Russian goalies Ilya Sorokin, Igor Shesterkin figure to lead Islanders, Rangers into the future
There is no telling what tomorrow will bring, let alone 2031. But as long-term bets go, one could do worse than to predict that Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin still will be in net when the Islanders and Rangers meet a decade from now.
Sure, there are many obstacles on that road, including injuries, performance, free agency and other vagaries of life. Who knows? Maybe the 2030s will bring robot goalies to counter the danger of 140-mph slap shots.
But when the two 25-year-old Russians, off-ice friends and on-ice rivals from the old country took the ice on Sunday night at Nassau Coliseum, anything seemed possible, including that someday this game will be regarded as an important historical artifact. It was the first time they have opposed one another in the NHL, another step in promising early careers.
"It’s certainly a big moment," Sorokin said after the Islanders’ 3-2 overtime victory, "because I started playing against Igor in junior leagues and now we play in the NHL. It’s a big moment for me and for him, I think."
At least this time Sorokin knew in advance he was starting. The first time he faced the Rangers, he debuted in the second game of the season when Semyon Varlamov was injured in warmups. The result that night was a 5-0 loss at Madison Square Garden.
Since then, Sorokin has been good, including an 8-0 record at the Coliseum.
Coach Barry Trotz said he always knew Sorokin was talented but also that he would face a "transitional period" in his first year in the NHL.
He credited assistant coaches Mitch Korn and Piero Greco, as well as one of Sorokin’s "best mentors" in Varlamov, who also is Russian.
Matt Martin said of Sorokin, "I don’t want to even say, ‘He’s grown.’ I think he’s become more comfortable with his new environment, his teammates, which takes time for anybody . . . I think Soroky’s been solid all year."
Shesterkin’s goalie partner, Alexandar Georgiev, has been so good against the Islanders (7-2 with a 1.70 goals-against average in his career) that coach David Quinn thought long and hard before going with Shesterkin on Sunday.
"Probably a decision that we went back and forth on more than any this year, who to play in goal tonight," Quinn said.
"Shesty, I think, his play overall has kind of put him in this position, where Georgie played a hell of a game the other night [in a 4-1 win over the Islanders], but to me, Shesty’s put himself in a position to get this opportunity."
Sorokin and Shesterkin both turned away some dangerous chances in regulation time before Ryan Pulock ended it 1:13 into overtime with his first goal of the season. Sorokin made 24 saves, Shesterkin 29.
Both teams seem to have found goalies to take them into the middle of the decade, at least. For now, Varlamov is the Islanders’ No. 1, but he turns 33 later this month.
Sorokin has remained in contact with Shesterkin, but he said they do not discuss hockey, nor does he seek his counterpart’s advice. "I have good coaches, and when you have a lot of advice, it’s not good," Sorokin said.
He did call Shesterkin his "big friend" and said playing against him is emotional.
Last summer, Shesterkin said, "We talked a lot on the phone. We’re friends. And I knew how many thoughts were going through his mind at that time, making this difficult decision [of leaving Russia for North America]. Thank God he chose this path. I will always support my friends and will greet him with a red carpet."
Sorokin played in the KHL for CSKA Moscow, Shesterkin for rival SKA St. Petersburg. They first were teammates for Russia’s national team in the world juniors in 2015.
Now they are engaged in another storied hockey rivalry. Their latest chapter opened Sunday night.