The date was Oct. 26, 1989, and the venue was the iconic Boston Garden. The Quebec Nordiques were in town to face off against the Boston Bruins. Sergei Mylnikov made history as the first Russian (then USSR) goalie to play in an NHL game between the pipes. Mylnikov’s career lasted only ten games; however, he paved the way for future Russians to make the jump across the pond and suit up for the world’s greatest league.
Players began to defect and come over one at a time. Forwards and defensemen started to impact NHL rosters; however, goalies were late to the game. One of the game’s greatest netminders of all-time, four-time Olympic Gold Medalist Vladislav Tretiak, was once drafted by the Montreal Canadiens (1983) but never dared to cross the Pacific for a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Andrei Trefilov joined the Calgary Flames during the 1992-93 season, becoming just the second Russian goalie, one season before Mikhail Shtalenkov made his debut for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1993-94. Shtalenkov carved his name into the record books on April 22, 1997, when he played 0:26 in a Stanley Cup playoff game, becoming the first Russian to see action in the postseason.
Slowly, Russians began to flood the NHL goalie pool. Current Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov was one of those new kids after his debut with the Washington Capitals in 2008-09. By the end of the next season, six exports played in at least one NHL game, almost doubling the previous season’s totals. That season began a streak of six straight years with at least five Russians holding down a starting or backup goalie role on an NHL roster.
Respect the Past, Forge the Future
The 2020-21 season marked the first time in league history that 11 Russian goalies got at least one start in the regular season. Five of those goalies, Varlamov, Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders), Sergei Bobrovsky (Florida), Ilya Samsonov (Washington), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), started in at least one game of playoffs. Only three goalies, Varlamov, Sorokin, and Vasilevskiy, advanced to the second round, which means we won’t have an all-Russian final as we did during the 2019-20 season. The bubble in Edmonton marked the first time two Soviet-born goalies battled for the silver chalice, as Vasilevskiy’s Tampa Bay Lightning beat out Anton Khudobin’s Dallas Stars in six games.
There have been a total of 20 Russian-born goalies to play at least one game in the history of the NHL, and the Islanders’ current Varlamov-Sorokin duo is chasing something that has eluded all but three of their countrymen, the Stanley Cup. In 2020, Vasilevsky became just the second Russian goalie to lead his team to the championship, following Nikolai Khabibulin’s footsteps, who accomplished the feat in 2004. Ilya Bryzgalov was a member of the Anaheim Ducks, who won the Cup in 2007 but served primarily as a backup to Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
The Islanders recently advanced to the second round of the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their hopes for a championship currently rest on a veteran, Varlamov, and rookie, Sorokin. The duo is just the second pair of Russian goalies to backstop a team to the second round of the playoffs after the 2010-11 Philadelphia Flyers advanced past the first round with Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky in the crease.
No Russian tandem has ever advanced to the Conference Finals, which is the task in front of Sorokin and Varlamov. During the shortened 2019-20 campaign, Varlamov carried the Islanders to the Eastern Conference Finals, where Vasilevskiy outdueled him en route to the Final. The 20 postseason games Varlamov suited up for was a career-high, besting a 13 game playoff run during his rookie season with the Capitals. Sorokin, meanwhile, is just 22 games into his professional career and showed no signs of being intimidated with four straight wins to start his playoff career. The rookie netminder knocked off the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins and held some of the game’s greatest players to just a few points in the process.
Only 12 Russian goalies have played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Evgeni Nabokov is the current leader in games played (86) and wins (42); however, Varlamov is skilled enough to catch up and finish in the top spots when he decides to retire. Sorokin has already leapfrogged four compatriots in games played and wins with just four games under his belt. To fully appreciate Sorokin’s hot playoff start, he is just nine wins behind two-time Vezina winner Bobrovsky, who has only 13 career wins in 41 playoff games.
The future of Russian netminders in the NHL is pretty bright, and there are no limits to where they can go. Fans in the New York area will be spoiled when their respective teams meet since both the Islanders and Rangers currently employ all Russian tandems. The matchups between these two storied franchises have always been intense, and it is safe to say that future battles between Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin will be must-watch TV.
Related: The Russian Goalie Invasion
Regarding the second-round matchup between the Islanders and the Boston Bruins, Sorokin and Varlamov have a chance to make history together. The Islanders have built a contender in Uniondale and should be thankful for the few brave souls who left their home countries to blaze a trail for their current netminders to ply their trade in North America.
Ryan Gagne is back for his second tour of duty with The Hockey Writers. In 2021 he wrote about the New York Islanders and now will embrace the challenge of covering the Calgary Flames. The best part of this new assignment is Ryan currently lives in Edmonton and will get to see both sides of the Battle of Alberta up close and personal. None of this will make much sense since he was born and raised in New England and the Boston Bruins are his still team.