It was exactly 8 weeks ago. What a time to be a Rangers fan. 18-4-1 sitting atop the entire NHL. An absurd .804 points percentage. 8-point Metro division lead. Firmly in the top ten in every basic team metric despite missing several regulars, including their Norris-winning blueliner & Vezina-winning netminder, for chunks of games.
How things have changed…
Saturday's win in Ottawa pulled the Blueshirts up to an NHL .500 (12-12-2) since then - a far cry from their torrid start. Now any realistic hockey fan shouldn't be shocked when a squad veers off course from winning 80% of their regular season. Slumps happen. The Kings, Oilers and Knights are all quality teams that have had Jekyll & Hyde seasons of their own already. Still, the Rangers run of mediocrity has now out-paced the greatness and there's legitimate cause for concern. So…why the nosedive?
Special teams have slipped a bit but they've still managed top-ten units on both sides. So it's gotta be even strength right? Oddly enough, their 5x5 metrics have been the same or better when comparing their first 23 contests to their last 26. Corsi & shot share have improved. Expected goals for & against are essentially the same. The difference shows up though when you look at 5x5 high-danger activity. While the Rangers are generating at a similar pace, their finishing has fallen off in a big way (11th vs 25th via Natural Stat Trick). Pair that with a stark drop-off in high-danger save percentage (16th vs 31st) and you got yourself a recipe for disaster. Considering the Blueshirts have drastically improved in chances against (22nd vs 12th) over this run of .500 hockey, it's that last stat that's most frightening. If it feels like every quality chance for the opposition is going in - well, it kinda is.
Last season was a "regression" season for Igor Shesterkin after an other-worldly Vezina-winning campaign. Yet he still finished top-three in 5x5 HDSV% among starting goalies (.874). His entire rise to stardom is due to his ability to bail his team out time and time again. That's what makes a great goaltender and, square in his prime, Igor excelling between the pipes seemed like the biggest lock for years to come. This year though is inexplicable. Even the best backstops aren't impervious to slumps but this is excessive. Shesty is in an outright freefall. His .794 HDSV% & .905 at 5x5 are among the worst in the league and January has been a flat-out nightmare (.746/.877). Half of his 10 January starts resulted in 4+ goals against and in only one of those contests did he see more than 25 shots (27). Yikes.
All high-danger chances aren't created equal & the Rangers have had a penchant for gift-wrapping the opposition prime opportunities with what Laviolette calls "loud mistakes" (hi Key & Gus). Defending the rush has been a red flag all year for New York and the team seems to play a lot looser in front of Shesterkin, who sees 2.25 rush attempts/60 (8th most among starting goalies) compared to 1.75 for Quick which would put him 26th. Still, there's other top-notch goalies seeing the same or more action off the rush (Markstrom, Swayman, Sorokin, Ullmark) & handling their high-danger duties at an elite level. No matter how you wanna slice it the fact is Igor needs to be better. A lot better.
If history has taught us anything it's that he will be. Never mind his overall body of work, although that should speak loud enough. We saw this same type of alarming slump last year. Shesterkin had a 3.71/.863 February then finished the regular season on an 11-3-1 heater backed by 1.98/.934 peripherals and a pair of shutouts. So let's relax on the panic. We're at the all-star break & the Blueshirts are still atop the Metro despite two months of dogshit hockey. Anyone would've signed up for that at the start of the season. I wish Shesty didn't have ASG duties and could take this entire week off for a reset, but he'll still have ample time to do so before returning for the stretch run as the reliable puck-stopper we're used to.
He has to.
There's not enough LTIR trade deadline money in the world that'll save this squad if he doesn't.