Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 9, 2020

The Turning Of A Page

Perhaps it was just one game. That’s certainly how most hockey fans would see it, just another midweek contest, one matchup out of the 1,271 that comprise the NHL’s regular season. For the visiting Colorado Avalanche and home team New York Rangers, one Tuesday evening tilt in the course of a calendar that stretches over 82 games from early October to late spring. For Avalanche players it came at the end of a few days sampling Gotham’s many diversions. The game at Madison Square Garden was the last of matches against all three New York area teams over four days. Colorado faced the Devils on Saturday, across the broad expanse of the Hudson, followed by the Islanders out in Nassau on Monday before skating against the Blueshirts one night later. For the Rangers it was a welcome return home after a western road trip that began the weekend after Christmas, a journey that started well enough with a win in Toronto, but then turned sour with three straight losses in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. In the end the evening may mean nothing more than a single mark on the record of both franchises, no more or less important than any other game.

Yet there was an unmistakable sense among the 17,082 who crammed into the arena above Penn Station that this game was of greater import, that it marked the turning of a page in the long, sometimes joyful, often frustrating, story of the New York Rangers. Any doubt that the team’s fans were of one mind was drowned out by the cheers that swept the Garden when the home team took to the ice for pregame warmups. Leading the Rangers out of the locker room was Igor Shesterkin, the 24-year-old rookie goaltender who had been called up from New York’s AHL affiliate in Hartford one day earlier.

The big crowd that greeted Shesterkin so warmly, as in keeping with tradition for players making their NHL debut he skated a solo lap around the Garden ice before being joined by his teammates, knew that the young netminder in white pads with a red “31” on the back of his blue sweater had been drafted by the Rangers in 2014 while still a teenager playing in the Russian junior leagues. He remained half a world away from the bright lights of Gotham until this year, honing his craft in both the junior MHL and more recently in the KHL, Russia’s top professional league.

Last May he finally inked a two-year contract with New York, beginning the season with the Wolf Pack in Hartford. There he posted a 15-4-3 record and a 1.93 goals against average. Those numbers plus his three shutouts made Shesterkin an easy pick to compete in the AHL’s upcoming All-Star Game. But the Rangers clearly had bigger plans for him, and Shesterkin made the short trip from central Connecticut for practice on Monday before his NHL debut on home ice Tuesday evening.

He readily admitted to rookie nerves, telling the media after the game that he had been shaking as he made his way to Madison Square Garden that afternoon. Those nerves were on full display in the early going, as Colorado’s J.T. Compher beat the rookie on the Avalanche’s very first shot on goal, a little under five minutes into the contest. Just two minutes later Nathan MacKinnon made it 2-0 Av’s on a breakaway.

Hopefully someone had warned Shesterkin about the shoddy defense of the rebuilding Rangers. Whether he had received such notice or not, the young goalie showed remarkable resolve from that point on. What could easily have turned into a disaster, a “five goals on seven shots before being pulled” kind of night, instead became a display of the talent that has made Shesterkin a beacon of hope for fans of the franchise. As his teammates rallied at the other end of the ice, eventually pulling even and finally ahead, the new goalie began turning aside Colorado’s advances. He made thirteen saves in the third period alone, including a couple from point blank range, and a late empty net goal gave the Rangers a final victory margin of 5-3. The performance was more than enough to get the crowd chanting “Igor! Igor!” in the game’s later stages.

That vocal support was heavy with symbolism, because for a decade and a half the chant ringing down onto the Garden ice has been “Henrik! Henrik!” for Henrik Lundqvist, the five-time NHL All-Star and nine-time team MVP, who has the most wins and shutouts by any netminder in the nearly century-long history of the Rangers. Lundqvist is the only goalie in league history to win thirty or more games in each of his first seven seasons and reached 400 wins faster than any other NHL goaltender. He’s won the Vezina Trophy, the league’s award for netminding excellence, but what he hasn’t done is lead his team to a Stanley Cup. For that Rangers fans must still look all the way back to 1994.

In fairness to Lundqvist, whose supporting cast has often been lacking, the long championship drought on the Madison Square Garden ice only proves that even one of the best goalies in the league can’t single-handedly deliver a Cup. But Lundqvist will turn 38 before this season ends, and with New York in the middle of a rebuild there is little doubt that the team is looking to the future. With Shesterkin’s arrival, the shadows on Henrik Lundqvist’s career have grown long.

That is why for many Tuesday night’s game seemed to carry special significance. Only in hindsight will fans be able to confirm that feeling. For all his promise Igor Shesterkin might not measure up to the high standards of the world’s premier hockey league, or he might be perfectly capable in some other setting but wilt under the harsh glare of Gotham’s bright media lights. For now, the only certainty is that when the Rangers next took to the ice on Thursday evening, it was once again the rookie in the net, and the veteran on the bench. So perhaps Tuesday’s contest was just another game. Then again, it seems far more likely to have been the latest reminder that in the zero-sum world of our sports, just as every contest has both a winner and a loser, so every game that heralds a promising career’s beginning also marks, for some other player, the beginning of the end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: