Now is when the goaltender disparity in the first-round playoff series between the Rangers and Devils matters most.
There was no surprise in this category when folks were checking matchup boxes before the series began: The Rangers had the edge in goal, obviously.
But after a long, strange six-game path leading to Game 7 on Monday night, that theoretical advantage looms large for the Rangers.
Let’s see: The Devils have Akira Schmid, the 2021 USHL Goaltender of the Year, who was last seen being chased from the net in a 5-2 loss in Game 6 on Saturday.
The Rangers have Igor Shesterkin, the 2021-22 Vezina Trophy winner, last seen shining in net at Madison Square Garden.
“Best goalie in the world,” Artemi Panarin said after a very optional afternoon skate on Sunday. “We believe in him. Nice to have him behind us.”
Coaches and skaters never truly know what to say about goalies in a technical sense, because they understand what goalies do about as well as you and I do.
So the reaction to Shesterkin’s Game 6 mostly went like this:
“Shesty was great,” Jacob Trouba said.
“Shesty played great,” Vladimir Tarasenko said.
“He was outstanding, again,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
Meanwhile, Devils coach Lindy Ruff faced questions after Game 6 about what he will do in the series finale.
Stick with Schmid, who allowed two goals in his first three career playoff games, or go back to Vitek Vanecek, who started Games 1 and 2 — both lopsided losses.
Ruff said on Sunday that he had made a decision but was not ready to share it publicly.
Gallant said it matters not to him who gets the nod for New Jersey. “Not at all,” he said. “They can handle that controversy, or whatever you want to call it.”
Gallant wanted no part of critiquing Schmid after Game 6, saying, “Obviously, the kid played great in the other games. I’m not saying he didn’t play good tonight, but he didn’t have much of a chance on some of our goals.”
On Sunday, Vincent Trocheck said, “Hopefully it maybe rattled him, but we’re not expecting him to be rattled. He’s obviously a really good goalie. He played really well in three games. We’re going to expect his best and we’re going to have to make sure we’re giving him our best.”
Schmid proved he can play at this level in Games 3, 4 and 5, but NHL history is full of goalies who had brief flashes.
The trick is consistency, something Shesterkin had in a big way last season and got back this season after a rocky stretch.
None of that means he will outdo his counterpart — Schmid or no Schmid — on Monday night, of course. But there is no question which is the better bet.
As for the rest of the Rangers, they have had more experience with elimination games in recent years than any other team in the league, too many for their taste.
“We’ve played in a lot of them, unfortunately,” said Chris Kreider, who has been at this playoff drama for the Rangers since 2012.
Said Adam Fox: “It sounds familiar for us. I think you don’t want to put yourself in positions to play Game 7s, but they’re some of the most fun hockey we’ll play.”
Shesterkin seems to be having fun with all of this, in his own way.
He certainly has been feisty all series. In Game 3, he threw several punches at Timo Meier when Meier invaded his crease, and on several other occasions, he has pushed intruders out of the way.
He had a shot on goal in Game 5. He tried to score into an empty net in Game 6.
Did Gallant have a problem with Shesterkin taking that sort of risk?
“Go for it,” the coach said. “As long as they didn’t score, I was happy with it.”
Gallant knows Shesterkin’s mood and mindset are as important as any X’s-and-O’s concerns.
Again, no one really knows what he or she is talking about in this area other than fellow goalies and their coaches.
It’s like football coaches and placekickers. Spare us the details. Just do the job.
In Shesterkin, they trust. Schmid? We’ll see.