Goalies don’t need a lot of ice to work on their game in the offseason. Or a big crowd of NHLers. Just a coach who can direct a few positioning drills and maybe snap a few pucks, so almost anywhere will do. They also usually do their work alone — not a surprise, given that goalies are alone in what they do on the ice as well.
Ilya Sorokin was in Miami with a friend this past summer and flew Sergei Naumov, his longtime goalie coach from his days with CSKA in the KHL, over for some offseason work. He invited his friend along, a decent goalie in his own right.
Which is a longish way of saying that Ilya Sorokin, Islanders goalie and 2023 Vezina Trophy runner-up, and Igor Shesterkin, Rangers goalie and 2022 Vezina winner, spent a few days training together in South Florida. That may upset fans of both teams, hearing that their team’s star goalie was willing to help the rival team’s star goalie get better.
To that, both guys say: Too bad. Their close friendship spans over a decade, since they were teenagers coming up through the Russian hockey system. That friendship withstood playing for the biggest rivals in the KHL and it will withstand playing for two of the biggest rivals in the NHL, as Sorokin and Shesterkin have done for the last three years.
“I always want to see him get better,” Shesterkin said. “We have been this way a long time. It’s good for us.”
As a new season opens — for Shesterkin and the Rangers on Thursday in Buffalo and for Sorokin and the Islanders on Saturday at UBS Arena — hockey pundits have put plenty of faith behind these two goalies. They are each among the Vezina favorites this season. In the long history of the Rangers-Islanders rivalry, both teams have probably never had it so good in goal at the same time.
Yes, there was 1979, when John Davidson stood on his head to outduel Billy Smith and the not-yet-dynastic Isles. And yes, Jaroslav Halak never seemed to lose in the Isles net when Henrik Lundqvist was in the Rangers goal, but the teams’ successful seasons have risen and fallen in an opposite rhythm for decades now. Last spring marked just the fourth time the teams made the postseason in the same year since they last met in a playoff series, the lopsided opening round of the 1994 playoffs when Mike Richter barely had to break a sweat in a Rangers sweep of Ron Hextall and the Isles.
Shesterkin and Sorokin were their respective teams’ main goalies in each of the three seasons SKA and CSKA met in the KHL conference final, 2016-19. The two only squared off head-to-head in one series, the 2019 conference final, won in seven games by Sorokin’s CSKA.
“We play them every year,” said Shesterkin, who inexplicably didn’t start games against CSKA in either the 2017 or 2018 series. “Not a lot of teams in KHL.”
So they are used to putting the friendship aside, even having learned a few hockey clichés.
“No friends on the ice,” Sorokin said. “After, we talk. But on ice, we’re professionals.”
Shesterkin came to the U.S. before the 2019 season. By the time Sorokin came to the playoff bubble to skate and watch the Islanders reach the semifinals in the spring of 2020, Shesterkin was on his way to becoming the Rangers’ No. 1 goalie. Sorokin was still mainly backing up on the Isles’ 2021 semifinal run. But their differing trajectories prior to this season have allowed them to share experiences the other hadn’t had.
For Shesterkin, that meant talking to his friend about the long 2021 playoff run when the Rangers had a conference final run of their own a year later.
“He had the playoff experience, so he help me understand how I need to focus every game, how to be good when maybe you have a bad game right before,” Shesterkin said.
For Sorokin, it meant talking to his friend about how to sustain a great season that involved more games than either of them played in the KHL. Sorokin asked Shesterkin about his wondrous 2022 season, when Shesterkin posted a .935 save percentage, and Sorokin followed that with a .924 last season.
“What I like most about his game is how he works to keep his team in every game,” Sorokin said. “He is warrior out there. I don’t watch too much technical things with him because we have different styles. But I very much enjoy watching him play.”
“How he tracks the puck, how he moves, he has good feet — he does everything good,” Shesterkin said. “Last year, I think he deserve Vezina. Linus (Ullmark) have an amazing season, but Boston also have an amazing season. Islanders I think don’t make playoffs without Sorokin. But I don’t get to pick.”
Teammates of both players say Sorokin and Shesterkin are slyly funny guys, especially now that English is easier for both a few years in. “We have a lot of stupid jokes between us,” Sorokin said. “Goalie humor. It’s different.”
During the season, the time to hang out is scarce. They spent Christmas together at Shesterkin’s house and there are occasional PlayStation games when both can find the time on off-days. “Igor has a son now, so not too much PlayStation,” Sorokin said. “We play 30 minutes and he say, ‘My wife calling me, got to go.’”
So that time in Miami this summer was special, not just for the on-ice work. It was a vacation for two old friends ahead of a big season for both.
“Also less expensive, two guys with coach instead of one,” Sorokin joked. “Very economical.”
And while they won’t be friends during Ranger-Islander games you can be assured that Shesterkin and Sorokin are pulling for one another. It doesn’t feel right within the context of the rivalry, but this friendship stands the test of time and teams that don’t like one another.
“All we do is try to support each other to reach our goals,” Shesterkin said. “We push each other. We never think bad about each other.”
(Photo of Ilya Sorokin (Left) and Igor Shesterkin: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)