NEW YORK--An NHL debut is almost always a memorable experience, but to do it at the "world's most famous arena" and on a stage that countless of other athletes, musicians and entertainers have performed on makes the moment a little extra special.
"It's a pretty surreal experience and just being in New York and playing at Madison Square Garden for your first game is a pretty exciting opportunity," said Colorado Avalanche rookie forward Alexander Kerfoot. "I'm sure when I get on the ice tonight, it's all going to sink in."
Kerfoot and defenseman Andrei Mironov will play their first contests in the NHL this evening as the Avalanche begins the 2017-18 regular season against the New York Rangers in a building that is often just referred to as "MSG."
The two rookies are among six young players that will experience their first NHL opening night, and it will be against a formidable opponent. Last season, New York finished with 102 points before defeating the Atlantic Division-winning Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We got to come in here and be the aggressors right away," said Colorado head coach Jared Bednar after the team's morning skate. "We don't want to wade into this thing. It's a hostile environment, and we have a bunch of guys playing their first games and some guys that haven't been in the league much. Our leadership group, we're going to lean on them heavy early and make sure that they see some big minutes."
Playing an NHL regular season game is the big time, and it's what many of the players have dreamed about since they were kids. For the rookies that will step onto the ice tonight, there will be an adjustment to the pace and intensity of the game that they'll need to learn on the fly.
"I'm not sure if I can fully prepare myself for what is going to come tonight," Kerfoot said. "I think I just have to trust myself, be confident. It's going to be an adjustment with the speed, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure the nerves are going to sink in a little bit, but you have to play through it."
This will be Kerfoot's fourth-ever game at MSG after he played there three times previously as a student-athlete at Harvard University.
For Mironov, it will be his first contest at the arena at the corner of 8th avenue and 31st street, but the Moscow, Russia, native is already accustomed to playing on big stages. The 23-year-old has appeared in 196 Kontinental Hockey League games over the last five seasons and has already represented his home country at two IIHF World Championships.
"I'm very excited. It's a nice place. It's a nice league, a very nice league, and it's the first game of the season," said Mironov, who is slowing picking up the English language after not being able to speak it at all when he first arrived in the United States in the summer. "It's going to be perfect, unbelievable to be at Madison Square Garden."
Mironov will be paired on defense with another young player in Chris Bigras, who has played in 31 contests with the Avs--all late in the 2015-16 campaign.
Bigras, 22, said Mironov's understanding of the language has come a long way, and that the two defenders have worked well with one another on the ice. Still, communication is key in the lightning-fast pace of the NHL.
"It's huge. At this level, you have to be talking out there," Bigras said. "You have to know where all your teammates are on the ice at all times. His English has come a long way with the commands. He's got them all down now. We're going to be talking out there."
While the Bigras-Mironov pairing might be young, Bednar is confident the duo will step up and be able to compete against some of the world's best players.
"You know our D-core is young, and that's designed," Bednar said. "We're going to have young guys in every night, so is it a concern? I think the guys are going to prove that they can get the job done, and it will take a little bit for everyone to see that."
The first game of the season is a memorable experience that sticks in players, coaches and fans' minds throughout the campaign. It's what the players work for all summer and circle on their calendars when the schedule comes out.
Opening night is the start of what the rookies hope is a long career in the league, but the NHL regular season is a marathon and a lot can change between now and April.
"Obviously, the goal was to come into camp and make the opening-night roster. I'm here and playing tonight, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be here in a week or two weeks from now," said Kerfoot. "I'm just going to try and take advantage of the opportunity and continue to try to earn it every day."
STARTERS AND SCRATCHES
Forward Carl Soderberg and defenseman Nikita Zadorov will have to wait to make their season debuts as they'll be Colorado's healthy scratches against New York.
Zadorov played 56 games with the Avs last season, but Bednar said the big blueliner still needs some work to get back up to speed after missing the first week of camp.
"It is just based on what we've seen through training camp, and he came in a little late and has some catching up to do," Bednar said. "We've liked what some of those other guys have done, and that's the lineup we decided on."
Colorado's forward line combinations will be the same ones that they've practiced with for the last week, with rookies J.T. Compher, Tyson Jost and Kerfoot getting in the action.
Semyon Varlamov will get the start in net. It will be his first NHL regular-season game since Jan. 17, as the Avalanche goalie had season-ending hip surgery soon after to fix his injured groin.
PROJECTED LINE COMBINATIONS
Sven Andrighetto - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Alexander Kerfoot - Matt Duchene - Nail Yakupov
Gabriel Landeskog - J.T. Compher - Colin Wilson
Matt Nieto - Tyson Jost - Blake Comeau
Mark Barberio - Erik Johnson
Patrik Nemeth - Tyson Barrie
Andrei Mironov - Chris Bigras