PITTSBURGH (AP)Igor Shesterkin toyed with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the regular season. The New York Rangers’ goaltender even waved Sidney Crosby and company off the ice following a shutout victory in early April.
Fast forward a month and Shesterkin’s swagger is suddenly gone. So, seemingly, is the Vezina Trophy favorite’s confidence. Getting pulled twice in three days while the opposing crowd chants your name as puck after puck makes its way behind you into the net will do that.
And now the only thing Shesterkin and the Rangers are threatening to wave goodbye to is their once-promising season.
Crosby had a goal and three assists to become just the sixth player in NHL history to reach 200 career playoff points and the Penguins chased Shesterkin off the PPG Paints Arena ice once again in a dominant 7-2 victory on Monday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series.
The Penguins, limited to just four goals in four games by Shesterkin in the regular season, can close out the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
”I think we know we have a lot of work left,” Crosby said. ”When you’re in a game like this, you know you’re going to see the other team’s best the next time.”
Maybe, though it wouldn’t take much for New York to improve over an effort in which they let the Penguins pump in five goals during the second period.
”I don’t think you’re going to find a guy who is happy with that performance,” Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said. ”There’s not really a whole lot to say. We know we have to be better to a man.”
Especially the man in net. Shesterkin dazzled during Games 1 and 2 in New York, making 118 combined saves and looking every bit the dominant force that suffocated the Penguins for much of the year.
Not so much anymore. He lasted just one period in Game 3 after giving up four goals. He only made it through two periods in Game 4, spending the third on the bench after surrendering six goals on 30 shots.
New York coach Gerard Gallant pledged to start the 26-year-old Shesterkin with the Rangers one loss away from elimination.
”He’s the best goalie in the league,” Gallant said.
Perhaps, but Shesterkin isn’t playing like it at the moment, though he’s hardly the only one to blame after the Rangers allowed a staggering 14 goals at raucous PPG Paints Arena.
Five of them came during a second period on Monday night in which the Penguins tilted the game – and perhaps ultimately the series – in their favor. Jake Guentzel, Jeff Carter, Danton Heinen, Mark Friedman and Mike Matheson all found a way to make Shesterkin turn around and fish the puck out of the net as the red goal light blared and the fans derisively chanted ”IIIIGOORRRR.”
The goals came in a variety of ways. Tip-ins. Redirects. A lucky bounce. Open shots from the slot. After urging his players repeatedly to stop trying to make the highlight play and simply throw the puck on net, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s team appears to be listening.
Pittsburgh has fired 266 shots at the Rangers so far in the series. And while that number is skewed a bit by a three-overtime thriller in Game 1, it’s indicative of a change in mindset.
”We’ve preached to our team all year that we have to evolve and create offense different ways,” Sullivan said. ”We can’t get stubborn. We have to take what the game gives us.”
Carter attributed it to better execution and even better effort. This postseason could be the last stand for Pittsburgh’s core three of Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. The trio is making their 16th straight playoff appearance together. It could also be their last with Malkin and Letang set to be free agents this summer.
Maybe that possibility has galvanized the Penguins. Or maybe the familiar adrenaline that comes with the Stanley Cup has helped a roster littered with 30-somethings find the fountain of youth. Pittsburgh is on the cusp of winning a playoff round for the first time since 2018.
”We have a veteran group in there and these guys have been through this a lot,” Sullivan said. ”So I think everyone understands the position that we’re in and we’ve got to go out and earn the next one. That has to be our mindset.”
While Shesterkin has struggled, Pittsburgh third-stringer Louis Domingue is nearing local cult hero status while filling in for injured All-Star Tristan Jarry. Domingue made 22 saves to win his third game of the series. Not bad for a 30-year-old journeyman making his playoff debut after spending most of the last three seasons in the minors.
While Domingue – with the speakers blasting the chorus of the rock classic ”Louie Louie” after particularly big stops – appears to be settling into the rhythm of the postseason, Shesterkin seems rattled.
Two goals 22 seconds apart early in the second period gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead. Two more 39 seconds apart near the end of the period effectively ended Shesterkin’s night and pushed New York to the brink.
NOTES: The victory was Sullivan’s 44th of the playoffs, breaking a tie with former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma for most postseason wins in franchise history. … Crosby’s 201 playoff points are tied with Jaromir Jagr for fifth all-time. Wayne Gretzky is atop the list with 395.
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