It wasn’t always the case, but Kaapo Kakko has morphed into a player who complements Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome on the Rangers’ 1B line.
With Strome’s knack for slick passes and Panarin’s ability to jump-start rushes, Kakko is now making a conscious effort to get to the net and finish the play. The brewing chemistry was on full display in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Capitals, when Panarin intercepted a pass and found Strome, who fed Kakko in front of the crease for the game-tying goal at 4:10 of the third period.
“I feel good playing with those guys,” said Kakko, who now has five goals this season. “We are playing a lot and we are getting chances and spending time in the offensive zone. So that’s good, I feel good.”
The Panarin-Strome-Kakko line had a team-high plus-three rating in the win, with Panarin picking up a goal and two assists. But it seems that the line’s potential has been unlocked with the way Kakko has focused on his net-front presence and being in the right spots when his linemates are on the rush.
“He’s doing a lot of good things, boy, he’s really grown up in a short period of time,” head coach David Quinn said. “I think he got run pretty hard by [Capitals forward Garnet] Hathaway and just to shake it off and continue to play the way he did, going to the net more. He was a key component in two goals, obviously his goal, but I think the next one when he went to the net and drew a defender with him to create space and we get the [Adam] Fox goal. Those are two big plays by him at key times and it’s a lot of fun watching a guy grow the way he has.”
Adam Fox has drawn a lot of comparison to Rangers legend Brian Leetch throughout his short NHL career, but now the second-year defenseman has actually achieved a shared feat.
With the game-winning goal at 6:32 of the third period, his first game-winner of the season, Fox became the first Rangers defenseman with 30 points in the first 35 games since Leetch did it in 2000-01. He is just the third defenseman in franchise history who has tallied at least 20 points in one calendar month, again joining Leetch — who did it five times — and Brad Park.
“A lot of things have been said about him and rightfully so,” Quinn said. “But this guy’s an elite player in this league. I thought he was last year. I know people were talking an awful lot about [Cale] Makar and [Quinn] Hughes and guys like that, but this guy is special. Not only the way he creates offense but I think an underrated part of his game, I know I’ve said this a lot, is how he defends. How he competes and how hockey tough he is and he’s a huge, huge piece of the puzzle here.”
Fox logged a team-high 23:11 of ice time in the win, which means he has now led the Rangers in ice time in 29 of the team’s 35 games this season. His 23 points since Feb. 24 are the most among NHL defensemen over that span.