I Love This Goalie Controversy
9:07 AM EST on February 8, 2024
Even in a league where goalie fortunes change faster than Midwestern weather, it still means something to have a starter and a backup. The starter stands between the pipes for the majority of a team's contests, and the backup spells him. The starter takes the ice at the beginning of the playoffs, and only if he stumbles does the backup see action. The starter sees his jersey hanging in the window of the team store, and the backup stays ready.
Since Henrik Lundqvist played his last game for the New York Rangers in 2020, the clear starter has been Igor Shesterkin. Not only has he earned the nod for most of the regular-season games, but he also manned the crease for the opening face-offs of all 27 Rangers playoff games in that span. After a solid warm-up year in that universally bizarre 2021 campaign, Shesterkin became the world's greatest goalie at age 26, winning the Vezina with a .935 save percentage. He weathered a bit of a slump in the middle of last season, but for a team that struggled to get an impressive group of forwards to play to their ceiling, he was still the unquestioned and irreplaceable backbone.
This year, suddenly, it's different: The Rangers are winning enough to be comfortably in first place, but it's often in spite of Shesterkin, who's letting pucks by him at a below-league-average rate, especially in the high-glove corner. Over their past three games, however, the Rangers have notched three victories with a different man stacking the pads. In 18 starts with New York, this shot-stopper off the bench has earned a record of 12-4-2 and allowed just 2.27 goals per game. Given the Rangers' reliance on Shesterkin, you might expect that their backup would just be humble ol' Guy Fellow from the AHL or the waiver wire. But this backup is probably even more famous than Igor—such is the power of multiple Cups, a starting role at the 2014 Olympics, and 17 years in the NHL.
Jonathan Quick was nothing special last season, when he was 37 years old. In fact, despite a golden career built with the dominant Kings of the early 2010s, it'd been quite a while since he was anything more than passable. At the trade deadline, Los Angeles finally cut him loose and sent him to Columbus, which quickly rerouted him to Vegas, which needed any goalie they could get. There, he was a veteran presence in the locker room for the Cup run but completely absent from playoff ice. He signed with the Rangers, whom he had both rooted for as a kid in Connecticut and wrecked in the 2014 Finals, and explicitly accepted his role as Shesterkin's background vocalist.
"Igor doesn't need too much mentorship with as good as he is and what he's already been able to accomplish in his young career," he said. "But if there are times when I can help him, I'm definitely willing to."
What Quick is doing right now is limiting Shesterkin's playing time. He was your typical No. 2 through the first three months of the season, getting wins with good run support and producing a couple of vintage performances. But Manhattan's felt a little different since a back-to-back on Jan. 26 and 27. In the first game, Shesterkin allowed four goals on 19 shots to Vegas for his fourth straight game with a save percentage under .900. Then in the second, Quick began a little shaky but eventually presided over a blowout against Ottawa—marking back-to-back starts where he allowed just two goals. After an all-star break where Igor's struggles couldn't help but enter into conversation, Quick got the nod at home versus the Avs on Monday and made all the difference, stopping 32 shots against one awesome goal and earning an assist on the OT winner.
Head coach Peter Laviolette's decision to go with Quick again for Wednesday night's clash with Tampa made a statement. There was no reason other than play—not the schedule, not the opponent, not injury—for the team to select its second option on this night. They picked the guy who was hot, and the guy who'd been better for them this year, and it just so happens that he's not Shesterkin. A bad night here, and order might have been restored, but Quick rose to the occasion once more. The Lightning weren't as dangerous as they could have been, and they had to weather a gnarly mid-game injury to the just-returned Mikhail Sergachev, but Quick allowed just one puck past him while the Rangers rode an empty-net goal to a 3-1 victory. That's three straight wins, all with Quick in goal. But afterward, everyone was very careful not to upset the hierarchy.
“Shesty is our guy,” Laviolette said.
“Shesty’s going to get back to where he was,” said the captain, Jacob Trouba.
Said Quick himself, “He’s the best in the world. I learn so much from just watching him in practice.”
This is a goalie controversy, no matter what they say! And it's a particularly juicy one, too, not only because every controversy is less normal in New York, but also because of the towering shadows both men cast. Plenty of goaltending questions center on one average Joe who gets hot vs. another average Jean who does the same. This is much more exciting. You've got two goalies who've each had their turns at the top of the league's food chain—one 10 years ago and one two years ago. The superior one at the moment wouldn't have raised any eyebrows if he'd retired last summer, and the one watching him excel is the anointed heir to an all-time great.
Laviolette can stick with what's working for now, and the team has enough games left that the duties will have to be divided no matter what. But until one or the other truly distinguishes himself, the temperature will continue to rise. Of course Quick would love to pilot one last playoff flight. Of course Shesterkin is desperate to fix whatever's gone wrong (especially because he only has one more year until free agency). But once the Rangers hit the playoffs, there won't be enough room for both those dreams. Win or lose, only one guy can start your final game of the season.