Six days and two scrimmages into prep work for the tournament, David Quinn said, “I think it’s kind of a good time to reassess where we’re at and go from there,” as far as the competition to be the starting goaltender for Game 1 against Carolina.
The fact is, though, that the Rangers are at the very same place regarding their No. 1 as they were when the season broke for the coronavirus on March 12.
Which means No. 31, Igor Shesterkin.
Henrik Lundqvist has, for the most part, been quite good. Alex Georgiev has been fine. But neither has outshined Shesterkin to the degree that would have been necessary for Quinn and the Rangers to reverse course.
Indeed, neither one has outshined the 24-year-old rookie, at all, with Shesterkin flashing the same skill and effectiveness he did while going 10-2 with a 2.52 goals against average and a .932 save percentage in leading the Rangers to the cusp of the playoffs and entry to this unique tournament. Neither the talent nor persona faded in the least during the four-month pause.
“Obviously I’m working hard every day, playing at 100 percent, working hard to reach that goal to be back, but it all depends on the coaching staff,” Shesterkin said through interpreter Nick Bobrov, the Blueshirts’ director of European scouting, when asked about the competition. “The bottom line is, I’m so happy to be back. No matter what happens, I’ll be supportive of my teammates.”
Shesterkin was just a little over two weeks removed from the Feb. 23 car accident in Brooklyn, in which he and Pavel Buchnevich sustained injuries, when the season paused. The goaltender had missed six games recovering from a non-displaced rib fracture before returning for two starts. He was pulled after allowing five goals in 39:06 against the Islanders at the Garden on March 7, but was outstanding three nights later in a 4-2 victory at Dallas.
“After the accident, I returned to form pretty quickly. The first game was so-so and then it was back to normal,” said the netminder, who spent the break in Miami. “I trained during the pandemic very hard with my personal coach so my physical shape is 100 percent.
“Now the key is to bring it to the ice and work on psychological things and doing the right things on the ice. I feel like I’m getting there very quick.”
Shesterkin said he spent the break here rather than returning to Russia with his wife, Anna, after having difficulty registering his dog for the flight home.
“We didn’t want to check the dog into the luggage compartment,” he said. “So we had to stick around and ended up spending that time in Miami. We were very happy we made that decision.”
While in southern Florida, Shesterkin had the opportunity to skate with Alex Ovechkin on a couple of occasions. Maybe that’ll give the netminder an edge on the next one-timer from the top of the left circle from No. 8. Or maybe not. If that was the trick, Lundqvist likely would have spent his last 15 summers in Moscow rather than Gothenburg.
“It was obviously a great, very positive experience,” Shesterkin said. “Because of the circumstances I only skated with him twice, there were a lot of Russian NHLers there. It was a wonderful experience.”
Shesterkin arrived and played with such mastery, he never seemed like a rookie. Of course, he had brought his star with him from Russia. He may have just 12 games of NHL experience, but he has 16 games of KHL playoff experience on his résumé.
“My learning experience began in the AHL and obviously learned a lot there,” Shesterkin said on the Zoom call. “When I got called up [on Jan. 6], I watched how NHL players deal with victories and defeats and I learned maybe psychologically not to beat up myself too much, too often, and be able to roll with the punches.
“Maybe it came with age and maturity, but definitely learning from the guys in the locker room helped.”
The Rangers were a more effective and more efficient team with Shesterkin in net. His ability to swallow pucks and move pucks out of danger was a major factor in the improvement of the team’s defensive structure. The Hurricanes are a pressure team that forechecks furiously and funnels everything to the net, so those attributes are definitely a factor in determining who will get the call on Aug. 1.
All things remaining equal, expect that to be Shesterkin. The difficult decision for Quinn will come if the goaltender looks bad in Game 1 (or maybe in Game 2, with Game 3 a back-to-back scenario), or if there is an injury.
Then, and only then, will it be time to reassess.