It's an opportunity that Nikita Filatov has been anticipating for much of his young life. The 18-year-old Filatov, drafted sixth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets last June, makes his NHL debut tonight but unlike many kids his age, the rookie forward has an air of calm surrounding him.
He's prepared for this.
Filatov has spent countless hours on the ice, perfecting his myriad of offensive skills and working on his speed. But the Moscow native has put in just as much work off the ice learning English (as well as some French, in the event that he had been drafted by a junior team in Quebec) so that the transition from Russian phenom to North American professional goes as smooth as possible.
"I've been waiting for this moment for many years and now it's just a couple hours away," Filatov says following the game day skate before tonight's home opener against the Nashville Predators. "I feel really ready."
What Filatov could not have prepared for was the tragic news he received earlier in the week. On Monday, he got an e-mail explaining that his best friend Alexei Cherepanov, a 19-year-old star prospect with the New York Rangers, had died after collapsing on the bench during a game in Russia.
In a week that should have been one of the greatest of his life, Filatov is dealing with an event that will impact him forever.
"It's been a really difficult time for me," he says. "The last few days, I've been thinking a lot about this, still not believing it.
"I can't understand how it's possible."
Head coach Ken Hitchcock has talked to Filatov about the situation.
"You park it and you move on," the coach says, acknowledging that the kid has been through a lot with Cherepanov's death and the travel back and forth from Syracuse. "He has lots of friends back there that are keeping him in touch with what's gone on. He's got a chance to play right now, which is what I think kids do good."
When on the ice, Filatov has made a quick impression with the Jackets' brass. While he was slightly hampered in early camp with a leg injury, he exploded during a preseason game in Toronto, scoring during regulation before icing the win with the deciding goal in a shootout (see below).
The confident rookie carried that momentum into the start of the AHL season, scoring in each of the first two games with the Crunch. Then, with a few regulars out of the lineup, the call came to join the Jackets.
"Now I know more about this game here," Filatov says about the few nights he has under his belt at the pro level. "Also, I've scored a goal so that will help me.
"I was surprised that everything in the American Hockey League was so fast and everybody was tough. I needed the first two periods to be ready for it and understand how they were playing.
"I feel that I'm getting in better shape with every game."
Veteran Columbus winger Fredrik Modin says that Filatov looks like he is anxious to get out there and showcase his skills.
"He has tremendous hands on him," says Modin, who practiced on a line with Filatov and Andrew Murray this week. "He handles the puck very well but it's his speed that stands out, the way he skates with the puck.
"He didn't look out of place at all. He doesn't look too nervous out there."
Lack of confidence is certainly not a problem with Filatov. Aside from being groomed for this moment, he's put up great numbers in the past, most recently scoring 32 goals with 34 assists in 34 games with CSKA (Russia-3). He also led the Russian national team in assists and points (4-5-9) at last year's World Junior Championships.
His ability and maturity have been apparent to the players in the Jackets' room and they've welcomed him.
"All the guys are really good, really kind," says Filatov. "It helps when they are open to you, they help you, they speak to you a lot. On the ice, they can tell you what to do, how to do it. And how to be a professional, not only on the ice.
"All the guys said 'hello' (when he returned on Wednesday). 'Just a week and you're back.'"
Filatov's first stint in the NHL may not last long, depending on how things shake out with sidelined Jackets like Manny Malhotra, Jared Boll and Mike Peca. But it's clear that he is a big part of the club's future.
It begins tonight when the standout rookie gets action in his first game. He's playing with a heavy heart but at the same time, the thought of his late friend gives Filatov even more inspiration.
"I'm really sure that he's okay and he sees everything," he says. "Maybe I'll even try to play for him today."