A good rivalry is also supported by intriguing subplots that carry over from games, or even seasons. The mutual animosity between Sean Avery and Martin Brodeur was kerosene thrown on the fire versus the Devils. The Ovechkin-versus-Lundqvist battles are a hallmark of the seemingly annual competition with the Capitals. The 24/7 HBO Documentary and Winter Classic built tension and a narrative for an already healthy rivalry with the Flyers.
For the last two decades, any rivalry between the Rangers and Islanders has been propped up by tradition and geography. Now, they will both be in direct competition for one of the available playoff spots in the improvised East Division for the 2020-21. Better yet, for the first time in a long time, there’s an intriguing rivalry-within-the rivalry in the making.
Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin enter opening night on the Rangers’ and Islanders’ rosters respectively. Both were drafted in 2014 and soon found themselves in a fiery battle for playing time during the 2014-2015 World Junior Championship. Sorokin started the tournament as Russia’s starter, though Shesterkin stole the job early on. Shesterkin out-performed him until he was pulled from the Gold Medal game 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 goaltenders for SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, the two top teams in the KHL, respectively. Sorokin beat out Shesterkin for playing time at the 2016 and 2017 World Championships, while Shesterkin finally beat him out on Russia’s depth chart in 2018.
The two are broadly considered to be two of the top young goaltenders in the world. Six years of a competitive rivalry has been percolating across the pond. Now they’re 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. An Opening night mutual debut (of sorts) would be an incredible moment that ratifies this goaltending rivalry and serve as a memory to set the tone not just for the season, but possibly for years to come.
Except, the Islanders refuse to do their part. Head Coach Barry Trotz announced the Semyon Varlamov would be getting the start on Thursday.
Other day, #Isles Barry Trotz named Semyon Varlamov opening night starter. He's not giving any specific details on when Ilya Sorokin will see his first action. Says he needs to get his goalie into a "rhythm." Might be more like the playoffs.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) January 12, 2021
The opening night start is usually given to a team’s starting goaltender, and while Varlamov is the Islanders’ 1A at best, I can see why that privilege might default to him. However, the delegation of that start is based on nothing more than ceremony. Perhaps it would be bad optics if the Canadiens snubbed Carey Price, a veteran goaltender with prestige and a long tenure in Montreal, of that privilege. But Varlamov has been an average goaltender in his career who has played all of 65 games as an Islander. There’s 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. Surely, Sorokin will be starting plenty of those. With both goaltenders fresh, load management can’t be influencing the decision, and if the Islanders were to put any stock in a player’s small-sample performance against a given team, that kind of data wouldn’t even support confidence in Varlamov; he posted a .857 save percentage in three losing efforts to the Ranger last season and has a career .897 save percentage in 13 starts their Thursday opponent (via Hockey Reference).
Trotz’s primary loyalty is to optimizing his team’s chances of winning, both on Thursday and the long-term, but the argument that this particular goaltending decision does so is weak at best.
Let’s face it, the rivalry between the Rangers and Islanders has grown stale. The Denis Potvin incident is over 40 years old at this point. They haven’t faced off in the playoffs since 1994. An opening-night goaltending dual between top Russian goaltenders amongst New York rivals is an organic narrative that fell into the league’s lap. It’s an opportunity to start the rivalry anew and hit the ground running. The Islanders are botching this opportunity for no particularly good reason.
These two will eventually face each other, likely this season, even, but it will be a watered-down affair compared to what it could be on Thursday. In the meantime, these two New York sides will have to begin the season feeding off the same tired points of animosity.