Alexis Lafrenière, the Rangers’ top pick in the 2020 NHL draft, didn’t play a game in his native Montreal during his rookie season, as the COVID-19 pandemic limited the Broadway Blueshirts to playing within their own division.
But the 20-year-old phenom finally took the ice Saturday at the Bell Centre in his hometown, before a packed house that included members of his family sitting in the luxury boxes. Lafrenière rose to the occasion in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Canadiens, delivering not just the team’s first victory of the season, but also a glimpse of his superstar potential.
With 10:10 left in a 1-1 game, the young left-winger slickly slipped the puck off to his right side past Canadiens goalie Jake Allen, putting the Rangers in front to stay. The cameras immediately captured the euphoric Lafrenière family finally getting the opportunity to cheer on their young star in his NHL game in Quebec.
Along the way, he wound up taking a high stick to the chin, causing a wound that required “a couple of stitches” to close, Lafrenière said. Still, the minor injury didn’t dampen the thrill of the moment.
“It was just really special, just to score, especially in Montreal,” Lafrenière said. “The building was electric tonight, so it was pretty fun.”
During the post-game press conference, Lafrenière admitted to being nervous while taking the ice in his hometown, at least for the first few shifts. But the nerves eventually settled as the game went on, thanks in part to the assistance of his line mates, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox.
“They make my job so easy,” he said. “If I go out there and use my skills, I think I’m gonna be good with these guys.”
For his part, Zibenajad said that he thought Lafrenière would be nervous in his first Montreal game, though he “didn’t look nervous at all.”
“The way he handled himself and the way he played, I’m super, super happy,” Zibanejad said.
Lafrenière’s third-period goal gave the Rangers the spark they needed after struggling through the first two games of the young 2021-22 campaign, which has seen a number of injuries to key players already. The latest blow came in the first period when Rangers right-winger Kappo Kakko went down to an unspecified upper-body injury. He’s day-to-day at this point, according to Rangers’ head coach Gerard Gallant.
But the Blueshirts overcame the adversity in Montreal with Lafrenière’s goal and the fine net-minding of goalie Igor Shesterkin, who made 31 saves Saturday night.
For Zibanejad, the effort provided optimism that the Rangers’ best games this season aren’t that far away.
“I think we’re building on something good here. I feel like we’ve been playing very similar throughout the three games,” he said. “I think tonight we played more consistent, the way we want to play. Obviously that gave us the win, and we’ve just got to keep doing that.”
The Rangers will look for their second victory of the season Monday night in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.