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NHL

The Rangers Need The Other Igor Shesterkin, Not This One

Igor Shesterkin skates away from his crease
Justin Berl/Getty Images

On paper, there is no more lopsided goalie matchup in the NHL playoffs than the one in the series between the Penguins and the Rangers. In the one crease, there’s Igor Shesterkin, the best in the world this year by save percentage and goals against, and who at age 26 could be just beginning a Hall-of-Fame career. In the other is Louis Domingue, a 30-year-old journeyman on his sixth NHL team, who’s made just four regular-season starts since March 2020 and has been thrust into this role by injuries to the first two options. The Rangers can build a proverbial brick wall in front of the net, while the Penguins have to settle for a couple of copies of Infinite Jest stacked on top of each other.

So of course the Penguins beat the Rangers 7-2 on Monday night, continuing their momentum from a 7-4 win in Game 3, as they took a 3-1 lead in their first-round series. On Wednesday, they’ll have a chance to—huh? You’re saying stop? Why? You’re confused? What is there to be … oh, I see. You assumed that a team with a proven great goalie would hold the advantage over a team stuck with a third-stringer. That’s simply not the case in the NHL postseason, and the Rangers are learning this the hard way.

Shesterkin started this series decently enough, suffering a rough second period in Game 1 but recovering to stop a team-record 79 shots even as his offense failed to bring him a triple overtime victory. In Game 2 he got further back on track with 39 saves in a 5-2 win. But Game 3 was an ignominious one that saw Igor pulled in a loss after a first period where he let in four. His start on Monday was a chance for redemption, and he took a respectable 1-1 tie into the first intermission. But in the next period it all fell apart again, as Shesterkin allowed five more and had to be yanked in the second straight game for Alexandar Georgiev. The Rangers played awfully from top to bottom in this one, and Shesterkin was both bamboozled by deflections and let down by defensive inadequacy, but there has also still been an unacceptable amount of leakiness on some of the 16 he’s allowed so far in this series, maybe best exemplified by this one in Game 3.

Or this in Game 4:

Domingue, meanwhile, has performed steadily if not spectacularly behind a collection of skaters that suddenly look like the Penguins of old, exploiting every New York opening while laying the body and winning the 50/50 battles. They’re confident and playing to the ceiling of their talent and just need a goaltender who won’t completely self-destruct, and Domingue hasn’t. The Rangers look like what they were derided as for much of the season: a thin team with few major offensive weapons and a merely average blue-line group. They got to this point, enjoying home ice in the first round after finishing second in their division, on the back of their league-best netminder, and without him they possess roughly the same status as the just-swept Nashville Predators. It may seem unfair to draw a circle around Igor when there’s plenty of blame to be shared, but it was clear coming in that the Rangers needed him at his best. And this is far from his best.

That just about wraps up another edition of “Goalies Are Nonsense.” You can find plenty of other surprising performances all around the league, from Andrei Vasilevskiy looking relatively mortal to Jake Oettinger’s efforts to steal an entire series for the Dallas Stars. But none have quite the shattering, franchise-shifting impact of a player as important as Shesterkin losing his mojo. Because the way of the goalie remains so mysterious, you can blame it on anything from fatigue after his workload this season—his most demanding yet—to mental boomage from the pressure or the road crowds, to the sheer stupid luck of trying to determine hockey superiority from just a small handful of games. Whatever it is, Shesterkin got the vote of confidence from his coach for Game 5, so he’ll have at least one last opportunity to reverse this slide. At least now, an unexpected performance from him would keep the Rangers alive.