Moving Alexis Lafreniere into a top-six forwards role in his second NHL game came at the expense of second-year forward Kaapo Kakko, who, like Lafreniere, is 19 years old.
Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, had an up-and-down rookie season. He had 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games in 2019-20 but struggled with his defensive responsibilities and wound up a team-worst (by far) minus-26.
He seemed to be a different, more forceful player at the July training camp for the NHL’s August restart, and he played well in the bubble in Toronto as the Rangers were swept by Carolina.
When the Rangers returned this month, Kakko spent the entire training camp on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. But he didn’t finish the season opener in that spot and was dropped in the lineup for Game 2.
But Kakko’s goal in the second period gave the Rangers a 4-0 lead in their 5-0 win over the Islanders on Saturday night, and his face exploded in joy as linemate Filip Chytil bear-hugged him in celebration.
"He’s been a goal-scorer his whole life,’’ coach David Quinn said. "Any time you get a goal, all of a sudden you feel a lot better about himself. But he should feel better about himself. He played a lot better tonight. He was on pucks, there was a pace to his game. It’s nice to see him score and smile the way he did after he scored. And he’s gonna be a big part of what we’ve got going on.’’
Phillip DiGiuseppe entered the lineup in place of Kevin Rooney, who left Thursday’s game in the third period after a hit by Ross Johnston. DiGiuseppe played with a full face shield after taking a puck to the face in practice Monday.