This won’t be the Garden party envisioned by Alexis Lafreniere when the lad from Saint-Eustache contemplated his NHL debut once the pingpong ball came up bearing the Rangers’ logo the second week of August.
His folks won’t be in the building. His sister won’t be in the building. Nor will members of the 19-year-old’s extended family and his friends. What’s more, those nearest and dearest to Lafreniere won’t even be able to congregate to watch on television from a centralized location in his native province.
The COVID-19 restrictions in force are that tight in Quebec. There is a curfew from 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Indoor gatherings are strictly limited.
“They all have to be separate, for sure,” Lafreniere said following the club’s final on-ice prep for Thursday’s opener against the Islanders. “I’m sure everybody will be watching, my friends, my family, for sure it’s going to be exciting for them, too.
“I can’t wait for my first game.”
The absence of media at camp, coupled with the absence of exhibition games, has perhaps tamped down the hype as Lafreniere gets set for his debut. Indeed, as camp evolved and K’Andre Miller played his way not only onto the roster, but also onto a matchup pair alongside Jacob Trouba, the 21-year-out of Wisconsin became the shiny new toy.
Still, that does not dim the spotlight that will be trained on Lafreniere, who is set to become the first No. 1-overall draft selection drafted by the Rangers to play for the Rangers. The franchise’s only other franchise first-overall pick, Andre Veilleux in 1965, did not make it to the NHL.
“Obviously there are a lot of nerves, but I’m really excited and looking forward to my first NHL game,” Lafreniere said. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time, so it’s going to be a special moment, for sure.
“My first shift, maybe, I’ll try to have a quick one and then we’ll go from there.”
Lafreniere is ticketed to play on the third line with 21-year-old Filip Chytil, who has 144 NHL regular-season games under his belt, and 23-year-old Julien Gauthier, a veteran of 17 regular-season big league contests. Babes in the woods. But they’re hardly alone.
Indeed, the Blueshirts will open with eight players age 23 or younger plus another half-dozen who are 24 or 25. The training center in Tarrytown and the Garden have turned into youth centers. This recalls a pair of earlier eras in franchise history in which a band of kids developed into a unit and were instrumental in the team’s ascension.
In the 1970s, the group featured Ron Greschner, Ron Duguay, Don Murdoch, Dave Maloney, Don Maloney, Pat Hickey, Mike McEwen, Lucien DeBlois, Dave Farrish, John Davidson (acquired in a trade following his second season) and Nick Fotiu.
The Post’s Rangers podcast, “Up In The Blue Seats,” returns with its season premiere on Thursday.
And then there were Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist to carry the banner into and through much of the 2010s.
Each of those eras culminated with a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the first in 1979, the next in 2014. This group, augmented by the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Trouba and Ryan Strome, ultimately aims to take it to the next step.
But first things first. A Lafreniere debut. Kaapo Kakko, the second-overall selection of 2019, on the second line, which is where he began last season with Kreider and Strome. Igor Shesterkin making his first NHL opening night start. A battle against the conference-finalist Islanders. In an empty arena.
“We’re going to be one of the youngest teams in the league again, but the older guys we do have and the guys who have experience have really been helping the young guys and I think it’s meshing pretty well,” said Kreider, the club’s senior member in point of service. “Something I’ve seen is the guys who might have been 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds last year and some guys in their first year seem a lot more comfortable on the ice and in the room.
“I think the group has been together long enough that there’s that comfortability with everyone. The new guys are being welcomed and have fit in right away. The exciting thing is how much potential this group has and the potential each individual has for growth day by day through the season.”
Lafreniere, who will share an apartment with Miller this season, said he made adjustments as camp evolved and as he and his linemates became more familiar with each other’s tendencies.
“I think I improved since Day 1,” No. 13 said. “Guys are a lot quicker on you and you’ve got to make quicker decisions and so you have to be ready to make a play as soon as you get the puck.
“That’s the thing I’ve been working on and I’m still trying to get better at it. I just try to improve and get better every day.”
Thursday is Day 1 for Lafreniere and Day 1 for the Rangers. Parties in Manhattan will be deferred, but chances are that a noisemaker or two will be heard ’round Quebec.