Rangers' Alexandar Georgiev gets surprise start in pivotal clash against Hurricanes

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RALEIGH, N.C. — When the Rangers faced the Hurricanes in the Toronto bubble during the 2020 qualifying round, Alexandar Georgiev never got a shot to play in goal for the Blueshirts during Carolina’s three-game sweep.

Georgiev had put together an excellent summer camp preceding the qualies, but so had Igor Shesterkin and so had Henrik Lundqvist in the final hours of the three-goalie tribulation. Shesterkin surely would have been named the starter, but when he sustained a groin injury during a pre-tournament exhibition against the Islanders, Lundqvist got the call for each of the first two games.

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After Shesterkin recovered, he got Game 3. Georgiev, who had backed up in the first two defeats, did not dress for the series finale of the sound dismissal that reverberated throughout 2020-21.

Friday night, Georgiev not only dressed for the Rangers’ match against Carolina, but also he got the starting assignment in a call from the coaching partnership of Benoit Allaire and Gerard Gallant that most assuredly caught the outside world by surprise. 

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alexandar georgiev, igor shesterkin, new york rangers, nhl

Alexandar Georgiev

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AP

It is always a surprise when a team’s No. 1 goaltender — who very well might be the NHL’s No. 1 — does not get the assignment in a showdown against a league power, even if it’s in the first of a back-to-back as this one was.

“Georgie tonight,” said Gallant, the head coach who has repeatedly indicated he leans on goaltending instructor Allaire for his goaltending decisions. “Don’t ask why.”

It needs to be said, that was not a rhetorical question. It was to be taken literally. Gallant knows why, but doesn’t want to share his reasons.

This matchup between the Rangers (26-10-4) and Hurricanes (26-8-2) for temporary supremacy in the Metropolitan Division is the first of two in two nights for the Blueshirts, who will be at home Saturday to face the bottom-dwelling Coyotes.

This marks the season’s fifth back-to-back with both Shesterkin and Georgiev on the active roster. The first two times, Georgiev played the opener on the road and Shesterkin got the back-ender at the Garden. The third time, Shesterkin got the game on the road and Georgiev played at home. The fourth time, with both at the Garden, Shesterkin played the opener while Georgiev closed out the set.

So, there has been no particular pattern. Is it possible that the Rangers are playing to ensure no worse than a split by saving Shesterkin for a night when his team might be tired? Perhaps, but that would seem contrary to the club’s ethos.

You play the game in front of you, and certainly one like this that the Rangers have been anticipating as another midseason litmus test … of themselves and their competition.

“These are fun games,” said Gallant of the matchup Friday, admitting that he was excited about it. “I say every day that I don’t care who you get the two points from, it doesn’t matter, but we haven’t faced this team and we’re pretty much together right in the standings, so it’s fun.

“We get to measure a little bit but again, it’s another game. But at the same time, you look at the standings and you see the top two teams in the division right now.” 

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alexandar georgiev, igor shesterkin, new york rangers, nhl

Georgiev filled in for Shesterkin when the latter recovered from a groin injury.

USA TODAY Sports

Shesterkin is coming off an active game Wednesday in a 6-3 Garden victory over the Maple Leafs, in which he surrendered three goals in the first period (uncharacteristically leaving some free pucks in front for second chances), before turning in 40 outstanding, spotless minutes. Instead of playing Friday, Shesterkin worked in the optional morning skate with Allaire.

Georgiev, meanwhile, has been excellent since replacing Shesterkin the third period of the Dec. 3, 1-0 victory over the Sharks after the starter injured his groin. Over his 11 games and 10 starts, Georgiev has a .931 save percentage with a 2.06 goals-against average and has had a save percentage of .923 or better in eight of the starts. The Rangers, though, are only 5-4-1 in those games.

Carolina is famous for playing fast and furious hockey across the 200×85, while sending a high volume of shots toward the net. The shot-counters are sometimes a bit generous here, too. The ‘Canes are second in the NHL to Florida in attempts per 60:00 and fourth in shots per 60:00. By the way, the Rangers are last in the NHL in attempts per 60:00 and next to last in shots per 60:00.

“Coming into this game, there’s no pressure, it’s the middle of the regular season, you hope to play well,” Gallant said. “I match up my team every time we look at the [lineups] in the morning and believe that if we play well we’re right with these teams, but we have to play well.”

And get superior goaltending.

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