NEWARK — Whatever was going on with Igor Shesterkin earlier this season, when last year’s breakout superstar simply was not himself, that version of the Rangers goaltender is gone.
For now, anyway, which is all that matters.
Will Shesterkin, 27, someday be spoken of in the same breath as his predecessor, Henrik Lundqvist? Perhaps. If he wins a Stanley Cup, that is a given.
But after a strong finish to his regular season, he returned to the playoffs here on Tuesday night and showed that he at least is good to go this spring.
Shesterkin had plenty of help from teammates who blocked shots hither and yon, flummoxing the Devils’ speedy power play in a 5-1 victory at the Prudential Center.
Make no mistake, though, the outcome might have looked far different if not for the Rangers’ stark advantage in goal.
Vitek Vanecek was not terrible for New Jersey, but he was not Shesterkin, who turned away many dangerous scoring chances before the silky young star Jack Hughes finally beat him on a penalty shot with less than three minutes to play.
This was the Shesterkin who won the Vezina Trophy last season and helped the Rangers get within two victories of the Cup Final.
Then came 2022-23. While never awful, Shesterkin was not awesome early on.
After a 5-3 loss to the Devils in November, he famously said he had “played a [expletive] game again” and that he was “ashamed” of his level of performance.
On Feb. 22, he sat glumly at his locker in the Rangers’ training facility, speaking barely above a whisper to three reporters, and acknowledged his confidence was not where it needed to be.
“Of course not,” he said. “I try to work, try to stay positive, so hopefully everything gets better.”
Regarding his level of play, he said, “Playing not good, but still we’ve got the win sometimes. I try to work on my game.”
Coach Gerard Gallant was told of Shesterkin’s comments before he spoke to reporters that day. When asked whether he had concerns about the goaltender’s confidence, Gallant said, “I guess he does, but I don’t.”
He added, “He hasn’t been at his best; we all know that. But we’re still winning, and that’s the bottom line for me. He’s going to get better. Everybody goes through little parts of the season where you’re not playing at your best.
“Am I worried about it? Not one bit. He’ll be fine. He’s our best player.”
That has proved true in the weeks and months since. He went 9-2-1 in his final 12 starts in the regular season, allowing 21 goals in those games.
Then came Tuesday. Afterward there were the usual plaudits from teammates.
“More often than not, he’s our best player,” Chris Kreider said. “He certainly was tonight. When he’s seeing pucks and he’s making saves like that, it instills a lot of confidence in our group.”
After practice on Wednesday, I asked Jericho’s own Adam Fox what has changed with Shesterkin in recent weeks. “I think you can tell in games when he’s feeling it,” Fox said. “He’s aggressive. He’s slinging breakaway passes. He’s feeling the puck . . . He’s always going to get big saves when he’s feeling confident, and it’s a super-assuring feeling.”
Did Fox ever doubt Shesterkin would work his way out of his mini-funk? “No, goalies are a different breed,” Fox said. “You kind of leave them to themselves to figure it out. I don’t know if he ever has to figure it out. Even when he’s not at his best, it’s a long season, and he’s still making saves and keeping us in games. But you can tell. When he’s confident in there, not many pucks are getting behind him.”
On that dreary day in late February, Shesterkin said, “I hope everything gets back. We have one more month 'til playoffs. So everything is in my hands.”
As long as he plays like he did in Game 1, those are the hands the Rangers want to be in.