Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko skates with the puck against...

Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko skates with the puck against the Lightning in the first period of an NHL game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 7. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The way the schedule worked out for the Rangers, Wednesday’s rematch with the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden was the first of just three games remaining before the NHL’s March 8 trade deadline.

That meant general manager Chris Drury and coach Peter Laviolette had three games to see Kaapo Kakko back on the first line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad; three games to see if the former No. 2 overall pick can make a case for himself to be the first-line right wing, and convince Drury he doesn’t need to trade for Frank Vatrano, Jordan Eberle, or someone like that before next Friday.

“Every time you get an opportunity to expand your role, that's a great opportunity for you,’’ Laviolette said Wednesday at the Rangers’ optional morning skate at the Garden. “I'm not doing anything based on the trade deadline. We're doing it based on [an attempt at] winning the game tonight. We’re trying to put the best lineup forward, trying to do the most we can to be successful tonight . . .  Kaapo has played well. He's created some offense; he's put up some points. This is an opportunity for him to go play.’’

Kakko started the season on the top line and played the first 11 games there before being dropped to the third line with Will Cuylle and Nick Bonino. A left knee injury in late November knocked him out of the lineup for 21 games and when he returned he was once again put with Kreider and Zibanejad. But he played only six games there before once again being dropped to the third line, this time with Cuylle and Jonny Brodzinski.

In 184 minutes together before Wednesday, the Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko line outshot opponents 78-68 and dominated in puck possession and offensive zone time. But the trio scored only five goals, albeit while allowing only two against.

But in 12 games with Cuylle and Brodzinski, Kakko started to put together some sustained production and the trio seemed to click — as did the team as a whole. Kakko had four goals and three assists in the time he played with Cuylle and Brodzinski and the team went 10-1 before Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus.

The line was so good that when Blake Wheeler went down with a season-ending injury Feb. 15 against Montreal, Laviolette put Jimmy Vesey into Wheeler’s spot next to Kreider and Zibanejad, so that he could keep Cuylle, Brodzinski and Kakko together. The coach finally decided to switch things up after Sunday’s loss.

“We're always looking for production for offense,’’ Laviolette said. “We’re trying to create five-on-five [scoring opportunities], and you know, if things are really cruising along and going great, you just leave things alone. But if you're looking for a little bit more, I think you make changes . . .  Right now, I think [Kakko's] played pretty well. He's creating and producing. We'll give him a look up there and see what that looks like.’’

The question was posed to Kakko after Tuesday's practice about whether it was easier for him to produce while playing on a third line, with less pressure on him, than it was on the top line with all that ice time, but also the responsibility to do more to help carry the offense.

“I'm trying not to feel the pressure,’’ he said. “I just try to play the same every game, no matter how much ice time you get . . . But I think, yeah, I also understand, it's the first line, it's more ice time, and we need to be that top line and score some goals.

“So it’s a little more pressure. But I just try to think that's new opportunity for me.’’

Based on the calendar, though, it might be an opportunity that lasts only three games, until March 8.

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