Igor Shesterkin learns NHL playoffs are a different beast

Remember the goaltender duel on February 26 in Pittsburgh between Igor Shesterkin and Tristan Jarry that went 1-0 for the Penguins after Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal in the third period?

Or perhaps the one at the Garden on April 7, which became moot when Shesterkin waved goodbye to the Penguins as they left the ice after a scrum in the middle immediately after the Blueshirts’ 3-0 win?

Each of these games had a “playoff style” atmosphere. Each of these games featured “playoff-style” ice hockey.

Well, supposedly they did.

Because that’s how we in the industry – players, coaches, writers, broadcasters – instinctively describe games that are more intense and have a little more meaning than the overwhelming majority of the 1,312 on the NHL roster.

The truth is, and it didn’t take that best-of-seven to remind us that there’s nothing in the regular season that even remotely compares to the high-stakes hockey played during the playoffs . There’s nothing like speed. Nothing beats the environment. There’s nothing like commitment.

Players know this, although they may need reminders. I remember Sean Avery telling me he would never again make the mistake of equating key late-season games with the playoffs after Rangers’ Game 1 win over Atlanta in the first round of 2007 marked the first postseason game in of the winger’s career.

The day before Game 1 of that first-round series with the Penguins, which would mark his first official NHL playoff game, Shesterkin said, “I think it’s the same as the regular season. I don’t think anything will change for goalkeepers.”

If Shesterkin didn’t understand that before the start of that first-round series against the Penguins, he certainly does now, having enjoyed a four-game roller coaster ride that began with a triple loss in overtime, during which he made 79 saves and added 39 added 2 wins in a game and then was drawn in consecutive games in Pittsburgh after conceding 10 goals in three periods while receiving constant cacophonous taunts.

Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin allows a goal in Game 4.
Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin allows a goal in Game 4.

And Rangers certainly do after four-game mishaps brought the club to the brink of elimination as they entered Wednesday’s Game 5 at the Garden after becoming the first team in franchise history to score at least seven goals in a row playoff contests (7-4 followed by 7-2).

The four-game season series, which the Blueshirts won 3-1 while limiting Pittsburgh to a 101-shot total, had about as much relevance as the Mets’ 10-1 record against the Dodgers in attending the 1988 NLCS, which Los Angeles won in seven games.

A total of 101 shots are allowed in four games. Think about it for a second. Now what about the fact that the Penguins averaged the playoff lead at 42.3 shots per 60 in the first four contests of the series? I would say, and probably Shesterkin too, that things have definitely changed for the Rangers goaltenders in this playoff.

You never really know how a team will react when faced with elimination. Everyone is talking about a big game. Everyone repeats the cliche, “The fourth is the hardest to come by.” Sometimes it is. Many, many times it’s pretty easy.

The Blueshirts posted a remarkable 15-4 record while they were on the verge of extinction from 2012–15. They came back from a 3-2 deficit in 2012 against the Senators and in 2013 against the Capitals. They became the first and only team in NHL history to come from 3-1 down in consecutive years, in 2014 against the Penguins and 2015 against the Caps.

But that was no help as the Blueshirts waved the white flag in their potential 5-eliminator game in Pittsburgh in 2016, losing 6-3. And the determination shown earlier in the decade certainly wasn’t relevant when Rangers meekly walked out in 2017 when they faced extinction in Game 6 of the second round against the Senators.

Igor Shesterkin on the Rangers bench after being drawn in Game 4.
Igor Shesterkin on the Rangers bench after being drawn in Game 4.

By the way? The celebrated and popular Emile Francis Rangers went 4-9 while being eliminated in 1967-75.

They also won the same number of trophies as the group, which went 15-4 over those four seasons.

Rangers were a resilient group throughout the season, able to address and correct problems before they could get out of control. Much of that quality emanated from the Vezina-caliber goalkeeper they received from Shesterkin, whose finalist status for the award was announced on Tuesday. His confidence and charisma filled the team with confidence.

The symbiotic relationship remained in full force throughout Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh, albeit with destructive effects. When Shesterkin got mixed up, the Rangers got mixed up. The penguins rocked and rolled.

If playoff hockey was new even to this Rangers group, pre-elimination playoff hockey was unique. Back in the cozy confines of the garden where Shesterkin is worshiped, the keeper tried to demonstrate that it was no different than the regular season Igor Shesterkin learns NHL playoffs are a different beast


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