After coming off two impressive wins against the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers were looking to ride their momentum to another victory on Sunday night at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unfortunately for the Garden Faithful, their team lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds of regulation. It was quite a disappointing loss considering how well they had played heading into the match. Let’s examine a little closely at what exactly transpired in the world’s most famous arena on Sunday.
Shesterkin Suffers First Career Loss
When rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin made his NHL debut on Jan. 7 against the Colorado Avalanche, the Garden crowd was electric and buzzing with excitement. There was so much anticipation as the Rangers and their fans were curious to see how their young netminder would perform at the professional level. He had dominated at the AHL level with the Hartford Wolfpack as he posted a 1.93 goals-against average (GAA) and .932 save percentage (SV%) through 23 contests before being called up.
Shesterkin played well against the Avalanche in his first-ever NHL game as he turned aside 29 of 32 shots faced and earned a win in the process. He followed it up with another strong performance two days later as he made 46 saves to help the Rangers defeat their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils. It appears the Rangers may have found something with the young Russian goalie, but it is still too early to tell just yet. He will need more NHL exposure before anyone can determine how good of a professional player he really is.
The Rangers waited 10 days before deciding to give Shesterkin some more exposure. He entered Sunday’s contest with much more poise and confidence unlike in his previous two starts. The Blue Jackets didn’t wait long before they began generating shots on the young goalie. He was up to the task though as he turned aside every shot that came his way during the first two periods of action.
The Rangers entered the third period with a 1-0 lead and their chances looked pretty good about winning this important game for the playoff picture. Shesterkin was a solid wall making key saves when necessary against a surging Columbus squad. But as we all know, the Rangers ended up losing this contest – where did it go wrong?
It occurred about six minutes into the third frame of play on a giveaway back in their offensive zone. New York had gained the blue line and Ryan Strome passed the puck over to teammate Jesper Fast by the right face-off circle. Fast moved up but decided to pass the puck back with the hopes that someone would pick it up along the boards. Unfortunately, there were no blue sweaters in sight and Columbus took it back up the other way.
Pierre-Luc Dubois gained the zone for the Blue Jackets. Strome was skating backward and poked the puck away as he entered. It wasn’t enough as Oliver Bjorkstrand followed it up and carried the puck towards Shesterkin. He then fired a shot and it beat him glove side. As a result, Columbus tied the game 1-1. It’s possible that Shesterkin was slightly screened on the play as fellow defenseman Jacob Trouba was backing up in front of him to try and get in front of Bjorkstrand’s shot. Either way, the Blue Jackets gained life and it turned out to be a major turning point in the contest.
Columbus began generating more quality chances down the stretch of regulation. They tested Shesterkin who had to make some big saves to keep the game tied for his team. It appeared the game was going to go to overtime as the clock was ticking down under a minute in regulation. Then, the Blue Jackets made a rush up the ice as Seth Jones hit Dubois on a long pass up the middle. Dubois gained the zone and lightly tapped the puck over to his teammate Bjorkstrand. Wouldn’t you guess that Bjorkstrand once again ripped a shot that ended up beating Shesterkin on his glove side?
The goal was scored with 26.5 seconds remaining in regulation and it gave the Blue Jackets a 2-1 lead over the Rangers. It was a demoralizing goal and as the time drained down to zero, New York’s little two-game winning streak came to an end. While Shesterkin did allow two goals to the same player in the same fashion Sunday, he played a really solid game overall. He did everything possible to keep the Rangers in the game and nearly got them to overtime.
We can’t fully fault Shesterkin for this loss. We need to remember that this was only his third career NHL game ever. He played really well as he denied 29 of 31 shots faced. Had he gotten more support on offense, he may have earned a third win instead of his first loss. We’ll never know, but at least he didn’t look lost out there. If he gave up a bounty of goals and had to be pulled from the game, then that’s a different story. This was just a classic case of a good performance gone to waste because there wasn’t much support from his teammates.
It’s a good learning experience and it’ll help him build some character. We will have to wait and see how he responds in his next start, but judging by how mature he’s been so far, I have a gut feeling he will be sharp again.
Rangers’ Offense Struggled to Convert
One thing that I was very impressed by after their two wins against the Islanders was the offensive production. They generated 64 shots on net and nine goals in those two contests combined against the Islanders. I was very hopeful that they would have a similar outing on Sunday against Columbus.
It’s not that they couldn’t create many scoring chances throughout the duration of the game, that they did. New York and Columbus were both fairly even in the shots department as the Rangers slightly outshot the Blue Jackets 32-31. So to say the Rangers weren’t generating enough scoring chances would be a lie. The problem was they weren’t converting at the rate they had been in the past.
They had converted 16.7 percent and 10.7 percent of their shots into goals in the previous two contests against their long-time rivals. So when I saw them produce at a considerably lower efficiency than before, I felt a little uneasy. Mika Zibanejad led the charge with six total shots on net and no tallies at all. Brady Skjei came in second with five shots and he ended up with the lone goal on the night.
It certainly is concerning when a defenseman like Skjei who only had six goals on the season heading into Sunday’s game be the leading scorer of the night. Most of the time that never usually yields positive results unless that defenseman is a high scorer which is very rare. The top guys like Zibanejad, Strome, Artemi Panarin, and Chris Kreider were all absent from the scoresheet which hasn’t happened in quite some time. Since Columbus was able to take them out of the equation, it made it a little more manageable for them to win.
Without much depth beyond those several players previously mentioned, the Rangers had a difficult time scoring goals throughout the entirety of the game. We also have to give credit where credit is due. Columbus played a very good strong defensive game, courtesy of former Rangers coach John Tortorella. Defense has always been his specialty and it was highlighted once again against his former club.
The Rangers need to get their big guys like Panarin and Zibanejad going again if they are to stay competitive in the Eastern Conference. They are just outside the top-10 in goals scored this year (156) and have improved significantly from where they were a year ago. Still, they can’t allow a similar outcome to happen again on Tuesday against the Islanders if they plan on keeping pace with the rest of the squads in the East.
As it currently stands, the Blueshirts have a 23-20-4 record and are nine points back from the Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spot. Their loss on Sunday dug them into an unfavorable hole as they have four teams in between them and Carolina. A win against the Islanders will certainly do the trick. It’ll feel great sticking it to them for a third time within a week as well as give them some much-needed life in the playoff standings.