three shots for the first 18:29, they did not get winning goaltending.
Shesterkin’s first two periods were his sharpest of the young season. The 25-year-old was beaten only on a Bryan Rust breakaway after foiling the winger’s earlier one-on-one while appearing crisp and in command right from the get-go in stopping Evan Rodrigues’ point-blank drive from the low slot 12 seconds into the contest.
But with the team up 2-1, Shesterkin was beaten for the tying goal at 2:26 of the third when Jared McCann whipped one from a sharp angle from the left boards after Brendan Smith was harried into coughing up the puck. McCann’s shot may have ticked off Tony DeAngelo’s blade to give the puck a flutter, but it seemed as if Shesterkin never saw it. He was frozen in time as the shot beat him above his right, short-side shoulder.
The Blueshirts pressed on. They generated some momentum from shift to shift in an attempt to get the lead goal even absent Filip Chytil, who sustained an upper-body injury during a second-period collision with Rodrigues. They appeared in fine shape.
But not quite. Because when Jake Guentzel was left alone in the high slot on a rush, the winger’s shot through traffic leaked through Shesterkin’s five-hole. At 18:29, it was 3-2, Pittsburgh. The save is one that Shesterkin must make. Frankly, it is the kind of save Lundqvist stopped making through the first half of last year. That led to Shesterkin’s promotion after three months of North American hockey at Hartford.
“The second one maybe surprised him and the third one was through a screen, but I’m sure he’d like to have it back,” said Quinn. “We’re talking about an elite goalie here, and I haven’t talked to him yet, but I’m sure he’s pretty frustrated.”
Shesterkin was electric through 12 starts last year in which he recorded a .920 save-percentage or higher in nine of those matches. This year, he’s gone .879 (four goals on 33 shots) in the opener; .893 (three goals on 28 shots on Friday); and .842 (three goals on 19 shots) in this one.
The Rangers need more from their goaltending. They need more from Shesterkin. They need their goaltender not only to give them their best chance to win, but to be the reason they actually do. Kind of like what the other guy just about always did for nearly 15 years.
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