PITTSBURGH — The chalk outline may still be etched in front of the crease when Igor Shesterkin returns to the scene of the carnage for Friday’s potential elimination Game 6 against the Penguins.
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This is where the Hart Trophy finalist will confront the greatest challenge of his career. This is where head coach Gerard Gallant will have to be prepared to act as quickly as possible without regard for anyone’s feelings or ego if things go awry for the third straight time on this ice.
It is true. The Blueshirts may be facing an even more wounded team than the last time they were on this ice if Sidney Crosby is unavailable in the wake of the awkward hit he absorbed from Jacob Trouba — legal and delivered without particular malice despite the unfortunate consequences — midway through the second period of Game 5.
The Penguins are already playing with third-string goaltender Louis Domingue, who turned flappable in allowing goals on four consecutive shots within a span of 7:42 bridging the second and third periods as the Rangers rallied from 2-0 down to take a 4- 3 lead in Game 5. They are missing top-pair defenseman Brian Dumoulin. They have been without second-line winger Rickard Rakell since Ryan Lindgren drove him hard and high into the boards late in the first period of Game 1.
But rest (un)assured that even this depleted opponent will present a mortal threat if Shesterkin becomes unnerved and thrown off his game by the incessant, thunderous, singsong taunting from the crowd that will echo as the indelible soundtrack to this one, just as it was for Games 3 and 4.
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We all know what happened. The Rangers disintegrated all over the ice. Chaos was the loan constant in the defensive zone. The Penguins drove bodies and pucks to the net. Shesterkin had trouble tracking the puck. He had trouble with pucks at his feet. He was unable to get stops of play. He could not calm the Rangers down. Mark Messier probably wouldn’t have been able to, either.
The 26-year-old Russian was driven from the net consecutive games, pulled after allowing four goals on 15 shots in the first period of Game 3 before being pulled after allowing six goals on 30 shots in two periods of Game 4. The goaltender who completed the regular season with the third-highest save percentage in NHL history at .935 (50 game qualification) had a save percentage of .778 (and a GAA of 10.02) in Pittsburgh.
And here he’ll go again after battling his way through Wednesday’s 5-3 Game 5 victory in which his compete level made up for intermittent technical inefficiencies. Shesterkin looks worn. He had a save percentage of less than .900 in seven of his final 16 regular-season games. He has been thrown into an emotional maelstrom. It is only five games into the first round, even if the first one lasted 105 minutes, 58 seconds.
The Rangers need to ramp it up in every facet of the game. They are getting by without much of anything from marquee forwards Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome, the quartet that carried the team’s offense both at five-on-five and on the power play for six months.
The team has been trapped for shifts at a time in its own end because of haphazard work in the defensive zone that derails clean breakouts. They have repeatedly yielded acres of good ice and ceded the line on Penguins’ rushes because of poor decisions with the puck.
But the Blueshirts will also need No. 31 to provide the same services as he did during the season following the announcement that Shesterkin, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid had been voted as the three finalists for the league’s MVP award.
“He’s been our best player all year,” said Kreider, who is moseying dangerously close to Did. You. See. Chris? territory. “He’s kept us in games. He single-handedly won games. He’s been otherworldly.”
All of that is true. It is also true, as Kreider noted, that the Rangers, “Let him down,” in Games 3 and 4. But it is on Shesterkin — who carries the same type of outsized responsibility Henrik Lundqvist did for so many years — to elevate his game, to be the club’s backbone, to prove unconquerable in the playoffs the way that Mike Richter did and Eddie Giacomin did not.
“I don’t think he’s a guy who loses confidence,” Kreider said of Shesterkin. “We need to continue to support each other.”
Gallant had a choice here, he could have gone with Alex Georgiev in this one following No. 40’s stabilizing relief work in Games 3 and 4, but the truth as we all know it is that there was no choice. The coach probably could have postdated his walking papers if he’d listed Shesterkin as the backup for this one.
No, the crease belongs to Shesterkin … for as long as he can keep it. If there are early signs of warning, the head coach will have to act quickly. This is about the team, not an individual. This is about keeping the season alive.
This is about whether Shesterkin can surmount the greatest challenge of his career. Crosby or not, this is about whether the Hart finalist can lead the Rangers to Game 7.