Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko showing potential, but goals hard to come by

LAS VEGAS — Jumping out on a shorthanded breakaway against the Blues on Monday night at the Garden, Kaapo Kakko zeroed in on Jordan Binnington.

The St. Louis netminder came out a bit to challenge the move, but Kakko finessed the puck right around him until it was just the goal line standing between him and his first goal in seven games. At the last second, Kakko’s momentum carried him to a bad angle behind the Blues’ net and as he tried to corral the puck in, it hit the goal post. His stick also got tied up on the post and Binnington was able to cover the loose puck.

“I don’t know, it was a good move,” Kakko told The Post before the Rangers faced the Golden Knights on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena, where he scored the opening goal of the game. “Especially when I’m playing against a goalie who is coming so close to you. I think it was a good move, but I don’t know maybe right now I just can’t put pucks in. It is what it is.”

That play is essentially a microcosm of Kakko’s season: a beautiful, high-skill move that takes a bad bounce at the last second. The Finnish winger has taken tremendous strides this season toward living up to his second-overall selection in the 2019 draft, but he is still missing the points to substantiate it.

Kaapo Kakko
NHLI via Getty Images

In the second period of the Rangers’ 6-4 win over the Blues, Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere were bumped up to the top line with Mika Zibanejad. That’s how the Rangers lined up again Wednesday night in Vegas, so the opportunities for Kakko to put it all together should now be plentiful — but only if Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant gives the trio a legitimate run, of course.

In just 5:39 of ice time, according to Natural Stat Trick, Lafreniere, Zibanejad and Kakko posted two goals and held a 5-3 edge in scoring chances. For such a small sample size, there couldn’t be more of a ringing endorsement to see what those three could do with more minutes.

“I was happy,” Kakko said of getting moved up to the first line. “I think the first two periods, I didn’t play that much. So that’s not good at all when you’re watching some guys playing a lot and then you are getting little chances and then back on the bench. That’s not what you want to do. I like to play with both of those guys. I’ve been playing with Laffy a long time.

“The first [13] games of the season I played with [Chris Kreider] and Mika. I like those guys, too. Mika was there with us, I know he’s playing a lot. So if you play with him, you’re going to be out there a lot. I was happy about that.”

Kakko is clearly itching for more playing time. An extended look on the right wing of Zibanejad’s line should fulfil his wish.

Just as Gallant appears to be giving the youngsters another top-six opportunity, Vitali Kravtsov was expected to be left out of it. After skating in the previous four games, over which he seemingly found some confidence, Kravtsov looked primed to be a healthy scratch Wednesday night. Barclay Goodrow replaced him on the right wing of Artemi Panarin and Filip Chytil, who returned to the lineup after missing two games with a lower-body injury.

Given how the top-six changes had a positive effect on the Rangers’ last game, the matchup with the Golden Knights would’ve been a perfect opportunity to see what Lafreniere-Zibanejad-Kakko and Panarin-Chytil-Kravtsov would look like.

“Because I like him, I think he fits there,” Gallant said of why Goodrow replaced Kravtsov. “Coach’s decision.”

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