New York Rangers veteran goaltender Henrik Lundqvist surprisingly started in a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of their best-of-five qualifying-round series Saturday as rookie Igor Shesterkin was deemed "unfit to play."
The move was a surprise announcement for the NHL's first game back after a nearly five-month pause because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shesterkin, 24, started in the Rangers' lone exhibition game, though Lundqvist played the second half. Alexandar Georgiev served as the backup to Lundqvist during the loss to Carolina.
Lundqvist made 34 saves, but he allowed a goal to Jaccob Slavin one minute into the game, on the first shot he faced.
"I think I approached this camp to just be ready for anything, come well-prepared, work hard, whatever they ask me to do, I'll be ready for," Lundqvist said. "Obviously the plan was to play Igor and last night they told me I was going in."
"Unfit to play" is the NHL's new catch-all designation for any player who is absent from on-ice activities. The NHLPA pushed for medical privacy in negotiations with the NHL as it planned how to stage play during the pandemic.
Rangers coach David Quinn did not disclose what Shesterkin was dealing with, adding that he found out Friday night that Shesterkin would be unavailable. The coach is not sure if Shesterkin can play in Game 2 on Monday.
The game broadcast showed Shesterkin sitting in the arena, a signal he had not tested positive for COVID-19. According to the NHL protocol, a player who tests positive must immediately isolate.
Sources told ESPN that, through Friday, the NHL had not received any positive COVID-19 tests in the bubble. The league is administering roughly 1,500 tests a day in each of its two hub cities, in Toronto and Edmonton.
"If concussions were contagious, I think players would feel differently about it," Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the executive director of the NHLPA, said last month. "I think the guys certainly understand the notion that if they are not honest with symptoms or how they might feel that they put their entire team in jeopardy."
Though the Rangers are looking to the future with Shesterkin, a prospect who came over from the KHL this season, they now turn to the 38-year-old Lundqvist, a franchise legend who is still hoping to win a Stanley Cup with the team.
Lundqvist, whose contract runs through the end of the 2020-21 season, has appeared or started in each of the Rangers' last 127 playoff games, dating to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2006. His streak of 127 consecutive playoff starts is the third-longest in NHL history, trailing Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy.
The Rangers swept their season series against Carolina, and Lundqvist started in three of those four games. He went 3-0-0 with a 2.33 GAA and a .947 save percentage, making at least 40 saves in two of the three games.
"I just try to enjoy the moment, to be out there and play," Lundqvist said after Saturday's loss. "I approached this camp pretty open minded and just work hard and see what happens. I take every start as an opportunity to play the game, enjoy the game, and help the team.
"I'm just happy I got an opportunity to play. I enjoy being out there and being able to compete."