Rangers’ playoff dream hinges on rookie Igor Shesterkin

Rangers’ playoff dream hinges on rookie Igor Shesterkin

There were the chants, “Henrik … Henrik!” after the netminder had foiled Jack Hughes’ breakaway backhand 51 seconds into the third period at the Garden on Saturday night, and there were the …

Wait a second. Lundqvist?

But what about Igor Shesterkin?

What about Shesterkin is that the Russian was pulled following the second period after surrendering five goals on 23 shots in his poorest performance as a Ranger. This was also the poorest support he had gotten in his 11 starts in the NHL, the Blueshirts turning in a performance that simply was not worthy of a playoff contender at this time of year.

It ended 6-4 for New Jersey following a flurry of goals over the final six minutes-plus that featured an empty-netter for the Devils, who on this night looked like the club fighting to make the postseason rather than one that had been an afterthought for months.

The Blueshirts, on the other hand, played as if they were taking a stroll around the park two nights after lapping up Mika Zibanejad’s five-goal night in the thrilling 6-5 victory over the Capitals.

“I don’t know if we were still excited about what happened against Washington and Mika’s five goals,” David Quinn said. “There was such euphoria about the game, the building was rocking, and all those things. I don’t know whether we just didn’t get over it, but it’s disappointing.”

Igor Shesterkin can't have more five-goal nights if the Rangers are to make the playoffs.
Igor Shesterkin can’t have more five-goal nights if the Rangers are to make the playoffs.Corey Sipkin

Zibanejad scored another one — his 15th in the past 11 games, 17th in the last 14, 28th in the last 34 and 39th of the season — to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 7:18 of the first period. But it seemed as if the goal was a result of inertia, and once the puck beat Mackenzie Blackwood, the magic simply drained out of No. 93, who was uncharacteristically out of sorts most of the way.

Zibanejad was not the only one. Artemi Panarin, perhaps the most pinpoint passer in the league, not only couldn’t connect, he missed his target at times by 10 feet, looking more like Jets third-string quarterback Luke Falk than himself. Adam Fox had one of his worst nights. Ryan Lindgren had a tough one. There was next to nothing from Ryan Strome.

Indeed, Quinn was correct when he said, “I don’t think one guy had a good night.”

That included Shesterkin, in action for the first time since sustaining a non-displaced broken rib in that automobile accident in Brooklyn on Feb. 23. The netminder seemed a tick slow and almost mechanical. And the Devils’ first goal that tied the contest 1-1 at 6:22 of the first period, only 48 second after Flip Chytil scored from the slot came on Kyle Palmieri’s no-angle shot from the left corner that banked in off Shesterkin’s right skate.

Shesterkin, who practiced with the team for the first time on Friday after having taken shots in smaller workouts for the previous few days, said he felt no physical after-effects from the crash but that he was rusty. The goaltender spoke through an interpreter in the press conference room after the team closed the locker room to the media in a coronavirus related decision.

“I felt good, but I was not able to help the team win, so I don’t feel good about that,” said Shesterkin, whose record fell to 9-2. “I felt good, but it was hard to get back into the game.”

There is no telling how much time Aaron Judge might miss with his rib issue, so you can second-guess Quinn’s decision to throw Shesterkin back so quickly. But Alexandar Georgiev had struggled Thursday (and hadn’t played his best game in Tuesday’s defeat to the Blues) and Lundqvist had predictably looked off his game in last Sunday’s defeat to the Flyers.

Shesterkin is the No. 1 goaltender on the roster. He’d have had to confront the effects of the layoff whenever he got back in. Tuesday in Dallas on the first of a three-game trip that includes matches in Colorado and Arizona doesn’t seem as if it would have been a wiser choice.

The Rangers were going to need to bite the bullet some time with the goaltender. It happened that the time was Saturday against a Devils team that has gone 6-1-2 in the last nine and took great delight in so decisively outplaying and knocking off their neighbors in a game of this magnitude.

Following this lost day, there are 14 games to go with the Rangers three points out of the wild card. They have had games like this before — too many — and have rebounded. But remember this: The Rangers rarely win without getting superior goaltending.

They will need Shesterkin to be ready and able next time around. In other words, you won’t want to see Lundqvist making breakaway saves in the third period on Tuesday.

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