The weekend (well, including Thursday) started out promising for the Rangers. But after their most complete win of the season against the Capitals, they were shut out by the Penguins and outplayed in a disappointing loss to the Canucks.
Here are 10 thoughts on the Rangers.
1. Igor Shesterkin is going to win the Vezina. If he doesn’t then the entire process for selecting the best goalie in the game needs to be rethought. But for as easily as he will win the Vezina is how easily I truly believe he should win the Hart.
What Shesterkin is doing in net for the Rangers is something Henrik Lundqvist never did, and Lundqvist was the top goalie of his era. That’s because what Shesterkin is doing has only ever been done once … in history. Shesterkin has a .941 save percentage this season and with a minimum of 30 games played, that feat has only ever been accomplished by Jacques Plante.
2. Here are the numbers from Domenik Hasek’s back-to-back MVP seasons:
1996-97: 37-20-10, 2.27, .930
1997-98: 33-23-13, 2.09, .932
(Hasek’s best season was actually in 1998-99 when he didn’t win the Hart: 30-18-14, 1.87, .937)
Here are Shesterkin’s numbers from this season:
2021-22: 25-6-3, 1.95, .941
3. To me, the Most Valuable Player is the player whose team’s season would have been drastically different if they were removed from the roster. Sure, Connor McDavid, Jonathan Huberdeau and Auston Matthews are all having great seasons, but Shesterkin is having a historic season and if you remove him from the Rangers, you get a lot of games like you got on Sunday night in the team’s 5-2 loss to the Canucks. When Shesterkin was injured in early December, the Rangers 4-3-1, and their four wins came against 25th-, 29th- and 32nd-ranked teams in the league. The Rangers are 11-5-1 against current playoff teams when Shesterkin plays and 0-7-1 when he doesn’t. They are 25-6-3 when he’s in net and 8-9-2 when he isn’t.
Like Lundqvist did for 15 years, Shesterkin is single-handedly carrying the Rangers to success, has them third in the Met and headed to the (real) postseason for the first time in five years.
4. Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Capitals was the Rangers’ most complete and impressive win of the season. Between the Rangers getting four goals from four different sources and all coming in 5-on-5, and Shesterkin stopping 36 of 37 shots in yet another masterful performance, it was as good a win as the team will have all year.
“I thought we had a lot of chances,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said after the game. “Some of them were good looks, chances that you want to get, redirects, partial breakaways, shots right through the slot … we just couldn’t beat him (Shesterkin), not tonight.”
Not on most nights, Pete. It’s OK, the rest of the league isn’t really beating him either. Unfortunately, Shesterkin lost the shutout bid with 1:02 left in the game on a goal from Alexander Ovechkin, of course.
5. Alexis Lafreniere had a goal and an assist against the Capitals as he continues to shine playing with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, despite playing on his off-wing. It’s hard to believe the 2020 first overall pick is experiencing success playing top-six minutes and playing with actual quality NHLers. Lafreniere has four goals in his last eight games with his top-shelf blast from Sunday night against the Canucks on a feed from Zibanejad being the highlight of those four. He’s now on an about-20-goal pace over 82 games and that’s with having played less than 10 minutes in six of his 51 games played this season and less than 12 minutes in 14 games, and close to zero power-play time. Only 16 players in the NHL have more even-strength goals than Lafreniere since the start of last season.
When Kaapo Kakko returns, I need:
It has to be that and it has to stay that.
6. The Rangers’ loss to the Canucks on Sunday was disappointing because they couldn’t finish for a second straight day. (At least not until they were already down by four goals.) The Rangers were outplayed for the first five-or-so minutes of the game before dominating the the rest of the first period. If not for Thatcher Demko playing like Shesterkin, the Rangers could have cruised in the second and third to an easy win. But for the second consecutive day, the Rangers got the absolute best from the opposing goalie and eventually the Canucks got to Alexandar Georgiev the way every team does, and the Rangers didn’t respond until it was too late.
Georgiev isn’t Shesterkin and I don’t trust him and assume the worst for the Rangers when he’s in net. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a starting goalie somewhere. It just means he’s likely unable to be the Rangers’ backup. It’s not easy to go weeks without seeing game action, like Georgiev does, and be expected to step in and play at your best. It’s an art, and it’s an art that Georgiev hasn’t come close to mastering and maybe he never will. When Shesterkin was out for an extended period of time and Georgiev was able to get consistent starts, he was at his best. But prior to Sunday (Feb. 27), Georgiev hadn’t started since Jan. 27. An entire month between starts. The Canucks’ goals Georgiev “would want back” aren’t so bad when you consider the layoff he just went through.
7. I don’t know who’s more fortunate: Greg McKegg who has gotten in the lineup 33(!) times this season or Dryden Hunt, who continues to play in the top-six and on a line with Artemi Panarin. (Poor Panarin. On a line with Hunt and Ryan Strome and he’s on a 96-point pace.) Neither makes sense, especially since Filip Chytil was an inexplicable healthy scratch on both Saturday and Sunday. Not that Chytil and Hunt play the same position, but a lineup spot is a lineup spot, and if Chytil isn’t going to be in the lineup over either of those two or Morgan Barron then I’m not sure what we’re doing here.
When asked after Saturday 1-0 loss to the Penguins why Chytil didn’t play, Gerard Gallant said, “He was fine. He’s fine. Just that the team played really well the night before.”
With the team coming off the most impressive win of the season, it’s understandable to not want to change things up. I get it. (But it’s not like McKegg or Barron had some significant impact on the win.)
8. But then the Rangers lose to the Penguins. Not only lose, but are shut out. (And yes, it took Tristan Jarry having the game of his life for the Rangers to be shut out, but it also took another heroic Shesterkin effort to keep it a one-goal game.) The Rangers don’t score a goal on Saturday, and Gallant stays with the same lineup on Sunday?
Gallant has done a lot of the same, if not the exact same things that David Quinn did as coach of the Rangers that led to his dismissal. Because the Rangers currently hold a playoff berth and would have to endure a catastrophic finish over their remaining 29 games to miss the postseason, a lot of the decisions Gallant makes get to fly under the radar because of Shesterkin’s play. That doesn’t make it OK. It makes it worse. McKegg can’t be in the lineup. Lafreniere can’t be removed from the top six. Kakko has to be in the top six when he returns. And whatever those late-game decisions against the Penguins were on Saturday can’t happen.
9. The first of those late-game decisions was putting the fourth line on the ice with 9:32 remaining and an offensive-zone faceoff coming out of a TV timeout. The second was going back to the fourth line for another offensive-zone faceoff with 6:05 remaining. Did Gallant think some set play off the draw with that unit was going to lead to the game-tying goal? Did he think his fourth line would give his team the best chance to tie the game? He likely did it because he spent the weekend playing the fourth line against the opposition’s best line, and while it worked out on Thursday, it can’t be a consistent strategy since it will lead to the Rangers’ fourth line leading the team in time on ice. And it can’t be a strategy when trailing by a goal and less than 10 minutes left in the game.
10. I like Gallant. It’s easy to like him coming off of Quinn. But they are very similar in their lineup decisions, and if not for Shesterkin, Rangers fans would be wondering why a coaching change was even made.
Yes, Gallant has gotten an overall pass because the Rangers are having a fantastic season, even though the underlying numbers suggest they would be having more of an Islanders-type season if Shesterkin was even above average rather than being otherworldly.