At the bleakest moment of the Rangers’ season, just after they had been blown out for the second straight game in Pittsburgh to put their season on the edge of elimination, Coach Gerard Gallant sent a message of faith.
An hour earlier, he pulled Igor Shesterkin from his net — also for the second straight game — amid the deafening, derisive chants from the Pittsburgh fans: “Eee-gor. Eee-gor,” they yelled with delight as Shesterkin sat on the loneliest corner of the bench.
It was an odd scene. Shesterkin had played so brilliantly all season. In fact, he has been brilliant ever since the Rangers brought him to the United States from Russia to play for their minor league affiliate in Hartford, Conn., in 2019. But until this month, there was always one unknown. Shesterkin had never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The playoffs are a different universe from the regular season, as we are told by those who have played and coached in them. There is a heightened level of intensity and pressure, and one mistake or one bad rebound can instantly alter the course of a season.
In the first two games in Pittsburgh, the Penguins scored 10 goals against Shesterkin in only 3 periods. Had they finally discovered the super goalie’s Kryptonite? Gallant did not think so, and he declared immediately after Game 4 of that first-round series that Shesterkin would start Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s good when the coach trusts the goalie and the whole team trusts me,” Shesterkin said in English, his second language. “I just tried to find my game and help my partners and try to win every game.”
Shesterkin definitely found his game again. He made 99 saves over the next three contests, all Rangers wins, and now all is right in Rangers World again. Shesterkin, who was born in Moscow, is back to being arguably the best goalie in the league, and he is apparently able to withstand the pressures of playoff hockey.
Because of that, the Rangers feel they have a chance to knock off the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, which begins in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday.
“He’s been our best player all year,” said Chris Kreider, the Rangers forward. “He continues to be our best player.”
He is also one of the N.H.L.’s best players at any position. He was named as one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy for most valuable player during the regular season and is almost guaranteed to be awarded the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie. All the evidence voters needed was his .935 save percentage and 2.07 goals against average, both tops in the league.
Shesterkin, 26, was drafted out of Russia by the Rangers in the fourth round of the 2014 draft and has fit seamlessly into a line of Rangers goalies stretching back to the early 1990s with Mike Richter, who was followed, two years after his own retirement, by Henrik Lundqvist in 2005.
“What a run of goaltenders we have seen here with the Rangers,” said Eddie Olczyk, a TNT analyst and teammate of Richter’s on the last Rangers’ team to win a Stanley Cup, in 1994. “Goaltending has not been a problem for the Rangers, and when you have it, you have a chance to win every night.”
Olczyk said he spoke to Gallant months ago about Shesterkin, and the coach raved to him about the goalie’s uncanny ability to read, react and be in the right position ahead of the shot or the pass.
“I don’t think you hear that very often,” Olczyk said. “He seems to know what’s going to happen before it does. When that happens, you’re playing five-card stud with six cards. It’s a pretty good hand to be playing with.”
Lundqvist was like that, too. He was still a Ranger when Shesterkin made his debut on Jan. 7, 2020. Shesterkin spoke very little English then, and it was difficult for Lundqvist to communicate with him in a casual, in-depth manner to get a sense of who Shesterkin was. But he noticed that his new teammate was quite relaxed and chatty with the other Russian-speaking players on the Rangers, such as Pavel Buchnevich and Vladislav Namestnikov, both of whom are no longer on the team.
Now a Rangers analyst on the MSG Network, Lundqvist said Shesterkin’s easygoing demeanor was critical to the Russian goalie’s ability to withstand pressure and failure — what little of it he has had.
“When you play in this city, or any big market, it helps if you can stay within your bubble, not get too carried away with the ups and downs,” Lundqvist said. “I think away from the game, he focuses on friends and family. That’s healthy to your game. It all comes down to your personality. It seems like he lives in his little bubble, and I think that helps in the long run.”
Following in the skate marks of Lundqvist, a beloved and iconic Rangers goalie who guarded the net the last time the team went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2014, presented a tremendous challenge for Shesterkin. It happens in sports. Tino Martinez faced it when he replaced Don Mattingly on the Yankees, and so did Aaron Rodgers when he replaced Brett Favre on the Green Bay Packers.
Those players made believers out of their fans, and Shesterkin has done the same for Rangers loyalists. That was especially so in the first half of this season, when he made bunches of extraordinary saves to help the Rangers win games that perhaps they should not have and instilled confidence in his team.
“Everybody thinks they’ve got the best goalie,” Gallant said recently. “For me, our goaltender has been an M.V.P. He’s been unbelievable.”
Fans are also discovering an endearing side to Shesterkin, with his long brown hair held in place under a clip he wears on, and often off, the ice. When he and his partner, Anna Butusova, arrived at a Halloween party in Seattle in October dressed as John Travolta’s and Uma Thurman’s characters in “Pulp Fiction” — and then danced like them — his Q rating soared among Rangers fans.
And as his English improves, Shesterkin has grown more confident speaking to American reporters without an interpreter. For now, he requests television cameras stop rolling during those sessions, but he is often relaxed, playful, insightful and unfazed, even when reflecting on the bleakest moment of his season.
“I got pulled twice,” Shesterkin said. “It doesn’t matter because the coach believed in me. I’d like to say thanks.”
The way Shesterkin responded and came back to prove he could handle playoff pressure ensured that the appreciation went both ways.
“His attitude hasn’t changed much,” said Jacob Trouba, the Rangers defenseman. “He’s been his same self, which is good. He’s embraced the moment and played really, really well.”