Good rivalry is also backed by intriguing subplots carried over from games or even seasons. The mutual animosity between Sean Avery and Martin Brodeur was kerosene thrown on the fire against the Devils. The fighting between Ovechkin and Lundqvist is a hallmark of the seemingly annual competition with the capitals. The 24/7 HBO documentary and winter classic built suspense and a story to an already healthy rivalry with the Flyers.
For the past two decades, any rivalry between the Rangers and the islanders has been bolstered by tradition and geography. Now they will both compete directly for one of the available playoff spots in the makeshift East Division for 2020-21. Better yet, for the first time in a long time, an intriguing rivalry-within-the-rivalry is in the works.
Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin head to opening night on the Rangers and Islanders rosters, respectively. Both were called up in 2014 and soon found themselves in a fiery battle for playing time at the 2014-2015 World Junior Championships. Sorokin started the tournament as a Russian starter, although Shesterkin stole the job early on. Shesterkin beat him until he was withdrawn from the Gold Medal contest and replaced by Sorokin.
From there, both maintained a friendship off the ice but competitive rivalry on it. Shesterkin would and Sorokin would become the starting goalkeepers for SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, respectively, the two top teams in the KHL. Sorokin defeated Shesterkin for his playing time at the 2016 and 2017 World Championships, while Shesterkin eventually defeated him on the Russian depth map in 2018.
The two are widely regarded as two of the best young goalkeepers in the world. Six years of competitive rivalry trickles down the pond. Now they are both here, ready to assert themselves as the future backstops of their respective NHL franchises. Shesterkin has never played against the Islanders in his 13 NHL games. Sorokin has yet to play in the NHL. A mutual opening night debut (of sorts) would be an incredible moment reinforcing this goalkeeper rivalry and serving as a reminder to set the tone not just for the season, but possibly for years to come.
Except that the islanders refuse to contribute. Head Coach Barry Trotz announced that Semyon Varlamov would get the start on Thursday.
Other day, # Islands Barry Trotz called Semyon Varlamov opening night starter. He doesn’t provide specific details on when Ilya Sorokin will see his first action. He says he has to get his keeper into a ‘rhythm’. Maybe more like the playoffs.
Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) January 12, 2021
The opening night start is usually given to a team’s starting goalkeeper, and while Varlamov is the Islanders 1A at best, I can see why that privilege may be failing him. However, the delegation of that start is based on nothing more than a ceremony. Perhaps it would be ill-fated if the Canadiens rejected Carey Price, a veteran goalkeeper with prestige and a long tenure in Montreal from that privilege. But Varlamov was an average goalkeeper in his career, having played 65 games as an Islander. There is no existential obligation to give him this start.
This game is worth the same two points as the other 55 the Islanders will play this season, including seven more against the Rangers. Sorokin will certainly start plenty of it. With both goalkeepers fresh, burden management cannot influence the decision, and if the islanders had a stake in the performance of a small sample against a particular team, that kind of data wouldn’t even support confidence in Varlamov; he posted a .857 save percentage in three lost attempts by the Ranger last season and has a .897 career save percentage in 13 starts from their opponent on Thursday (via Hockey reference).
Trotz’s primary loyalty is to optimize his team’s chances of winning, both on Thursday and in the long run, but the argument that this particular goaltending decision does that is weak at best.
Let’s face it, the rivalry between the Rangers and the islanders has gotten stale. The Denis Potvin incident is more than 40 years old at this point. They have not faced each other in the play-offs since 1994. A goaltending duel during the opening night between the best Russian goalkeepers against rivals from New York is an organic story that fell during the competition round. It’s an opportunity to start over and get started with the rivalry. The islanders are seizing this opportunity for no very good reason.
These two will eventually face each other, probably even this season, but it will be a watered-down affair compared to what it could be on Thursday. In the meantime, these two New York teams will have to start the season with the same tired points of hostility.
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