Hendrix Lapierre being introduced to the Capital One Arena crowd during his NHL debut Credit: Kelyn Soong

For a split second Wednesday night, Washington Capitals rookie Hendrix Lapierre lay flat on his back on the ice before T.J. Oshie forcefully yanked him up by his jersey onto his skates. Neither could stop smiling. Lapierre, in his NHL debut, had just scored his first NHL goal, and the 18,000-plus fans inside Capital One Arena roared. The fans, back inside the arena at full capacity after nearly two years of restrictions due to the pandemic, had plenty to celebrate. The 19-year-old Lapierre played a key role in the Capitals’ 5-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Washington’s historic opening night that also saw Alex Ovechkin reach fifth place on the all-time NHL goals list.

“I knew it was his first one, I was super excited, and I just thought the celebration would have been better with him on his feet,” Oshie said after the game. “It was just a great moment. You can see not only me but the other guys on the ice and everyone on the bench was super happy for him.”

Lapierre’s goal, assisted by Oshie and Conor Sheary, gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead more than midway through the second period and served as an introduction of sorts for Lapierre to a fanbase eager for the next generation of stars. The Capitals selected Lapierre with the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and the Quebec native made the most of training camp, recording five assists in four preseason games, to earn his spot in the lineup opening night. With Nicklas Bäckström placed on long-term injured reserve and set to miss at least 10 games, Capitals coach Peter Laviolette looked to Lapierre to help fill the void.

“He’s a young kid that maybe wasn’t slotted right away but you come into training camp and you work hard, you try and make a team, and the door opened up with Nick going on the IR for a little bit, and we needed somebody step up,” Laviolette said. “He got an opportunity tonight, and it was really cool.”

For Lapierre, the moment gave him a sense of validation. He said Wednesday that he had “a really tough draft year” in which he didn’t play many games.

“So when the Caps drafted me, honestly, I was really excited, and I think I really wanted to show everyone what kind of player I was and that even if I had a tough year, it wasn’t gonna affect me,” Lapierre told reporters. “So I came to camp with a goal in mind. And everyone is really helpful here. I feel like I’ve grown a lot not only as a player, but as a person, too, in the past month, and so it’s really fun to be around those guys.”

It helps that he got his first NHL goal out of the way in just one game with his family in the crowd. At first, Lapierre did not even see the puck go in to the net. He originally thought that he hit it right into the chest of Rangers goaltender Alexandar Georgiev. It wasn’t until he heard the crowd erupt that he knew he scored.

“I didn’t really see my first goal, but I kind of heard it,” Lapierre said. “I think everyone was pretty excited … It’s a good team win and to cap it off with a goal—the first goal—is good. And now I think I can just play hockey without thinking about that.”