Although every member of the New York Rangers received invaluable experience from the team’s lengthy run this postseason, one player, arguably the most important, learned the most. That would be goaltender Igor Shesterkin. The 26-year-old participated in his first postseason campaign that ultimately went three rounds.
It was an undeniably tough debut postseason for the goalie — each round presented unique mental and physical challenges. He was exposed to relentless taunts from Pittsburgh Penguins fanatics, faced several of his former teammates in Round 2 against the speedy Carolina Hurricanes, and eventually met the former back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
Despite such a rapid succession of tests, Shesterkin concluded his third (but first full) season with a .928 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.31 goals-against average (GAA). He hit a milestone in his career as he reached exactly 100 lifetime games. Shesterkin was truly a spectacle after he settled in this postseason, but the pinnacle of his third season was when he received the 2022-23 Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s finest netminder of the regular season.
Though the goalie struggled to play at his peak in playoffs, the experience can only assist him next season. For a rather fresh goalie, he established himself quickly in the league regardless, the added knowledge is going to be able to take his performance to the next level.
A Plethora of Challenges for Shesterkin
Every hockey follower is aware that playoffs are a different animal. While Shesterkin found his way, the opposing teams took their own performance up a notch. Despite such, a struggling Shesterkin still sent the Penguins home. In fact, the first game of the series was a strong indication for how grueling the rest of the series would be. Shesterkin’s first official postseason game was a triple-overtime loss. He faced a total of 83 shots.
Throughout the seven-game Pittsburgh series, he was in and out of the net. Backup netminder, Alexandar Georgiev, relieved the starter when the Rangers’ chances slipped. Yet, he played a majority of the series, and then finished out their playoff run in net. He played in a total of 20 postseason games and concluded with a .929 SV% and 2.59 GAA.
Aside from the physical demands, he experienced unchartered mental hurdles. Each game like clockwork, taunts rained down from Pittsburgh fans. Regardless of Shesterkin’s status as the inevitable Vezina winner, fans attacked his ability in the crease, but he overcame the fans’ best efforts and the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead to Shesterkin and the relentless Rangers in front of him.
It was during this series he began to work closer with goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, on the mental aspects of the game. Of course, this was new territory. Their progress was rapid. Shesterkin noted that Hurricanes fans mimicked Penguins fans with a similar chant tactic, but it did not phase him.
Ultimately, the Hurricanes series reached seven games as well. Despite inconsistencies of production from their usual scorers, Shesterkin’s performance and some emergence from other players kept the team in the race. Imaginably so, Game 7s would take a larger mental toll. Regardless of his improvement as the postseason forged on, Shesterkin’s job was never made easy. The group of skaters in front are not necessarily the most disciplined, which led to ample power-play opportunities for the opponent.
Though the Rangers knocked out the first-place Metropolitan team in the Hurricanes, the series presented its own difficulties as well. He was forced to face several former teammates, who also comprised a fast and smart team. The young Rangers ran into trouble as they tried to match the pace of the game. The Rangers were often tired out by these efforts, and relied heavier on Shesterkin as a result. The constant travel and quick schedule did not help matters either.
When He Faced ”The Best Goalie in the World” in Tampa
Shesterkin respectfully referred to Andrei Vasilevskiy as “the best goalie in the world right now” after the Rangers eliminated the Hurricanes while Tampa waited to meet the Rangers. Once again, he faced another mental hurdle, and that was when he had to acknowledge the best goalie would be at the other end of the ice.
Sure, the Rangers swept Tampa in the regular season, but Vasilevskiy is famous for his playoff ability and experience. In the Round 3 Eastern Conference Final, it was immediately clear the Rangers faced a different brand of Lightning hockey. The team came in with a lot of confidence as they swept the Florida Panthers in a succinct four-game series.
Not only would the Russian have to forget about his regular-season result against the Lightning, but the Lightning had plenty of star power in front of Vasilevskiy that he had to shut down as well. Of course, the Rangers did not overcome the Lightning but they did force Tampa to six and even the extra games from the longer series can be used to Shesterkin’s benefit.
The Confidence a Vezina Trophy Adds
In addition to newfound familiarity with playoffs, the advantages of being distinguished as the league’s best netminder are insurmountable. Of course, the Rangers had their sights set on the Stanley Cup, but this postseason run involved trial and error. At the end of it all, faced with elimination, the organization was forced to sit and analyze the weak links. With the looming free agency window opening up, the front office will be free to make roster alterations to help create a more manageable environment for Shesterkin to flourish.
As teammate Mika Zibanejad said, this certainly will not be the goalie’s only Vezina. Though there is always a risk of a non-repeating performance, it is hard to imagine he will not be put the best in position to complete for the Cup again given everything gained this season. Despite his accomplishments and numbers, he is still years away from veteran status. Indeed, he is only looking at the season ahead and giving his team the best chance to receive a playoff invite.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.