Ruslan Iskhakov impresses in his Islanders, NHL debut: ‘I have time for him’

Ruslan Iskhakov Islanders
New York Islanders’ Ruslan Iskhakov, left, talks with Sebastian Aho during a break during the first period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

ELMONT, N.Y. — Ruslan Iskhakov could not help but let out a “holy moly,” when he saw the number of reporters congregating in front of his locker.

The 23-year-old had just completed his NHL debut with the New York Islanders in a 5-4 victory on Wednesday night over the Pittsburgh Penguins at UBS Arena a mere hours after getting recalled from the organization’s minor-league affiliate in Bridgeport. 

While recording 14:11 of ice time, he recorded two shots on goal and picked up his first career NHL point — a secondary assist on Samuel Bolduc’s goal early in the third period to put the Islanders ahead 4-3. 

“That was a great experience,” Iskhakov said in what was also the Islanders’ regular-season finale before meeting the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs beginning Saturday. “I’m glad that we won. I’m pretty sure that’s going to give the guys some boost for the first game in Carolina but for me, it was a great experience.”

Iskhakov, a Moscow native, was taken in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2018 NHL Draft by the Islanders. He attended UConn for two seasons before making the jump to Europe for two years.

He arrived at Bridgeport for the 2022-23 season and across the last two minor-league campaigns, he posted 35 goals and 66 assists (104 points) in 178 games. He was an AHL All-Star this season, recording 18 goals and 32 assists.

With the Islanders resting four of their starting forwards ahead of their already-clinched playoff series, Iskhakov got the call. Wearing No. 37, he took his first solo laps during pregame warmups as is tradition with rookies making their NHL debut.

“That was a little weird,” Iskhakov admitted. “>I’ve never done it before especially because I did six laps and not one.”

Not only did he have to contend with the heightened skill level that comes with NHL opposition, he also had to line up across from some of this generation’s greatest players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Yet Iskhakov held his own, displaying quick feet and noticeable puck-handling skills.

“I just listen to my instincts and play my game,” he said “The skill level of the players is a lot higher. I wouldn’t say the speed is much faster here, I’d say it’s the same.”

There were some learning moments — most notably a first-period hit by Penguins forward Reilly Smith that flattened him in the neutral zone as he tried to carry the puck across the red line.

He adapted quickly, though. After receiving the puck on the left boards inside the Penguins’ zone, he worked the puck from out under his feet, deked a defender as he cut toward the blue line, and fed defenseman Ryan Pulock with a pass. Pulock sent it to Bolduc, whose point shot found twine to open the youngster’s NHL ledger.

“I had fun watching him play,” Islanders head coach Patrick Roy said. “The plan was to give him some ice time and to give him a chance to show us what he can do. I was very happy with what I had seen… He has great energy, he competes. He’s small but I don’t know if he knows he’s small with the way he’s been playing. That’s nice to watch. I have time for him.”

Iskhakov nearly found his first goal when he was played in on a semi-breakaway, but could not corral the puck with enough space in front of Penguins goalie Alex Nedelkovic to put any kind of move on him.

“I wanted that so badly,” Iskhakov said. “But I hope I get another opportunity now so I’ll bury the next one.”

For more on Ruslan Iskhakov and the Islanders, visit AMNY.com