NEW YORK — Kakkomania. That's what engulfed Madison Square Garden for the New York Rangers' season opener Thursday night.
Kaapo Kakko took the ice for his NHL debut and from the moment he was introduced to his picture going up during the national anthem, the Garden faithful went crazy for the youngest Ranger.
Despite the pregame hype and the lofty expectations, Kakko was unfazed, focused and collected in the Rangers 6-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets — characteristics that have always been evident in the 2019 second-overall pick.
Still, despite being soft-spoken and not a man of many words, just a few of them were enough to reveal that he was thrilled with the official start of his career.
"So good . . . good start for the season," he said with a wide grin after the game, later adding, "So good feeling."
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The Finn impressed on the second line, fitting in seamlessly alongside Ryan Strome and Chris Kreider. Utilizing his speed, hockey IQ and vision, Kakko made his presence known on each shift, lurking dangerously and running with the chances that came his way — whether that was weaving through defenders, making crafty passes or showing off his shot.
At the other end of the rink, he played just as well, showing off his defensive skill-set.
"We didn't give up a lot, which is important — especially for an 18-year-old," Kreider said of Kakko. "That's probably the hardest thing adjusting to the NHL is playing defense against some of the best players in the world. You know, he didn't miss a beat."
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As time went on, Kakko said that he was able to shake off the nerves and ease more into the game.
"I was so, so excited before the game," Kakko mused. "That was the biggest thing. Good start for the season and our line play so well and all the team."
Although he didn't get his first tally, he finished the night leading all Rangers' skaters in power-play ice time (2:19) while also recording three shots and a takeaway through 15:31.
Head coach David Quinn was ultimately impressed with No. 24, who was prominent on the ice despite staying off the scoresheet.
"The one thing I think about him . . . I don't think he's going to have many bad nights," Quinn said. "He may not have a great night, but he's not going to have a bad night. And right away that makes you a pro. And that's one of the things we talk about is not so much 'how good is your good,' but how 'bad is your bad.' You know, after a game, you may think, 'Eh, Kaapo was okay, and that'll be his bad night.' If that's the case, he's going to have a hell of a career."
Looking back at the game, Kakko reminisced on some of his scoring chances and looking ahead to Saturday's contest against the Ottawa Senators.
"That's my game. I like to [play with speed]," Kakko said. "Hopefully, I score next time."