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Recap: Blueshirts Win in Shesterkin's Debut

Rookie Stops 29 as Resilient Rangers Fight Off Avs

by Michael Obernauer

It would be perfectly natural for Igor Shesterkin to have been nervous on Tuesday, and he swore that at some point, he was.

"He didn't look too nervous when he made that 70-foot saucer pass," David Quinn said with a grin. "That might have calmed his nerves a little bit."

That little rookie-to-rookie connection - Shesterkin dropping an airborne pass covering half the rink right onto Kaapo Kakko's stickblade - was a sight that had the Garden buzzing not even two minutes into Shesterkin's NHL career. But what really kicked up a fuss on Broadway was the fact that from that point on, nothing - not the moment and not the setting, not the opponent, not even the early deficit that might have sunk a fragile rookie - not one thing on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden proved too big for Igor Shesterkin.

And so the Rangers' 24-year-old rookie added his biggest accomplishment yet to a ledger full of them this week: Named to the AHL All-Star team on Friday, called up to the Rangers on Monday, a winning goaltender in the National Hockey League on Tuesday.

Shesterkin made 29 saves in his NHL debut, and he and his Ranger teammates shut the door on the NHL's highest-scoring team in the late stages of the Blueshirts' 5-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night. Shesterkin stopped 28 of the final 29 shots he saw, including all 13 from the Avs over the final 20 minutes, and the Rangers opened up a crucial stretch home games - 10 out of 13 surrounding the All-Star break are at the Garden - with a convincing victory over a Western Conference powerhouse.

"Our guys came ready to play," Quinn said afterward.

They put together a perfect ending, with Shesterkin's wife and his parents among the Garden crowd to witness it, but if the Rangers had been writing the script they would have used a little Wite-Out on Act I. Shesterkin's initial welcome to the NHL included a tip-in by J.T. Compher and a breakaway for, of all people, Nathan MacKinnon, the third-leading scorer in the NHL -- the latter of which had the rookie and the Rangers staring down a 2-0 deficit only 6:34 into Shesterkin's debut.

For a goaltender who said afterward that his hands were shaking as he had walked into Madison Square Garden that afternoon, his response to such early adversity painted a different portrait.

"Honestly, I wasn't panicking," Shesterkin, the Rangers' fourth-round Draft pick in 2014, said after the game, through an interpreter. "I kind of just laughed it off, and I saved the next goals and gained confidence as the game went on."

Quinn lauded the goaltender's ability "to be mentally tough enough to kind of pull himself together - just like our whole team."

Quinn's Rangers wound up scoring five of the next six goals in the game, from Chris Kreider's power-play tally to get them on the board, right through Artemi Panarin's empty-netter to seal it - and perhaps the empty-netter best tells the story of how the Rangers played, since it came off of Jesper Fast's defensive play to halt MacKinnon at the blue line, and Zibanejad's quick support to swat the puck out for Panarin to kill the game.

Panarin finished with a goal and two assists, and Fast set a career high with three assists, including a second-period beauty to Ryan Strome that wound up being the game-winner.
Mika Zibanejad and Brady Skjei also scored for the Blueshirts, and those two happened to be the ice-time leaders among all players in the game while skating career highs for a 60-minute game: Skjei at 27:12, and Zibanejad next at 25:32.

"That kind of shows the character that we have built in here," Zibanejad said. "Early on in the season we would probably have just folded and not be able to come back and respond the way we did, or as quick as we did."

The Rangers played the final two periods without Ryan Lindgren, who suffered an upper-body injury after a thundering body check into Joonas Donskoi (who left the game) and an ensuing fight with Nazem Kadri (who received an instigator penalty). Quinn said Lindgren was held out for precautionary reasons, adding: "We think he's going to be fine."

Shesterkin, meanwhile, became the 50th rookie goaltender to play in a game for the Rangers, and one of only two who have picked up a win in their regular-season debut at Madison Square Garden: Shesterkin and a guy whose number hangs from that building's rafters, named Mike Richter.
Richter fell behind just 3:50 his first regular-season game, against the Whalers back on Oct. 19, 1989; on Tuesday night, the Avalanche, coming off a shutout loss on Long Island the night before, got one past Shesterkin on Compher's deflection 4:44 in. Then an ice surface that made the puck a jumping bean all night had a hand in setting up MacKinnon's blue-line-in break, which he settled and steered through Shesterkin's pads at 6:34.

"There was just composure on the bench - we felt really good, we had good legs," Strome said. And as for the goaltender: "He didn't look nervous at all to me. Just kind of went about his business."

Strome set up Kreider for a power-play redirection at 8:57, then after an enormous kill of a Jacob Trouba interference minor, Zibanejad tied it when he outmuscled Cale Makar in the slot to swipe home Tony DeAngelo's deflected feed.

Skjei put the Rangers ahead with a long slapper through a Fast screen 8:05 into the second, and after Compher's second of the game at 11:32, Strome snapped the final tie at 13:39 when Fast, with his back to Philipp Grubauer (24 saves), tapped a rebound over to Strome to give him a wide-open net for the winner.

"Any time you get a four-by-six, you can't miss those," Strome said. "Nice play by Quickie."

Fast, incidentally, has scored twice in two games against New Jersey this season, and coming off this career-best three-assist night, he and the Rangers will see the Devils again on Thursday night at the Garden. It remains to be seen when Shesterkin will get another crack at the nets, but on a night when nothing whatsoever looked too big for him, the rookie goaltender seemed to hint afterward that hey, that was nothing.

"I liked it, but I can play a lot better," Shesterkin said. "I just need to get used to it a little bit more."

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