Anthony Bitetto said he didn’t have words to describe what it was like to play his first game as a Ranger on Monday night against the Penguins. So what was it like to score his first goal as a Ranger on Thursday?
"I don’t know, it was magical,’’ said Bitetto, who is from Island Park. "I usually don’t score those type of goals. And you put on that [Liberty] jersey and weird things happen.’’
Bitetto’s goal at 9:15 of the second period gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead. It would have been the winner if not for Alex Ovechkin’s goal at 11:01 of the third, which cut the Caps’ deficit to 3-2 in what became a 4-2 Rangers win.
The most important thing, Bitetto said, is that the Rangers won. "That’s a huge game for us as a team,’’ he said. "That’s a Cup contender team [in Washington] that we played, and I think we took a big step forward.’’
Bitetto’s goal was a world-class play. He drove down the right boards, along the wall, around behind the net and up the other wing. He took a hit from Carl Hagelin but kept going. Halfway up the boards, he peeled off to the middle, with the puck on his backhand, and flicked a backhander through teammate Julian Gauthier’s legs for his first goal since Nov. 18, 2017.
"It was a blackout moment, pretty much,’’ he said. "After I wheeled the net, I got hit, and for some reason, the middle opened up. And I was like, ‘I’m gonna get the puck to the net, see what happens.’ There was a couple guys yelling for it, but I was like, ‘Let me just get this on net and regroup.’ And then, next thing you know, it went in. So yeah, I’ll take it.’’
Coach David Quinn was asked what he was thinking as Bitetto was skating with the puck. "I was thinking, ‘Holy bleep’ and ‘What is he doing?’ " Quinn said. "And then it goes in the back of the net. And I thought it was a good play by the end of it.’’
Kakko back in lineup
Second-year forward Kaapo Kakko was back in the Rangers’ lineup after missing Monday’s victory over Pittsburgh because he was on the COVID-19 protocol list.
Players on the list haven’t necessarily tested positive for the virus but may have been deemed to be in close contact with someone who has, or perhaps were the subject of a false positive.
Kakko, 19, skated on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome against Washington on Thursday night. He had started the season in that role but was moved midway through the opening game.
Quinn said he likes the way Kakko has played lately and, with Colin Blackwell still unavailable because of an upper-body injury, Kakko with Panarin and Strome "is our best look.’’
When he dropped Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 NHL draft, from the Panarin-Strome line, Quinn suggested he might have felt pressure to constantly get the puck to Panarin. Playing on the third line may have freed him up to play his own game, the coach theorized.
Playing with Filip Chytil, Kakko scored two goals in the next three games. He hadn’t scored since Chytil got injured in a game in Pittsburgh Jan. 24.
Quinn said he has come to the realization that he has to look at Kakko differently now.
"What we have to do as a staff, and everybody has to do, is stop comparing him to where we want him to be: the ultimate player,’’ Quinn said. "We have a vision of what we think Kaapo Kakko is going to look like. He’s 19 years old. Our job is to continue to monitor him and make sure he continues to get better and better. And he’s doing that.’’
With Brendan Smith (upper body) and Jack Johnson (groin) unavailable, D Libor Hajek was activated off the practice squad and made his season debut. He did so on his 23rd birthday.