Rangers coach David Quinn had promised, in one of his Zoom conferences last week, that he would not give his rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin more than he believed the 25-year-old Russian could handle. And, Quinn said, the team would be watching carefully for any signs that Shesterkin might need a night off.
Apparently, Quinn and goalie coach Benoit Allaire haven’t noticed any such signs, because Shesterkin was in net again Thursday night when the Rangers hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden in the finale of their season series with the Penguins. It was the fifth straight start for Shesterkin.
"He's played great hockey for us here during this stretch, and, to me there've been no signs of slowing down,’’ Quinn said after the Rangers’ morning skate Thursday. "He certainly has embraced the workload that he's earned.’’
Prior to this current stretch, Shesterkin had never started more than three consecutive NHL games. But he has seemingly had no problem handling the heavy workload. In the four games he started before Thursday, Shesterkin had gone 3-0-1, allowing 10 goals on 129 shots (.922 save percentage) over 250 minutes (2.4 goals-against average).
Since returning to action March 25 after missing three weeks with a groin injury, Shesterkin had started six of the Rangers’ seven games entering Thursday. He went 4-1-1, with a 2.44 GAA and a .929 save percentage.
He’s been particularly good when the Rangers have needed him early in games, as they did Tuesday against the Penguins, and in both games last week against the Buffalo Sabres. The Rangers started slowly in those games and were outshot in the first period in each. But Shesterkin kept them in it until their game came around.
"You see what he does,’’ Adam Fox said of Shesterkin after Tuesday’s win. "He makes huge saves for us . . . He's always giving us a chance to win, and makes the key save for us. So we’ve got a lot of confidence when he's in the net.’’
Quinn wouldn’t commit to giving Shesterkin the night off when the Rangers face the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum Friday in the second night of a back-to-back. He said he wanted "see how [Thursday’s game] goes,’’ before making the decision.
The coach admitted that he wants to get Alexandar Georgiev a game at some point. Georgiev hasn’t played since March 19, and he also has a sparkling record against the Islanders (6-2 in eight career starts, with a 1.80 GAA, .941 save percentage and two shutouts, including one this season). So, under normal circumstances, starting Georgiev Friday would seem the logical choice.
Except Quinn and the Rangers still have some things they need to find out about Shesterkin.
He’s missed time with injuries, including 10 games last month because of the groin injury, and the Rangers need to make sure that he’s durable and not injury prone. They also need to know, at some point, if he can handle back-to-back games.
If he is to be a true No. 1 goaltender and a worthy heir to Henrik Lundqvist, who was tremendous when he played both ends of a back-to-back, Shesterkin is going to need to play both ends of a back-to-back once in a while.
There is also the not minor consideration that the Rangers are desperate to try and hang in the playoff race, and every point they can earn matters. They need to put their best lineup on the ice every night. And the way Shesterkin has been playing, it may be that starting him the second night of a back-to-back is the best option.