NHL playoffs dominated by Russian goaltenders like Shesterkin and Vasilevsky

During the Rangers’ convincing first-game win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, fans at Madison Square Garden showed their allegiance to their Russian goaltender, not the Lightning’s Russian goaltender.

“Igor is better,” they chanted over and over.

In that game, Igor Shesterkin from Moscow was indeed better than Andrei Vasilevsky from Tyumen. But both tend to be exceptional goalkeepers, perhaps the two best in hockey at the moment. They are also part of an impressive number of good young Russian goaltenders scattered throughout the NHL, and the Eastern Conference in particular.

There are 10 goalkeepers of Russian origin in the league, and eight play in the East, with more likely on the way.

“Russia is becoming the world’s dominant goaltending factory,” said Kevin Woodley, editor-in-chief of InGoal magazine and a beer league goaltender near Vancouver, where he lives.

The conference final showcases the dominance of Russian goaltenders with their brilliant moves, catlike reflexes and puck magnetism. Shesterkin is the favorite to receive the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the NHL; and Vasilevsky, who received the award in 2019, is considered the best in the last few years and the best in the playoffs (despite Game 1).

“Andrei is still the best goaltender in the world,” Shesterkin said, humbly refuting the chant after the Rangers beat the Lightning 3-2 on Friday to take a 2-0 series lead.

But there are not only these two. Before you face Rangers, Lightning beat the Florida Panthers and their goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from Novokuznetsk. Bobrovsky is the godfather of the modern Russian goaltender who won the Vezina twice, in 2013 and 2017, both times for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

A year ago, in the finals of the Eastern Conference, Vasilevsky met with Semyon Varlamov from the Islanders, a Samarans. The islanders have two Russian goalkeepers are Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, who was born in Mezhdurechensk. The Rangers understudy is Alexander Georgiev, who was born in Bulgaria but grew up in Russia and completed the Russian national program.

“There was a time when all the great goaltenders seemed to come from Quebec,” said Lightning head coach John Cooper, adding that Finland and Sweden used to be sources of great goaltending talent. “It’s the Russians’ turn and you’ll see greatness in these two guys.”

But the series is set at a time when Russia has become a global pariah after its military invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 24. And Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, a hockey fan, is considered an outcast in the United States and many other parts of the world.

However, both Shesterkin and Vasilevsky are adored, and this does not stop at them. The Eastern Conference Finals also feature other great Russian stars such as Artemiy Panarin, a highly skilled Rangers winger; Nikita Kucherov, dangerous striker for the Lightning; and Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa’s reliable defender.

But for now other sports are prohibited Russian teams and their athletes did not participate in international NHL sporting events, because 57 active Russians in the league play as individuals and do not represent their country or their government in the way that the Olympians or the players of the Russian national team do. They represent the Rangers, Lightning and other NHL teams.

Shortly after the invasion, the NHL announced a suspension of relations with companies in Russia, suspended Russian-language digital media platforms, and refused to consider Russia as a venue for future NHL competitions. Malkin, Vladimir Tarasenko and all goalkeepers simply because of their nationality.

In tennis, the French Open allowed the Russians to participate, but Wimbledon announced they would ban them because tennis players play under their national flags. Under pressure from the British government, Wimbledon did not want to secure a propaganda victory if a Russian like Daniil Medvedev won.

“But if the Rangers win the Stanley Cup, it’s not exactly a propaganda victory for Russia,” said Timothy Fry, an expert on Russian politics at Columbia University and author of The Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.

“The ban on team sports, especially those that represent Russia, is certainly justified,” he said. “But it would be difficult to exclude hockey players. The most difficult thing is to justify the ban of Vasilevsky or Shesterkin.

Fry has traveled to Russia regularly since 1985 and has been there for about half a dozen hockey games both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. He said that now that he watches the NHL, he wonders why, after the invasion of hockey, Russian players have not become more of a topic of discussion than in football and tennis.

But he understands why players don’t want to speak publicly about the situation.

“Individual Russians are taking a big risk by expressing opposition,” Fry said. “Many of them also have families in Russia who are vulnerable and everyone understands that. Speaking is expensive. This is the real thing.”

Fry said there was also the possibility that players could be excluded from Russian national teams in the future, such as Davis Cup tennis, Olympic teams or the national hockey and football teams. He said that even a neutral stance is frowned upon, and those who criticize the invasion face lengthy prison terms.

Despite the conflict and uncertainty, the Russians in the NHL continue to play.

“It must be an extremely difficult situation,” Cooper said. “When you have a huge ocean in between what’s going on, it probably doesn’t matter much.” He added: “In the end, it all comes down to the fact that the guys have to do their job. But it can’t be easy. You just sympathize with everyone.”

327 NHL players born in Russia or Soviet Unionaccording to the Hockey Reference, and only 26 of them were goaltenders, starting with Sergei Mylnikov, who made his debut for the Quebec Nordiques in 1989. Georgiev coached).

There are many theories about why Russia has become such a treasure trove of goalkeeping gems. Like Cooper said, it might be their turn now. For years it was Quebec, led by Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. Then came the era of Finnish goalkeepers like Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne, and finally the Swedes, led by Henrik Lundqvist, another superstar ranger.

Bobrovsky’s success is seen as a beacon for many young Russians who want to be like Bob. There is also a theory that Russian coaches imitated the Swedish model and even translated the Swedish goalkeeping manual into Russian.

According to Woodley, who has been writing about goalkeepers for almost 20 years, one of the key points is that young Russian goalkeepers don’t get too much training. In the early stages of development, child goalkeepers are given time to play and learn mostly without detailed and rigid instructions. This, Woodley says, gives young goaltenders a better feel for the game and improves their understanding of how the puck is coming at them. Later, during adolescence, they focus on movement and positioning techniques.

Woodley said he has also heard of some Russian hockey academies that encourage goaltenders to take up other movement-focused disciplines, such as ballet and dance, to strengthen legs and ankles and improve balance and flexibility.

Vasilevsky, 27, and Shesterkin, 26, are praised for their anticipation. Shesterkin’s teammates admire how gracefully he stops pucks, as well as collects them and makes perfect passes forward. Shesterkin has three assists in the playoffs, a new Rangers record for assists in a playoff season.

“His hockey IQ is one of the highest on our team,” said Rangers veteran center Ryan Strom, “and I don’t know if I’ve ever said that about a goaltender on my team before, with all due respect. By that I mean he is able to read the game so intelligently and anticipate where the puck will be. And his ability to play with the puck is incredible. I have never played with a goalkeeper with such ability before.”

Rangers fans see all this, so they consider Shesterkin better than Vasilevsky, even better than all other goalkeepers, whether they are Russians, Finns, Canadians or Swedes. For many others, it is a joy to watch both of them.

“It’s amazing how much everyone loves Igor in New York,” said Fry, a Russia expert. “He is a very exciting player. And, of course, winning is everything.”