Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin

Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin
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If you only look at the standings, the 7-3-3 Rangers look like they’re right on schedule. Maybe even a bit ahead. These Rangers even handed a powerful Panthers team its first regulation loss of 2021-22.

However, peel a layer or two away, and things don’t look quite as healthy. So far, the 2021-22 Rangers lean heavily on Igor Shesterkin and a quick-strike offense.

Clearly, that’s worked well enough, but the red flags are waving. Let’s ponder the Rangers’ start, what might continue, and what needs to change.

Shesterkin looking like the latest elite Rangers goalie

Could this be like the Colts going from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck? (You could cite Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, but then things could get weird.)

Just 57 games into his NHL career, we still don’t know if Igor Shesterkin can sustain elite play. But so far, so good. As in: good enough for people to evoke Henrik Lundqvist’s name when shouting out Shesterkin’s accolades.

Through those 57 games, Shesterkin sports an impressive .923 save percentage. He’s been raising his already high level of play so far this season, generating a .931 save percentage through 10 games (6-2-2).

Those simple stats are impressive enough. Delve deeper and it gets better.

Heading into Tuesday, Igor Shesterkin managed a 6.44 GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average), the fifth-best mark in the NHL by Hockey Reference’s version of the metric.

Early on, this doesn’t look like a situation where a system is sneaky-effective for a goalie. Consider that generally solid backup Alexandar Georgiev‘s suffered with a miserable .862 save percentage, and a minus-4.73 GSAA (fourth-worst).

Naturally, these are small sample sizes. Again, Shesterkin’s Rangers career isn’t really even a great sample at those 57 regular-season games.

But you can only perform in the games you’re in, and so far, Shesterkin’s more than lived up to the Rangers’ expectations. Simply put, they can’t expect him to keep doing this — not to this extreme, at least.

Serious red flags

Go with simple stats like goals (minus-4 differential) or the shots battle (25.7 shots per game, 33.8 against). Dig deep into analytics, like expected goals or high-danger chances at Natural Stat Trick.

Beyond that 7-3-3 record and Shesterkin’s stats, just about every Rangers-related number should cause some alarm.

It would be convenient if an attacking Panthers team threw off the Rangers’ stats. After all, they’re just 13 games into the season (with 10 Shesterkin appearances). No doubt, Chris Kreider and other Rangers realized they hung Shesterkin out to dry in that narrow New York win.

“Igor’s bailed us out a lot this year and for us to do that to him in the third [period on Monday] is unacceptable,” Kreider said, via Arthur Staple.

Most nights, the Rangers ask a lot of their goalies, or their ability to outscore problems. Chew on these tidbits beyond being caved-in overall this season.

• At five-on-five, the Rangers have only been on the positive (50.1%+) side of the expected goals battle in three of 13 games. In seven of those 13 games, the Rangers expected goals percentage was at 37.65 or lower.

• The high-danger chances battle is only slightly more favorable. In four of 13 games, the Rangers controlled 56.25% or more of the high-danger chances. In their other nine games, they controlled 42.86% or worse. Four of those games were at or below 25%.

• Volume stats tell the same basic story.

• If you’re more of a visual learner, check out these charts from Hockey Viz:

Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin offense defense
via Hockey Viz

Basically, the Rangers are yielding a ton of chances from the high-danger areas, and are struggling to generate those high-quality chances on offense. The worst of both worlds.

Can they turn it around?

As this post notes, a lot of signs point to the Rangers’ luck running out. That said, the Rangers already “banked” that 7-3-3 record. If they can turn things around, then they can chalk things up to growing pains.

Consider a few factors.

• Gerard Gallant is still new as Rangers head coach. As great as the Golden Knights’ debut season was, they weren’t a puck-dominant team in 2017-18.

• With such young players, big leaps are at least plausible. Perhaps the key is for Gallant to regain faith in Alexis Lafrenière, and for Lafrenière to put a slump behind him.

Through the first eight games of the season, Lafrenière was firing the puck like a confident player (21 shots on goal, three goals, one assist). Yet, during the last five games, Lafrenière managed just a single SOG and zero points. In November, he’s averaging less than 12 minutes of ice time per night.

That’s all bad, but maybe Lafrenière needs a do-over? There are signs that he can bring some positive influence on the level of play. He shows reasonably nicely in the Rangers xGAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin xGAR team chart
Not perfect, but maybe Lafrenière can produce more in a sheltered role? (Via Evolving Hockey)

Maybe the solution isn’t to give Lafrenière more ice time. But, beyond the Rangers getting used to Galant’s system, the team should be looking for answers.

One simple solution might ruffle a feather or two.

Yes, the Rangers want to get tougher, but even 9:42 TOI per night might be a bit much for Ryan Reaves. Arguing as much might be a lost cause — the Rangers have that totally not about Tom Wilson mandate, and no coach has deployed Reaves quite like Gallant has extending back to their Vegas days — yet painful discussions may be needed if New York stops outscoring its mistakes.

Realistically, the Rangers would likely be better off giving some of those shifts to a skilled player such as Flip Chytil.

Either way, Galant and the Rangers should brainstorm solutions, because Shesterkin can’t always solve their problems.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.

    AROUND THE RINK

    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.

    Blackhawks, Athanasiou agree to 2-year, $8.5 million contract

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    CHICAGO — The rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks locked in one of their top scorers, agreeing to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with forward Andreas Athanasiou on Thursday.

    The 28-year-old Athanasiou tied for the team lead with 20 goals and ranked third with 40 points in his first season with Chicago. He matched career highs with four game-winning goals and three power-play goals.

    The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Athanasiou has 125 goals and 111 assists in 459 games with the Detroit Red Wings (2015-20), Edmonton Oilers (2020), Los Angeles Kings (2020-22) and Blackhawks.

    Chicago went 26-49-7 and finished last in the Central Division. The Blackhawks dealt Patrick Kane to the New York Rangers prior to the trade deadline and announced in April they would not re-sign Jonathan Toews, parting with two players who led them to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    Florida Panthers in familiar territory, backs to the wall once again down 0-2 in Stanley Cup Final

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sport
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    SUNRISE, Fla. — The Panthers need a miracle. Again.

    Such is the story of Florida’s season, and it makes all the sense in the world that the plot has reappeared in the Stanley Cup Final. The Panthers needed a furious late-season push just to get into the playoffs as the lowest seed, then needed to win three consecutive elimination games to oust a record-setting Boston team in Round 1.

    And now, another huge challenge awaits. Down 2-0 in the title series to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Panthers return to home ice on Thursday night looking to spark one more epic turnaround and get right back in the hunt for hockey’s biggest prize.

    “Desperation and winning a game,” Florida veteran Marc Staal said. “We’ve approached every game in the playoffs the same way. We just try to take it – like everyone says – one at a time. But our backs are against the wall, obviously. We’re down by two. But we’re coming home. Love our team, love our resiliency. We’re going to go out and give our best effort and play our best game tomorrow and go from there.”

    To say the odds are stacked high against the Panthers is a bit of an understatement.

    – They’ve beaten Vegas in four of 12 all-time meetings between the franchises. And now they’ve got to beat them in four of the next five games to win the Cup.

    – They’ve been outscored 10-2 in the last four periods against Vegas.

    Matthew Tkachuk has two more misconduct penalties (three) than he has points (one, a goal) in the series.

    – Former Panthers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have as many goals so far in the series (four) as all the current Panthers do in the series, combined.

    – Vegas hasn’t dropped four out of five games since going 1-2-2 to start a six-game road swing that began in late January.

    – Teams that start a Stanley Cup Final with two home wins have won the Cup 38 times in 41 past instances.

    But by now, Florida’s penchant for pulling off the improbable is well-known. Almost expected, really.

    “Of course, we’ve had three really tough series,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Boston is a good example. We were down, we found a way, we started playing a little better, we found a way to come back and get out of there. Same thing here – we’ve just got to work a little harder, work a little smarter and find a way to win games.”

    They’ve done it before.

    There was the 6-0-1 stretch late in the season to hold off Pittsburgh for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The winning three elimination games against a Boston team that had the best regular season in NHL history in Round 1; Game 5 there was on the road in overtime, Game 6 required a rally late in the third period to erase a 5-4 deficit and Game 7 was another road OT victory. There was a four-overtime win at Carolina in the East final, setting the table for a sweep where the Panthers got four one-goal wins and allowed only six goals.

    They’ve given up 12 goals in two games against Vegas. And it’s not all on Sergei Bobrovsky, either. Panthers coach Paul Maurice found it funny that it was considered a surprise to some that Bobrovsky – who carried Florida to the final round – will remain the starter for Game 3.

    “He was outstanding in Game 1,” Maurice said. “And he was as good as our team was in Game 2.”

    The message was simple: Everyone has to be better. The Panthers have a history of rising to those moments.

    “We never lose doubt in this room,” Florida forward Ryan Lomberg said. “Obviously, they’re a good team. They got here for a reason. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s kind of the theme of our whole year is we make it tough. Whether we wanted it this way or not, it’s this way, so we’ve got to play the hand we’re dealt now.”

    NOTES: Maurice said he expects D Radko Gudas, who left Game 2 injured, to play in Game 3. Forward Eetu Luostarinen will remain out. Maurice declined to offer specifics on Luostarinen’s injury, but quipped “he’s a good human.” … Thursday will be Florida’s first Stanley Cup Final game on home ice in FLA Live Arena. The Panthers’ 1996 final appearance was at a long-demolished arena in Miami.

    Flyers trade Pride-night boycott defenseman Provorov in 3-team deal

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    PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers have traded Ivan Provorov, sending away the defenseman who boycotted the team’s Pride night as part of a three-team trade that included the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings.

    The seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, the 26-year-old Provorov lands in Columbus and is set to enter the fifth season of a $40.5 million, six-year contract. He was the centerpiece Tuesday of the first major move under new Flyers’ leadership.

    There were plenty of moving parts in the three-team deal.

    — Philadelphia traded Provorov and forward Hayden Hodgson to Los Angeles in exchange for goalie Cal Petersen, defenseman Sean Walker, defenseman Helge Grans and the Kings’ 2024 second-round pick. The Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs.

    — Columbus acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Philadelphia in exchange for a 2023 first-round pick (22nd overall) and a conditional second-round pick in either the 2024 or 2025 NHL Draft. Columbus acquired Provorov from Los Angeles in exchange for Connauton.

    The Flyers already hold the No. 7 pick in this season’s draft and now also have the 23rd pick as they start accumulating key assets for long-range success in what is expected to be a deep draft.

    Flyers general manager Danny Briere had said no player was untouchable after the Flyers missed the playoffs for the third straight season and went to work with the Stanley Cup Final still underway. The Flyers named broadcaster Keith Jones team president last month and he is still working the Final for TNT. But it’s clear the overdue rebuild is underway for a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 48 years.

    “We felt that the picks and the direction that we wanted to go in, it was really enticing, very exciting,” Briere said. “We have a chance to really start building the team the way we wanted. The right way.”

    Briere said the Flyers are “open for business” this summer and that included potentially listening to offers for No. 1 goalie Carter Hart. Coach John Tortorella, Briere and Jones have all tempered offseason expectations for any fan looking for a quick fix. The trio all insist the Flyers have a cohesive plan for the future.

    Provorov had 65 goals and 217 points in 532 career games with the Flyers. The Russian was widely criticized in January when he cited his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason he did not participate in pregame warmups when the Flyers wore Pride-themed jerseys and used sticks wrapped in rainbow Pride tape.

    “I respect everybody’s choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”

    Now, he’s traded during Pride month.

    Briere said the backlash over Pride night had nothing to do with trading Provorov.

    The Blue Jackets, who missed the playoffs this season, were ready to take a flier on a defenseman seemingly with many productive years ahead.

    “Improving our blue line has been a priority for us and acquiring Ivan gives us an established left-shot defenseman who is still a young player with his best seasons in front of him,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He immediately improves our group on defense as he is durable, has great skill, skates well, is an excellent passer with an accurate shot and can effectively play at both ends of the ice.”

    Provorov said at the end of the season he wasn’t necessarily happy the Flyers planned to rebuild but understood the decision. Briere declined to say if Provorov wanted out of Philadelphia.

    “I wouldn’t say it’s the most positive news you can hear, but there’s a bright future here, and there’s a lot of great players that can keep growing,” Provorov said in April. “Obviously, it depends on how quick everybody gets better and how quickly the team game gets better. I think that’s what determines the length of the rebuild.”

    Turns out, the potential success out of the haul the Flyers got for Provorov just may determine the length of the rebuild.