Facing goalie Igor Shesterkin is one thing, but facing a frustrated Igor Shesterkin is another.
The Penguins learned that lesson at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, when Shesterkin dropped the iron curtain and made 30 saves to propel the Rangers to a 3-0 victory and cap an intense regular-season series with Pittsburgh. Time will tell if there is to be a playoff series, as well.
Shesterkin had surrendered three or more goals in half of his previous 10 starts entering Thursday’s matchup, marking one of the toughest stretches of his young NHL career.
But it is only “tough” by Shesterkin’s standards, which are significantly higher than most other goalies in the league given how otherworldly his numbers have been since he joined the Rangers toward the end of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
Defenseman Jacob Trouba recently said everybody in the Rangers’ locker room knows just how much Shesterkin doesn’t like to lose. He simply expects a lot of himself.
That was evident after the Russian netminder declined to discuss his game following the Rangers’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Flyers on Sunday. He did, however, admit he was frustrated. So, naturally, Shesterkin was back to his brick-wall ways on Thursday.
“Obviously, the last few games didn’t go as planned,” Shesterkin said through a translator after the win, which brought the Rangers’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth down to two. “I was really trying to get my grasp on the game. But we’ll keep moving forward from there, I’ll work with the coaches and we’ll try to move on.”
Shesterkin, who earned his fourth shutout of the season, had the Garden chanting his name. After denying Penguins top-line winger Jake Guentzel in front to keep the visitors off the scoreboard toward the end of the second period, the ‘IG-OR!’ cheers reverberated from the lower bowl and up to the pinwheel ceiling.
“If he learned how to score as well, I think he’d really be there,” said Artemi Panarin, who took a slick pass from Andrew Copp and backhanded it home for the 2-0 lead at 9:47 of the middle frame . “But right now, we’ll keep him at the salary he’s got.”
“He promised that if I started scoring, he’d share a little bit of his contract,” Shesterkin quipped in response.
This was the way the Rangers wanted to leave it off with the Penguins.
It was the fourth time the two teams squared off in the span of 41 days, and the Rangers had the last word. The Blueshirts were seemingly in control for 60 minutes, leaning on a fierce forecheck and clogging the shooting lanes in the defensive zone.
The Penguins were without Sidney Crosby, John Marino, and Radim Zohorna, who were all sidelined with a non-COVID illness. They even had to recall forward Filip Hallander under emergency conditions for the second time this week to fill out the lineup.
But the Rangers had a near picture-perfect display of the way they want to be operating come the end of the regular season.
Trade-deadline acquisition Frank Vatrano opened up the scoring in the first period. Defensemen Braden Schneider and Trouba throwing their bodies around. Panarin being classic Panarin. Oh, and Shesterkin tracking every puck in sight.
“People were worried about him, I wasn’t,” head coach Gerard Gallant said of Shesterkin. “He played really well, made some real key saves at key times.”