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Staple: Rangers need ‘MVP Igor’ Shesterkin in Game 7 vs. Penguins

The Rangers haven’t changed the way they talk about Igor Shesterkin during this postseason. What’s changed is how Shesterkin has played, especially since his 79-save outing in Game 1 of the team’s first-round series against the Penguins.

“He’s been our best player all year long,” Chris Kreider said after Game 6.

“He’s still the same Igor,” Artemi Panarin said. “Whole team has confidence in him. He has confidence in himself.”

What the Rangers need more than anything Sunday in Game 7 at the Garden is that same Igor who gave them so much confidence through a bumpy first two months of the 2021-22 season. That’s the goalie who garnered enough Hart Trophy votes to be named one of the three finalists for the award, alongside some impressive company in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. The voting, of course, is restricted to what players did in the regular season. But your rep gets made with what you do in the playoffs, particularly what you do when it’s all on the line, like it will be Sunday.

The chatter ahead of the game will focus on the visitors. Sidney Crosby’s status will be first and foremost, followed by whether Tristan Jarry is well enough to start in goal. If they both play, that could alter the confidence dynamics heading into puck drop. If neither plays, that changes things too.

But there’s one player who could change the tone of this strange series more than anyone, and that’s Shesterkin. He has indeed been the Rangers’ best player all year, very deserving of what’s sure to be a runaway Vezina Trophy win and most likely a second- or third-place finish in the Hart (still the highest finish for a goalie in the MVP voting since 2016-17).

Outside of that marathon in Game 1, though, Shesterkin has not been anything close to his regular-season self in this series.

Maybe it’s fatigue from that long game, in which he fell seven saves shy of a new NHL single-game record. Or maybe it’s the type of nerves we’ve not yet seen from Shesterkin. Or maybe it’s the echoing of Pens fans chanting his name incessantly. Whatever the cause, Shesterkin has been off his mark. The goalie who posted a .935 save percentage in the regular season, second-best in NHL history for a goalie with 50 games played, has posted a .906 in these six games, two of which he didn’t finish. The goalie who ran away with Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Average statistic this season, at 42.48 GSAA to second-place Ilya Sorokin’s 28.47, has a minus-0.98 GSAA in the playoffs, 15th of the 22 goalies who have played at least 50 minutes.

Take away Game 1 and Shesterkin’s GSAA drops to minus-3.9, 17th of 18 goalies who qualify.

Now, there is good news: Penguins goalie Louis Domingue’s numbers have been as bad or worse. And Shesterkin has been able to shut the door in the past two third periods, which counts as consistency in a series that’s seen very little of it from either side. And for all of Shesterkin’s unexpected mediocrity, he at least hasn’t given up a whopper like the one Domingue did to Kreider with 1:28 to play Friday — a gaffe that may end up ranking with Jarry’s giveaway in double-overtime of Game 5 in last year’s first round, which sent the Islanders on their way to a six-game win over Pittsburgh.

And the best news is that Shesterkin has another crack at regaining his throne. He certainly wasn’t at fault on any of the Penguins’ three goals in Game 6, but neither was there the confident goalie who’s gotten in plenty of opposing shooters’ heads this season. He made four saves in the sequence before Jeff Carter got position on Jacob Trouba to deposit the first Pittsburgh goal, but MVP Igor catches Marcus Pettersson’s point shot and holds it for a whistle.

Bryan Rust’s 2-0 goal was a wide-open, slot-line pass, so not even MVP Igor’s stopping that.

And you might say that Evgeni Malkin’s breakaway goal to make it 3-3 in the second was too much. A Hall of Famer steaming down alone, who’s stopping that?

Shesterkin, that’s who. He was the best goalie in the league on breakaways in 2020-21 and fifth this season, according to Clear Sight Analytics. Breakaway shooters need to make great moves to beat him; Malkin simply snapped one by a goalie who didn’t look set.

Shesterkin’s rebound numbers are kooky too. According to MoneyPuck, Shesterkin served up 0.005 rebounds per save in the regular season, middle of the pack for No. 1 goalies (21st of 38; negative numbers are better in this category). In the playoffs, that number is 0.044, an eight-fold increase that puts him dead last in the rankings.

There is also the matter of how his team is defending around him. The Rangers are last on every public data site in five-on-five shot share, getting caved in by a Penguins team that has gotten to the front of the net too easily and been able to screen and tip pucks in too many instances once set up in the offensive zone. It’s a bit ridiculous to think the Rangers can reverse that Sunday, but Shesterkin can be the one to settle them down with a couple of strong saves. More than a couple might be necessary.

The numbers told an amazing story of Shesterkin’s 2021-22, backed up by what we all saw on the ice and the words of his teammates. The numbers are telling a very different story about Shesterkin’s 2021-22 postseason, even as his teammates continue to bank on his excellence.

There’s still time to write a new story of this postseason. MVP Igor shows up and the Rangers don’t have to worry about who’s in the Penguins net, who’s centering their top line, none of it. Shesterkin gives the Rangers a Game 7 like he did in the vast majority of his 2021-22 starts and those “Igor” chants will be nothing but a memory to joke about, the way he did after Game 6.

“They say Igor, I say OK,” Shesterkin said.

Game 7 can be Igor’s time to shine again.

(Photo: Jeanine Leech / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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