Tuesday’s game vs. the Colorado Avalanche was just a regular season game, but I have to be honest: it felt like a playoff game emotionally with Igor Shesterkin gliding onto the ice for the first time as an NHL starting goaltender.
The 5-3 victory, hopefully the first of many of Shesterkin’s career, is a special occasion that deserves some brief reflection, because it was a moment that’s been years in the making.
NHL debuts can go a million different ways, and in the history of the New York Rangers there have been a number of special ones. Derek Stepan’s hat trick on opening night vs. the Buffalo Sabres is something that immediately jumps out, and years down the road I think Igor’s is one I will look at in a similar light.
This is a virtual space, but I feel confident that if I were in the room with most of the people reading this that there would be an agreement by a showing of hands that Igor’s debut had the most “Ranger” start and finish of recent memory.
The beginning was tense as the Rangers did everything in their power to prevent the Avs from getting a shot on goal. Maybe it was just me, but I was hoping for an easy shot to the chest just so Igor could get his first save out of the way. I think mentally we all go off things like that; whether it be the first time you parallel park a car, the first time you put on a pair of skates, ride a bike, and so on. In Igor’s case he’s a professional goalie who has gone through the motions of play for the majority of his life, but admitted after the game that he had some jitters before stepping onto the ice.
“On the way to the arena my hands were shaking, I couldn’t even drink water. But as I stepped onto the ice, I felt everyone’s support and energy and it really helped me”
– Igor Shesterkin pic.twitter.com/nLGUs9Vq22
— Rangers Videos (@SNYRangers) January 8, 2020
Eventually a shot came Igor’s way… but it went to the back of the net. Shesterkin never saw it, and it didn’t help that it was tipped off a stick in front. “F*ck!” is the first thing I said from my couch — not because I was mad at the rookie netminder, but that I hoping this wasn’t going to be one of the ugly games the Rangers have had in recent weeks.
A misplayed puck and partial breakaway, by who else, but Nathan MacKinnon, followed the 1-0 goal just under two minutes later, and just like that it was 2-0. At that moment it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Rangers folded like a cheap suit. It was the Avs second game in a back-to-back, but they were coming off a frustrating shutout loss on Monday vs. the New York Islanders, and they looked like a club playing for keeps.
Head coach David Quinn touched on this after the game.
David Quinn sounded like half of my followers when asked about Igor’s debut and the early chances #NYR gave up.
“Well, we didn’t hesitate to give him a taste of Ranger hockey.”
— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) January 8, 2020
Things settled down, eventually, as the Rangers got on the board with two goals of their own to end the period. The rest is history, although we’ll touch upon the end of the game in a bit.
Earlier I mentioned that the game had the most “Ranger” start and finish in recent memory. As the third period was starting, I sent out this tweet because I had a feeling that the Rangers would try and cling to a one-goal lead vs. a tired team.
Rangers need to sweep the leg this period. Avs played last night, but they are going to press to start.
— Tom Urtz Jr. (@TomUrtzJr) January 8, 2020
My gut feeling was right, as the Avalanche went for the throat with 13 shots in the third period after tallying 19 in the first two periods in total. The Rangers had nine, so it wasn’t completely lopsided, but it was still a very on brand thing for the team to sit back and have their goalie carry them home — even though this time, it was a rookie in net making his debut.
Shesterkin was more than capable in this regard, and he made a number of crucial saves on the penalty kill, in addition to the stops he made once Colorado pulled their goalie. By the end of the night the “Igor..Igor..Igor” chants bellowed at their loudest, particularly after Artemiy Panarin buried an empty netter to provide some breathing room. Although some of the emotion and feel was dulled by it being an NBC broadcast as opposed to an MSG game with Sam and Joe, it was still a surreal moment once the final buzzer sounded.
Sample size is a term that’s used a lot nowadays in hockey when it comes to evaluating players, and there’s merit to the concept. But in this instance the focus isn’t so much on how many saves he made, what his 5v5 save percentage was, or how many goals he saved above expectations. This was a milestone night for a franchise that is in an ongoing rebuild. Shesterkin making it onto the Garden ice in this manner is an achievement in itself.
This was a night in which the 118th overall pick from the 2014 drafted made his long awaited NHL debut in North America. The hype around Shesterkin, or the ‘heir to the throne,’ has been real for quite sometime — dominating the KHL and getting off to a hot start in the AHL will do that. It’s fair to say that fans have been looking forward to him being a Ranger almost as much as they did with Kaapo Kakko. The same could be said about Panarin putting on the uniform for the first time, Adam Fox making his NHL debut, and so on.
This is an after the fact addition to the story, but @HockeyStatMiner had a great thread evaluating Igor’s debut from an interesting perspective which you can check out below.
Thinkin about this:
Cap-era means rookie salaries have a limiting ceiling capped. Rangers have had ‘older’ Euro ‘prospects’ come before (Ruotsalainen, for example), but Igor probably the first in this era where its common knowledge he chose to be underpaid to come here… right? https://t.co/DyvAfrZARz
— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) January 8, 2020
This is what happens during a rebuild, and these moments are what fans get excited about, because in someway they provide a small glimpse of what’s to come if all goes to plan. The Rangers were direct in what their approach was going to be when they released a letter to the fans in February 8, 2018, and it is hard to believe that one month from now the document will already be two years old.
Having said all that, we have no idea how long Shesterkin will be at the NHL level. But, that doesn’t take away from how special Tuesday night was. The Rangers have said they are going to take things one day at a time, and that makes sense. In all truthfulness, Igor returning to the AHL and finishing his season as a starter and backstopping the Wolf Pack during their expected playoff run could be what’s best for him.
The transition of power in goal could go in a number of directions, and no one knows how the Rangers will juggle Shesterkin, Lundqvist, and Georgiev the rest of the way. But today we don’t have to think about that. Instead, we can think about one of the more exciting wins in recent history, and one that can be looked on even more fondly decades from now if the Rangers’ build lives up to expectations.