55° Good Evening
55° Good Evening
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Kaapo Kakko-Jack Hughes matchup quiet, but still a big deal

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the Rangers skates against

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the Rangers skates against Jack Hughes #86 of the New Jersey Devils during the second period at Prudential Center on Oct. 17, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey.  Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

NEWARK — Teenagers in hockey are like teenagers elsewhere in life — equal parts exhilarating and exasperating, works in progress that require patience, perseverance and regular feeding.

But part of the fun is seeing how it all turns out, and for metropolitan-area hockey fans the next several seasons figure to offer plenty of that.

Players with star potential who were born after Y2K have begun to take the ice in our local rinks, and Exhibits A and B were on display on Thursday night in the Devils’ 5-2 victory over the Rangers at the Prudential Center.

It was the first regular season meeting between the Devils’ Jack Hughes and Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko, the No. 1 and 2 overall picks in the NHL Draft in June.

Hughes won not only the team honors – the Devils’ first victory in his seven-game career – but also recorded his first career point while Kakko had a quieter night.

“It’s nice to get on the board,” Hughes said afterward. “Hopefully the floodgates will open up a little bit now and they’ll start to come.”

How big was Hughes vs. Kakko?

Big enough for NBCSN to televise it nationally, promoted by an ad that read, in all capitals: “THE FIRST OF MANY: KAAPO KAKKO VS. JACK HUGHES.”

Big enough for the NHL itself to tweet out some hype, posting, “The matchup you’ve all been waiting for!”

Big enough that Rangers fan Jimmy Fallon, who has 51.4 million followers, got into it with the Devils’ mascot on Twitter calling him (or her?) a “dope” after a pie-in-the-face challenge based on the outcome.

Big enough for the game to turn into the second-most expensive ticket in the NHL this week on the resale market, according to the secondary ticket site TickPick.

It said that the average purchase price of $142.03 (as of Wednesday) was more than the average for this week’s Cardinals-Giants and Patriots-Jets games at MetLife Stadium.

None of these things are normal for a game in Newark in mid-October.

Plus: Hughes-Kakko is far from the only teenager thing going on around here.

On Monday, the Islanders’ unveiled Oliver Wahlstrom, who joined fellow 2018 first-round pick Noah Dobson on the active roster.

And there are more where those came from, including the Rangers’ Vitali Kravtsov, currently playing in Hartford and still only 19, born eight days before the start of the 2000s.

Hughes and Kakko publicly wanted no part of promoting the showdown, both insisting before the game that it was about the teams, not them.

But fans and journalists did not have to agree, and most eyes focused on the dueling 18-year-olds.

Kakko scored his first NHL goal on Saturday. Hughes was scoreless through the Devils’ first six games.

On Thursday, he centered New Jersey’s top line, between Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, and was active but sloppy at times – like a teenager. Then, 12:25 into the second period, he secured his first point.

Initially, Hughes was not given an assist on Miles Wood’s goal that put the Devils up 3-1, but it later was ruled he had tipped Matt Tennyson’s shot while standing in the slot before it banked in off Woods’ backside.

“It’s probably not my nicest play, but I’ll take it,” said Hughes, who insisted he was unconcerned when at first he was not given an assist.

“I knew they’d fix it,” he said. “It’s the NHL. They have people watching . . . Mentally, it’s just good to get on the board, be more at peace and ready keep it going.”

Asked about the teams’ rivalry, Hughes said he noticed that only about 60 percent of the fans at the Rock were rooting for the Devils, the other 40 or so for the visitors.

“It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “It’s a really, really special rivalry to play in and the two teams are pretty similar, so it could be a pretty good rivalry for the next couple of years.”

The Devils and Rangers are counting on a lot more than a “couple of years” for Hughes vs. Kakko.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

New York Sports