There’s being a great goalie and a great playoff goalie.
Igor Shesterkin is very much the former and the Rangers can only hope he’s now on his way to being the latter. He turned in a sometimes solid, sometimes shaky 29-save performance in a season-preserving, 5-3, win over the Penguins in Game 5 of their first-round series on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
“He made some real key saves,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “A little boo-boo on one of the goals there when he tried to make a little pass. But that’s what happens. He battles and he plays the puck real well and he makes up for that.”
Shesterkin was not the main story as the Rangers rallied from a 2-0, second-period deficit and perhaps that’s a promising sign. The game — and potentially the series — turned with the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby exiting in the middle frame after a high hit from defenseman Jacob Trouba.
The Rangers were more committed to the harder details of the game than in Monday’s 7-2 Game 4 debacle in Pittsburgh, of which Shesterkin was neither the main culprit nor absolved from blame. They spent more time in the offensive zone as Game 5 progressed. They fed off the home crowd, which woke up once Alexis Lafreniere brought them within 2-1 at 16:41 of the second period. They kept the Penguins from scoring in the third period despite 15 shots.
Their kid trio of Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil continues to play mature hockey.
But if there’s a reason to believe the Rangers can force a Game 7 on Sunday, it’s that Shesterkin fully re-finds his regular-season mojo.
The Vezina Trophy finalist (spoiler alert: Shesterkin will win) entered Wednesday with an appalling 4.26 goals-against average and .905 save percentage through his first four starts against the Penguins, only two of which he finished.
He allowed 10 goals in his three periods of work in Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh.
Yes, the Rangers’ defense was negligent and, yes, Shesterkin was beaten repeatedly on deflections as his teammates showed no interest in clearing attackers from his crease. But Shesterkin could not bail out the Rangers and, often, that’s what a goalie must do.
Particularly on a successful playoff team.
He had the chance to correct that narrative in Game 5 because Gallant immediately — and correctly — named Shesterkin the starter after Game 4.
He repaid that faith early, stopping both shots on the Penguins’ two-minute, five-on-three power play, including a windmill glove save on defenseman Kris Letang from the right circle.
But Jake Guentzel banked one in off Shesterkin’s left pad from behind the goal line after having his first two in-tight shots stopped to make it 1-0 at 10:28 of the first period. That one was preventable.
Three Rangers’ goals in two minutes, 42 seconds gave them a surprising lead at 17:53 of the second period but Shesterkin gave that away 13 seconds later, literally, as he lost the puck leading to Malkin feeding Guentzel for the equalizer.
That was the “Boo boo.”
The Rangers, regardless of the result of this first-round series, are a team on the rise in the NHL and will start next season in the Stanley Cup conversation. A large part of that is because of Shesterkin, 26, who went 36-13-4 while leading the NHL with a 2.07 GAA and a .935 save percentage this regular season.
But the playoffs, as mentioned, are a different beast. The routines are different. The turnaround times between games are different. The intensity is very much different.
“When you play, you just get into your rhythm,” said former Rangers goalie Marty Biron, who played 508 NHL regular-seasons over 16 seasons and 23 playoff games for the Flyers from 2008-09. “Your goalie coach is the one that looks at the bigger picture. He says, ‘How do we prepare? What do we need on the ice? What do we need off the ice? How much video do we do?’ It’s very, very different in the playoffs than it is in the regular season.
“And I would say it’s very different, mostly, if you are struggling.”
Shesterkin still needs to show he can be a great playoff goalie.
Maybe Game 5, despite its flaws, was a start.