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Igor Shesterkin Set to Make His NHL Debut

Brilliant Season in AHL Has Earned Rookie Goaltender Tuesday's Start for Rangers

by Michael Obernauer

All in all, Igor Shesterkin has had some good days over the past week. Last Monday he celebrated his 24th birthday. On Friday he was named an AHL All-Star in recognition of his outstanding first season in a North American league, and later that night he continued that brilliant campaign with the Hartford Wolf Pack by stopping 27 of 28 shots in Providence for his fourth straight win.

By Monday he no longer was an active AHL player, because instead he was on the rink in Westchester practicing for the first time this season with the Rangers, after being called up to the big club that morning.

"It's so important for me," Shesterkin said after practice. "It's a really good day."

Tuesday is going to blow them all out of the water. That's the night Shesterkin will make his NHL debut, when the Rangers hand him the nets at Madison Square Garden against the Colorado Avalanche. The Rangers announced Shesterkin's call-up Monday morning, and Quinn announced his starter in the afternoon -- and at the end of the day, there is one reason alone that Shesterkin will get this chance, and that is Shesterkin himself.

"He has played his way into this opportunity," Quinn said on Monday. "You have a guy playing as well as he has in the American Hockey League, you call him up and give him an opportunity."

Over the first half of this hockey season, Shesterkin already has played his way into the upper echelon of the AHL, and a shoo-in spot in that Jan. 26-27 AHL All-Star Classic, while leading Wolf Pack to the top of the league's Eastern Conference standings. He stands among the AHL leaders in numerous categories: he leads the league in goals-against average (1.93), is second in save percentage (.932) and wins (15, two fewer wins in nine fewer games than the league leader), and is tied for third in shutouts (three).

"You're just talking about a guy who's incredibly athletic and mentally tough," Quinn said, "and he faces the challenge nightly to do everything he can to make sure his team wins a hockey game."

These gaudy numbers in the American League are of a piece with what Shesterkin was putting up last season in Russia, when he led the KHL with a rather staggering .953 save percentage and a 1.11 GAA, to go along with 24 wins in 28 games, 10 of them shutouts. Shesterkin was selected by the Rangers in the fourth round (118th overall) of the 2014 Entry Draft, and he said on Monday that it has been his dream since well before that, since he was a little kid, to make it to the NHL. He signed his first contract with the Rangers on May 3.

"I had goal to come here (to North America) and try to play. But now I have a new goal," he said, sitting at his new stall in the Rangers' dressing room at the Training Center, and speaking without an interpreter. "I want to play hard, work hard every day. I want to play here."

The Rangers will carry three goaltenders for the time being, with Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev, and take their rotation "day-by-day," Quinn said. "He's been doing really well in Hartford and preparing for his first opportunity up here," Lundqvist said of Shesterkin, adding, "The day-to-day approach for me doesn't change."

Back in Hartford, the Head Coach of the Wolf Pack, Kris Knoblauch, has gained a firsthand understanding of what makes Shesterkin a unique player during both men's first season in Hartford. In a recent chat with NYRangers.com, Knoblauch called Shesterkin "our MVP for the first half of the year."

"He is a really good professional. He comes to the rink, works hard, is focused every day, whether it's practice or games," Knoblauch said. "Here is a rookie in his first year in the American League, and he has set the bar very high for others to follow just with his professionalism.

"As for his play," Knoblauch said, "I think the highlights and his numbers speak for themselves about how well he's playing."

"Because of his position it's probably taken longer than it should have" to call him up, Quinn said. "If you had a defenseman or a forward that was doing the things he was doing in the American League, he would have been up a lot sooner."

Now that he is up, he will dive right in: Shesterkin's NHL debut will come against the NHL's highest-powered offense through the first half of 2019-20. The Avalanche average 3.71 goals per game, led by the League's third-leading scorer in Nathan MacKinnon (25-39--64 entering Colorado's game Monday against the Islanders), but with a balanced attack that includes seven different players with 10 or more goals, tied with Washington for most in the League.

And so come Tuesday night Shesterkin, like any player starting out in the NHL, is bound to encounter some challenges he simply hasn't faced before - although his immediate surroundings are no longer among them. Having had experience on NHL-size rinks in some of the arenas around the KHL, Shesterkin now has half a season under his belt exclusively on the North American size, and with a North American style of play in front of him.

He also has had his first glimpse of the Garden, having stopped 12 of 13 shots in 27:28 of action in a preseason game against the Devils on Sept. 18.

"I played lots of games in American Hockey League, and it's good for me -- I like the small rink," Shesterkin said. "I like lots of shots."

Shesterkin's most recent game for the Wolf Pack, a 3-1 victory in Providence, was his fourth win in a row, over which he allowed four total goals. On Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, he'll have a chance at backstopping the Blueshirts to their third straight victory on Broadway. It won't just be his best day this week; it'll be a day he's dreamed about since he was a kid growing up in Moscow.

"I think (players) who play hockey," Shesterkin said, "every young guy, every big guy, wants to play in the NHL."

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