Forget Kane Or Tarasenko - The Rangers Biggest Storyline Down The Stretch Is Igor Shesterkin
It's been a rough stretch for the Blueshirts. Their first rough stretch since Trouba's infamous helmet toss in early December. After pocketing 7 of 8 points on their Western Canada trip they've hit a league-worst 2-5 skid. When good teams hit skids like this, it's usually a perfect storm where everything that can go wrong does. They've allowed almost 4 goals a game while barely averaging 2.5. The penalty kill is failing at a 25% clip while the powerplay has plummeted. The schedule has been brutal. They've been playing shorthanded due to either cap gymnastics in accommodating a Kane trade, Lindgren/Motte injuries and/or K'Andre's 3-game suspension. And all the while they've been trying to establish comfort & chemistry with the aforementioned Kane & Vladimir Tarasenko. Most alarmingly though, reigning Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin is in the midst of an extended struggle we've yet to see in his early career.
Forget everything else. Forget special teams, health & whether or not Kane/Vlad work out. The bottom line is, any postseason success for this team hinges on Igor. Since the all-star break though he's simply been brutal. A 6-3 record is deceiving when backed by 3.54/.868 peripherals which clearly won't cut it in a 7-game series against anyone. He's been vocally frustrated with his play and rightfully so. The defense in front of him has been porous of late but that doesn't fully excuse Igor ceding over EIGHT goals above expected post-ASB. Only part-timer Collin Delia has been worse across the entire league. And it's not just high-danger chances. He's been subpar on medium and low-danger chances as well. There's been no silver lining.
Equaling his unearthly '21-22 season wasn't likely. We all knew that, and Shesty's follow-up campaign has proven he's a mere mortal. Still, by and large he's been among the league's elite. It's not surprising that, during the Blueshirts best run of the year through December & January, Igor was playing his best hockey. It wasn't world-beater mode but his 2.34/.922 line was sniffing right outside the top five. He's fallen off a cliff since then and, while the Rangers offense was able to make up for it initially, it's fair to acknowledge it's been a while without the consistency & reliability between the pipes this squad has grown accustomed to. Long enough to start stirring up a touch of concern.
The Rangers wrap up a much-needed 4-day break & get started on their home stretch tonight in Montreal. In 23 remaining March days they'll play 13 times and virtually all their opponents are either among the league's best (CAR 2x, NJ) or fighting for their playoff lives (PIT 3x, BUF 2x, NSH, FLA). While there's plenty of storylines to unfold with this team headed into the dance next month, there's only one that really matters to me. Will the real Igor Shesterkin please stand up? He's everything to these Blueshirts if a Cup run is anywhere near a reality. The difference between this squad and a majority of other playoff teams is the confidence in knowing that, not only will your goalie never cost you a game but he's gonna steal some for you too. Right now, that confidence has gotta be at a low point. Regardless of everything else falling into place if Igor gets back on track there will always be a puncher's chance against anyone. If not? Well…it could be a quick playoff exit and a loooooong offseason.