Igor Shesterkin has been the biggest driving force behind the New York Rangers’ success.
He was the best goalie in the league during the regular season, is a finalist for both the Hart Trophy (league MVP) and Vezina Trophy (top goalie), and has accelerated the Rangers’ rebuild to the point where they are now just two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final after missing the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons.
In any context it has been a sensational performance from the Rangers’ franchise player. It is especially impressive given the flaws the Rangers still have in front of him defensively. Their success this postseason has been almost entirely about their lethal power play and the goaltending of Shesterkin, with a heavy emphasis on the latter.
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The biggest issue the Rangers had this year was the number of shots and chances they give up in their own end of the rink, a trend that has unsurprisingly carried over to the playoffs. It has reached the point where they are asking Shesterkin to face a workload that is almost unmatched for any goalie in recent playoff history.
Let’s take a look at some numbers here just to get some perspective on what it is they are asking from Shesterkin.
Since the start of the 2009-10 playoffs, there have been 104 instances of a goalie playing at least 500 minutes (all situations) in a single playoff run. Out of those goalies Shesterkin has faced more expected goals, high-danger shots, and had to make more high-danger saves than any of those goalies. In each category there is a pretty significant gap between him and the rest of the goalies on the list.
First, the top-10 goalies that have faced the most expected goals against per 60 minutes in a single postseason (minimum 500 minutes played):
Shesterkin is facing nearly four expected goals per game over his first 18 games this postseason. Only two other goalies since 2010 have been asked to see more than 3.23 per game: Mike Smith with this year’s Oilers and Corey Crawford with the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks, who were the 23rd ranked team in the league and only in the playoffs because of the expanded playoffs and the bubble.
Now, high-danger shots against.
Again, more than any other goalie over that stretch by a pretty high margin. Given the team Corey Crawford was playing behind in 2019-20, this is not the company you want to be keeping as a goalie.
And in terms of actual high-danger saves per 60 minutes.
Even though he has had to face more high-danger shots and expected goals than any other goalie over the past decade, he still has a .929 save percentage for the playoffs. He has been at .912 or better in 14 of his 18 starts, and above .923 in 12 of them. It is a staggering performance, and just further strengthening what should have been a slam dunk MVP argument during the regular season.
As he goes, the Rangers go.
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Even when you take into account the fact the league is becoming more offensive driven with increased scoring chances in recent postseasons, Shesterkin is still facing a stunning number of chances behind this Rangers’ defense. Not even the current goalies are really all that close to what he has been asked to do. Especially over this many games and this large of a sampling.
The Rangers have only had three games this postseason where they had a 50 percent (or better) share of the expected goals (all situations) in a game. They are 2-1 in those games. In every other game they have been losing the territorial battle and chasing the play, relying on goaltending to carry them.
They have had nine games where their expected goal share has been under 42 percent, including eight under 40 percent. Teams that play like that do not typically reach this point in the playoffs and still have a realistic chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final. If you are going to play that way you better have a darn good goalie. Fortunately for the Rangers, they do.
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This is not meant to discredit the Rangers being here. You can not take away the wins that have happened and even with their flaws they do have talent in a lot of key areas. A great power play can make a difference, and it has for the Rangers.
Goaltending is arguably the most important aspect of any team and can make-or-break their chances. And nobody is getting better play there this season than the Rangers. Those things can take you a long way.
At this point it seems unlikely that much is going to change for the Rangers in the way they play and the way their games unfold. The only question now is whether or not the power play and Shesterkin have enough to get them two more wins in this series, and if they have another round after this in them.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.