Igor Shesterkin’s return to form is reason for Rangers optimism


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Regarding the Rangers, back above the playoff cutline while preparing for the back-to-back in LA and Anaheim on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, that will complete this trip out west:

1. There is something familiar about Igor Shesterkin beyond the Vezina-matching .935 save percentage the franchise netminder has recorded while going 3-0-1 with a 1.73 GAA over his last four starts.

That is, he has returned to being the team’s security blanket, he is either stealing or nailing down points, as he did in sealing Saturday’s 2-1 victory in San Jose with a spectacular, sprawling save on a driving Logan Couture with six seconds remaining.

The transition from icon Henrik Lundqvist to the icon-in-progress Shesterkin was almost too seamless last season, as if replicating what The King had done by being the Blueshirts’ best player almost every game for a dozen years was really going to be that easy. As if carrying the team and the burden of expectations was going to be as routine as the Swede made it look.

The Rangers are built on the proposition that their goaltender is more equal than anyone else’s. Carrying the same burden into this season as Lundqvist had annually, Shesterkin bent out of the gate almost the same way he did at the outset of 2019-20 that marked the first season of the post-King era when his numbers exceeded his play.

There were just too many marginal goals — maybe one every two games — that never would have gone in last year. You saw too many rebounds that would not have been allowed last year. Was it and is it fair to expect Shesterkin to replicate 2021-22? Fair has nothing to do with it.

Igor Shesterkin makes a save for the Rangers against the Coyotes.
Corey Sipkin

The Rangers rely on the 26-year-old Russian to be elite the way the Canadiens relied on Patrick Roy and Carey Price to be elite, night after night, year after year, the way the Lindy Ruff Sabres relied on Dominik Hasek to steal games as a matter of course.

Which comes first, the cavalcade of highlight-reel saves or the swagger that radiates through his team when Shesterkin is on the top of his game? The Rangers want Shesterkin on that wall. The Rangers need Shesterkin on that wall.

Now that it appears that he has returned to his duty as sentry, that represents the best reason for optimism so far.

2. So if head coach Gerard Gallant maintained his line combinations from Thursday’s 3-2 overtime defeat in Seattle to Saturday’s victory over San Jose, there is no reason to expect a change in LA on Tuesday.

Which means Vitali Kravtsov will sit in favor of Ryan Carpenter again, which is bizarre. It also means that Ryan Reaves will sit for the seventh time in eight games, which could indicate that a roster move is coming relating to No. 75.

By the way, these line combinations have produced one five-on-five goal in two games — and by the fourth line.

Ryan Reaves looks like an odd man out in the Rangers’ rotation.

3. The Rangers simply cannot afford to carry a 23-man roster. We have been over this and over this and over this. It is incumbent on general manager Chris Drury to cut down to 22 and thus create cap space that will be necessary at the trade deadline.

Now that everyone is healthy, there is neither reason nor time to dally. Every day the Rangers carry 23 represents a day that makes it more difficult to add reinforcements down the line. This is self-sabotage. This makes no sense.

4. You mean to tell me after everything the Rangers have endured with Kravtsov, two trips back home (one under contractual right), one suspension and four years of patience since selecting the Russian winger ninth overall in 2018, he is a healthy scratch so that a marginal fourth-liner can play?

Come on.

I get it. This is not a development league and the Blueshirts find themselves in need of points, but again: Come on.

The Rangers not only have to find out if they have something in Kravtsov, who has played a sum of 52:28 this season, but they need five-on-five production from their top-six/top-nine. If he can’t get a chance, then what was all this for? And why are they wasting roster space and cap space on him?

Carpenter has played well the last three games between Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier, no doubt. He was a factor in Saturday’s victory. But he is a fourth-line player who becomes redundant and the 13th forward if Barclay Goodrow is on the fourth line, not in the top-six/top-nine, where Kravtsov belongs.

This is not unique to the Rangers, but from one administration to the next, from one coaching staff to the next, sitting talented youngsters in favor of low-ceiling veterans seems to be a thing on Broadway.

Jimmy Vesey
NHLI via Getty Images

5. Not the slightest disrespect is intended to these two pros who have been among the Blueshirts’ most steady 200-foot players, but Jimmy Vesey and Goodrow aren’t intended to provide long-term answers as top-six right wingers, are they?

It is certainly conceivable that Gauthier, scared straight by his stay in Hartford, is best in small doses. Maybe his two-way game would not stand up to scrutiny at 15:00 of ice time. But boy, oh boy, just one game and one game only in the top-six this year after getting one game and one game only last year?

I’m not sure I get it.

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