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TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan — Kaapo Kakko‘s debut with the New York Rangers was worth the wait.
The No. 2 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, Kakko scored the game-winning goal in overtime and had three assists in a 4-3 win against the Minnesota Wild at the 2019 NHL Prospect Tournament at Centre Ice Arena on Monday.
“The first game of the season, it’s not always easy, but I played with good teammates and it was good,” said Kakko, who did not play in either of New York’s first two games here because of an illness.
The goal perfectly illustrated the characteristics which made the 18-year-old forward one of the most coveted prospects in the past decade.
Playing 3-on-3, Kakko took the puck in the neutral zone and attacked the blue line with speed, dropping his shoulder to get leverage on Wild forward Adam Beckman as he drove the net. Not liking what he saw, he looped around the goal, with Beckman in pursuit, and attacked again, circling the net a second time before beating goalie Hunter Jones to the far post and tucking the puck over the goal line.
“Did you see that goal? That was ridiculous. Jesus,” Rangers forward Patrick Newell said to nobody in particular as he came of the ice.
Kakko said he did not even think about passing the puck as he drove around the net.
“It was a nice goal,” he said. “I (was) remembering my old coach from two years ago, (who said), ‘You know what? Don’t pass,’ and I didn’t.”
Rangers defenseman Adam Fox played against Kakko at the 2019 World Championship, when Kakko played for Finland and Fox for the United States.
Kakko dominated that tournament against players who were sometimes more than 10 years older. He had six goals and an assist for Finland, which finished first.
In Finland’s top professional league, Kakko had 38 points (22 goals, 16 assists) in 45 games for TPS.
Fox said he was excited to being sharing the ice with Kakko as a teammate. The Rangers will play again Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues in the fifth-place game of the tournament (12:30 p.m. ET).
“You look at him and you almost forget that he is 18 and one of the youngest guys here,” Fox said. “Like I said, there is a reason he was taken second overall, there was a reason he did so well at the World Championship. He is a big guy with a lot of skill, and I think he will do just fine in the NHL.”
Kakko (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) experienced some difficult getting going Monday despite playing on the first line with highly touted forwards Vitali Kravtsov and Karl Henriksson. But a five-minute major against Wild forward Drake Pilon with 1:13 remaining in the second period brought Kakko to life.
At 1:06 of the third period, he had the secondary assist on a power-play goal by Kravtsov to get the Rangers rolling. At 2:42, he made a nice cross-ice pass to Kravtsov for the tying goal, again on the power play.
“It is so hard, it is a smaller rink and not like in Finland, so it is a different game,” Kakko said.
Then, with 1:37 remaining, he set up Newell for the tying goal. It was a dominating 20 minutes of hockey and it provided a hint of the youth movement that the Rangers are so excited about, a pipeline that is headlined by Kakko, Kravtsov and Fox.
Kravtsov was a first-round pick (No. 9) by the Rangers at the 2018 Draft.
“Starting at development camp, you kind of saw what those guys could do and you definitely thing about playing with them in the future and the skill they have,” Fox said of Kravtsov and Kakko. “It’s exciting. Just trying to be a part of that in the future going forward is exciting.”
Video courtesy: New York Rangers