The look of absolute joy on the faces of Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil after Kakko scored the fourth goal of the Rangers’ victory Saturday night over the Islanders seemed a little bigger than the normal excitement players usually display after scoring a routine goal. After all, this wasn’t a game-winner, or anything like that.
But it was a goal that clearly meant something to Kakko. And to Chytil, too.
"When you score goal, you're always happy,’’ Chytil said before the Rangers hosted the Devils Tuesday at the Garden in their third game of the season. "And we were working hard all game. We'd both been put on different lines after the first game.’’
Kakko, 19, had spent all of training camp on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. But he didn’t last a full game on that line, having been moved around late in the season-opening 5-0 loss to the Islanders last Thursday.
On Saturday, he was back down on the third line, where he played most of last season with Chytil and Phillip DiGiuseppe. Alexis Lafreniere, the other 19-year-old on the team, replaced him on the second line. Lafreniere had started the season on Chytil’s left wing.
It was clearly a promotion for Lafreniere, and a demotion for Kakko. But at the same time, it was almost like going home to a more familiar place. Kakko spent most of last season playing with Chytil and DiGiuseppe.
"I think there's a chemistry,’’ coach David Quinn said of reuniting Kakko with Chytil and DiGiuseppe. "I also think there's not maybe the pressure [Kakko] might feel in getting ‘Bread’ [Panarin] the puck all the time. I think that can happen to a guy that goes in that position. You feel so obligated to keep feeding Panarin.
"So maybe there is a little bit of relief, to some degree, that he's playing with a guy [in Chytil, 21] that's around his age, that they've got a good relationship away from the rink,’’ Quinn continued. "And maybe he plays a little bit freer, or not with all that pressure — self-induced pressure — that he probably puts on himself when he plays with Strome and Panarin.’’
The move might not just be about Kakko, though. If Kakko, the second pick overall in the 2019 draft, might have been feeling pressured to get the puck to Panarin, the 2020 Hart Trophy finalist, it’s possible that Chytil, a late first round pick in 2017, might have been feeling a similar pressure to get the puck to Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020. Maybe Quinn is thinking that Kakko and Chytil can help each other.
Both players were taken off the power play for Saturday’s game, though Kakko got to practice with the second unit Monday and Quinn promised after Monday’s practice that Chytil being off the power play was "a short-term thing.’’
Part of the problem with Chytil, Quinn said, was his weakness on faceoffs. Through two games, Chytil had won four of 15 faceoffs. Brett Howden (13-of-24 on faceoffs) took Chytil’s spot on the power play Saturday.
Chytil said he has been working after practice and studying video in an effort to improve at the dot. He was 3-for-8 Saturday, after going 1-for-8 Thursday. He wants to get back on the power play, he said.
"The power play is an opportunity to score goals, and help the team win a game, and I’m a player who should be on that power play,’’ Chytil said. "So, I’m working hard… and I want to put my percentage on faceoffs high, and get back on the power play.’’