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Igor Shesterkin learning that NHL playoffs are different beast

Remember that Feb. 26 goaltending duel in Pittsburgh between Igor Shesterkin and Tristan Jarry that went the Penguins’ way, 1-0, on a third-period power-play goal by Evgeni Malkin?

Or maybe the one at the Garden on April 7 that turned contentious, with Shesterkin waving goodbye to the Penguins as they left the ice after a center-ice scrum immediately following the Blueshirts’ 3-0 victory?

Each of those games featured a “playoff-style” atmosphere. Each of those games featured “playoff-style” hockey.

Well, allegedly they did.

Because that’s how we in the industry — players, coaches, writers, broadcasters — reflexively describe games that are more intense and carry a little more meaning than the overwhelming majority of the 1,312 on the NHL schedule.

The truth is, and this best-of-seven was not needed to remind us, there is nothing during the regular season that is even remotely comparable to the high-stakes hockey that is played during the playoffs. There is nothing like the tempo. There is nothing like the environment. There is nothing like the commitment.

Players kind of know that, even though they may need reminders. I recall Sean Avery telling me he would never again make the mistake of equating important late season games with the playoffs after the Rangers’ Game 1 victory over Atlanta in the 2007 first round, which represented the first postseason match of the winger’s career.

The day before Game 1 of this first-round series with the Penguins, which marked his first official NHL playoff game, Shesterkin said: “I think it is the same as the regular season. I think for goalies, nothing changes.”

If Shesterkin did not understand that before this first-round series against the Penguins began, he surely does now in the wake of riding a four-game roller coaster, which began with a triple-overtime loss in which he made 79 saves. He added another 39 saves in a Game 2 victory, then was pulled from consecutive matches in Pittsburgh after he allowed 10 goals in three periods while on the receiving end of constant, cacophonous taunts.

Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin allows a goal in Game 4.
Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin allows a goal in Game 4.
Corey Sipkin

And the Rangers most certainly understand after the four-game misadventure put the club on the precipice of elimination entering Game 5 on Wednesday night at the Garden. They had become the first team in franchise history to allow at least seven goals in consecutive playoff contests (7-4, followed by 7-2).

The four-game season series, which the Blueshirts won 3-1 while limiting Pittsburgh to a sum of 101 shots, had about as much relevance as the Mets’ 10-1 record against the Dodgers did entering the 1988 NLCS, which Los Angeles won in seven games.

The Rangers allowed 101 shots in the first four games. Think about that for a second. How about the fact that the Penguins averaged a playoff-leading 42.3 shots per 60:00 through the series’ first four contests? I would say, and so presumably would Shesterkin, that something very definitely has changed for Rangers goalies in these playoffs.

You never really know how a team is going to respond while facing elimination. Everyone talks a big game. Everyone repeats the cliché, “The fourth one is the toughest one to get.” Sometimes it is. Lots and lots of times it comes pretty easy.

The Blueshirts recorded a remarkable 15-4 record when facing extinction from 2012-15. They came back from 3-2 down in 2012 against the Senators and in 2013 against the Capitals. They became the first and only team in NHL history to overcome 3-1 deficits in consecutive years, doing it against the Penguins in 2014 and the Capitals in 2015.

But that was no help when the 2016 Blueshirts waved the white flag in their potential elimination Game 5 in Pittsburgh and lost 6-3. And resolve shown earlier in the decade was surely not relevant when the 2017 Rangers exited meekly when facing extinction in Game 6 of the second round against the Senators.

Igor Shesterkin on the Rangers' bench after being pulled in Game 4.
Igor Shesterkin on the Rangers’ bench after being pulled in Game 4.
AP

By the way? The celebrated and beloved Emile Francis Rangers went 4-9 while facing elimination from 1967-75.

They also won the same number of Stanley Cups as the group that went 15-4 from 2012-15.

The 2021-22 Rangers were a resilient group during the season, able to address and correct issues before they could spin out of control. Much of that quality emanated from the Vezina-caliber goaltending they received from Shesterkin, whose finalist status for the award was announced on Tuesday. His confidence and his aura infused the team with self-belief.

The symbiotic relationship remained in full force through Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh, though to a destructive effect. When Shesterkin became rattled, the Rangers became rattled. The Penguins rocked and rolled.

If playoff hockey itself has been new to this Rangers group, playoff hockey while facing elimination was unique. Back at the cozy confines of the Garden, where Shesterkin is adored, the goaltender was attempting to demonstrate that it was no different than the regular season.

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