Igor Shesterkin likely to be Rangers' starter in net for play-in series
Henrik Lundqvist went back to Sweden when the NHL paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sweden didn't have the restrictions that were in place in the United States and most of the world. No social distancing. No lockdown of any kind.
So Lundqvist, the 38-year-old goaltender who has been the face of the Rangers for most of the last 15 years, had access to gyms and ice and everything he needed to get himself ready for if and when the NHL was to restart its 2019-20 season.
Lundqvist worked on his body, his mind, and his technique, he said on Monday. And he came back to New York for training camp feeling good about himself entering this battle for the Rangers’ No. 1 goaltender job.
And then on Wednesday, when the Rangers spent most of their practice time scrimmaging, Igor Shesterkin was sharp.
“I thought Igor had a great day today,’’ Quinn said after the scrimmage.
Quinn quickly went on to say that Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev also were very good in the scrimmage — Georgiev didn’t give up a goal, in fact, in his 20 minutes. But given Quinn’s declaration Monday that “this isn’t training camp,’’ and that “we are picking up where we left off’’ when play stopped, it kind of looks like the coach’s mind is already made up about who his goaltender will be Aug. 1 when the Rangers begin their best-of-5 play-in series against the Carolina Hurricanes in Toronto.
It’ll be Shesterkin.
At the time the NHL halted play on March 12, Shesterkin, the 24-year-old Russian rookie who was called up from AHL Hartford in early January, had taken over as the No. 1 goaltender. He was 10-2 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, and was one of the major factors why the team suddenly inserted itself into the playoff race. On Wednesday he played the entire the 40-minute scrimmage, while Lundqvist and Georgiev each played a half in the opposing goal.
Shesterkin was quick, and made difficult saves look effortless. Plus, his stickhandling was superior. A few times, he controlled a puck and fired an accurate outlet pass to an open teammate up by the blue line. One time, he sprinted off his goal line to beat an opposing forward to a loose puck above the circle, and fired it clear of danger, like a soccer goalie might. Lundqvist and Georgiev can’t do that.
The Rangers leave for Toronto on July 26, and certainly, stuff can happen between now and then. Lundqvist or Georgiev could turn into brick walls when they get into the net, or Shesterkin could somehow lose his sharpness. There’s always the possibility of an injury, or maybe someone tests positive for the coronavirus (which we wouldn’t be informed of). But Quinn’s attitude from Day 1 of the Rangers’ return is that he liked where the team was at the time of the pause, and so, barring some kind of injury or something else unexpected, he’s not inclined to change anything.
The forward lines and defense pairs this week have been the same that were together when play was halted (with the exception of Chris Kreider being back on the first line, now that his broken foot is healed).
And when asked if Brendan Smith — who played most of the season as a forward, but switched to defense after Brady Skjei was traded (to Carolina, ironically) — might switch back to forward, Quinn replied quickly, “Smitty’s a defenseman.’’ That means Libor Hajek, who spent the first half of the season with the Rangers before being sent down to Hartford in January, is the seventh defenseman, for now.
If Quinn isn’t pondering giving the highly regarded Hajek a chance to break into his top six on defense, you wouldn't expect him to make a change in net either.