If Cher could turn back time, if she could find the way, she would rewind the clock to one year ago so the Rangers could begin the playoffs with Igor Shesterkin at the top of his considerable game.
Lo and behold, it appears that the world-class entertainer has done just that. The process started five-plus weeks ago, but when the Blueshirts took out the Devils by an emphatic 5-1 score Tuesday night in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series, Shesterkin indeed was a facsimile of the netminder who won the 2021-22 Vezina Trophy and drove his team to the 2022 conference finals.
“It’s what we have come to expect,” Chris Kreider said after notching a pair of power play deflections to surpass Rod Gilbert as the Rangers’ all-time leading playoff goal-scorer with 36. “He’s our best player and not only does he make big saves, he makes them look easy.”
The Rangers played a complete game. They seized momentum early when Vladimir Tarasenko gave them a 1-0 lead at 4:58. They were rabid in getting back and cutting off lanes. They were detail-oriented with and without the puck through the neutral zone and in coverage. They were outstanding while shorthanded, preventing the Devils to get a shot in 8:00.
And those times when the Devils and Jack Hughes were able to create space for themselves and legit scoring opportunities, there was Shesterkin to swallow up pucks, as he did in stoning Nico Hischier on an initial shot and a rebound in front with 6:10 to go in the first period and the Rangers up 2-0.
There was a big stop on Timo Meier from the slot and another one on Hischier early in the second before the netminder came sliding out aggressively to deny Tomas Tatar from the slot after he had taken a centering feed from Hughes.
Later, Shesterkin denied Ondrej Palat, who was alone in front 3:08 into the third period with the Blueshirts up 3-0. The netminder was spry, on track and in total command throughout, beaten only by Hughes’ penalty shot with 2:46 remaining in the long-since decided contest.
“It’s not easy to play when you don’t see a lot of shots, and not easy in this building where the energy was so high from the fans,” Shesterkin told The Post following his 27-save victory, in which he faced 13 shots in the third period. “Our defense did a great job, playing the right way.
“The team played so well.”
The Rangers played their best game of the year against the Devils after scrambling to keep up through the four-regular season matches, of which New Jersey took three. For the most part, they were able to keep the Devils in front of them. Shesterkin took care of the handful of breakdowns.
The 27-year-old goaltender’s revival began the second week of March. It is not that Shesterkin was unable to match his scintillating 2021-22 through the first five months this season, it was that he was almost pedestrian, allowing goals out of nowhere that deflated his team. Indeed, he was below the NHL’s average save percentage of .904 in 21 of his first 42 starts, through which he had a .908 save percentage and 2.67 goals against average.
Where had the Vezina winner gone?
Well, apparently not so far away.
Beginning with the March 11 match in Buffalo, Shesterkin’s save percentage was below the average only twice in his final 12 starts, both of those at .903. He went 9-2-1 down the stretch with a .944 save percentage and 1.74 GAA.
Last season, of course, Shesterkin represented the slam-dunk edge the Blueshirts carried into essentially every conceivable matchup, except maybe for the one against Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in the conference finals. This season, well, maybe there was some doubt.
(There likely is doubt in New Jersey over the netminder who will get the Game 2 start after Vitek Vanecek barely made a significant save Tuesday. The power play was so bad that Devils coach Lindy Ruff might consider inserting Luke Hughes into the Game 2 lineup, but the more consequential call will be whether to go back to Vanecek or perhaps turn to Akira Schmid.)
Shesterkin didn’t quite know what was coming in the playoffs last season. He said, though, that his 20 games of experience hadn’t necessarily helped him prepare for this tournament.
“I don’t think so. Like I said, I just do my job,” Shesterkin said. “There is a different energy in the playoffs but the job for me is the same.”
Same job. Same Shesterkin.
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