Rangers unsung hero had funny thought after line brawl vs. Devils

NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

As Kaapo Kakko sat on the New York Rangers bench and watched four of his teammates get ejected in the opening seconds of their game against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday, a simple thought crossed his mind.

“I thought right away, I’m going to play a lot today,” Kakko said with a laugh after he helped the Rangers rally for a 4-3 win.

“I looked at our bench and not too many guys over there. That’s what I first thought.”

With Kakko and a full house at Madison Square Garden watching, the Rangers and Devils began their final meeting of the season with a line brawl, just two seconds after the opening face-off. Since New York’s Jimmy Vesey and New Jersey’s Curtis Lazar were technically the first to fight, each of the participants from the four other fights were assessed game misconducts. Vesey and Lazar only served five-minute majors.

Included in that mix was Rangers enforcer Matt Rempe and his Devils counterpart Kurtis MacDermid. Their tilt was the main event and expected, considering the simmering bad blood stemming from a March 11 game when MacDermid tried to goad the rookie into a fight. And later, Rempe was kicked out of that game when he was assessed a match penalty for elbowing Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler. Rempe was suspended four games for his actions.

Rempe, Barclay Goodrow, Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller were ejected for the Rangers. And the Devils lost MacDermid, Chris Tierney, John Marino and Kevin Bahl on Wednesday.

Related: Former Rangers enforcer understands why fans ’embrace’ Matt Rempe

Kaapo Kakko helps spur Rangers to win against Devils after line brawl

NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

But a funny thing happened to Kakko after the mass ejections. He didn’t receive a stitch more playing time. The 23-year-old logged 13:23 in ice time on New York’s third line, right on par with his average of 13:12 per game.

Center Vincent Trocheck double-shifted his way to the most ice time among Rangers forwards (26:11). But the biggest upticks were defensemen Erik Gustafsson (29:42), Adam Fox (29:39), Braden Schneider (27:36) and Ryan Lindgren (27:17) since New York was down to four defensemen for the entire game.

Kakko was undeterred by the amount of shifts he received or time on ice. He had three shots on goal and was credited with two hits. Most importantly, he scored a massive goal early in the third period to tie the game, 3-3.

There was a fortuitous break for Kakko and the Rangers that started the scoring play. And there was a simply brilliant finish by Kakko to tie the score.

Kakko collected a loose puck at his own blue line after Devils defenseman Luke Hughes broke his stick on a shot attempt. The Rangers forward took off the other way, with Hughes hounding him the whole way, perhaps a half stride behind.

When he reached the left circle, Kakko unloaded a laser over the glove of Devils goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, a goal-scorer’s goal at 5:32.

“I saw the stick break but I didn’t see the puck right away,” Kakko explained. “Then finally the breakaway. i think he did a good job to stay with me without the stick but a good shot and it went in.”

The goal was Kakko’s 13th of the season, second in as many games and third in the past four. He appears to be heating up with the Stanley Cup Playoffs right around the corner, currently on a five-game point streak.

“I feel good right now,” Kakko said. “Sometimes it’s hard when you’re not getting the ice you want, but the confidence is there with the goals. That feels good every time.”

And it was a game-changing goal, setting the stage for Chris Kreider’s power-play game-winner at 15:03

“I thought Kaapo’s goal got us going,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “They were locking down, they had the lead, so it took a minute to get through it and Kaapo got in behind them and just a terrific shot. From there, we seemed to gain a little momentum.”

Last season, Kakko scored an NHL career-high 18 goals and 40 points, playing all 82 games. This season, he missed 21 games with a lower-body injury and has yo-yoed between the third and first lines, but is only five goals shy of last season’s mark. And that’s with averaging two minutes less in ice time per game.

And on Wednesday night at MSG, Kakko came up big in a game Laviolette said the Rangers needed to win after the way it started.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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