GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Goals will make anyone feel better. Ask Kaapo Kakko.
Life is good for the Rangers’ 18-year-old rookie these days. Two goals – including the game-winner in overtime – Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins; a goal in regulation and another in the shootout in the game before that, and five goals in the last six games overall had the Finnish sensation smiling after practice Wednesday.
“That first game against Tampa,’’ Kakko said when asked when it was that things turned so positive for him.
He was referring to the Oct. 29 game at the Garden, when he scored the Rangers’ first goal in a 4-1 win. The goal came on a power play, after coach David Quinn had moved him onto the first power play unit. That goal started his hot stretch.
“I think that was the first game when I played OK,’’ Kakko said. “But now, it’s getting better.’’
Everyone expected Kakko would be an instant hit, based on the success he had playing in Finland’s top professional league last season, and in international competition for Finland. Kakko scored 22 goals in 45 games for TPS – a record for an NHL draft-eligible player – and added four more in five playoff games. For Finland, he scored the winning goal in the gold medal game in the World Junior Championships, and scored six goals in 10 games in the World Championships, which Finland won.
He started slowly with the Rangers, though. Through the first nine games, he had just one goal. And it was clearly weighing on him. But that goal against Tampa got him going, and now, everything seems easy. Even speaking English.
“It’s getting better,’’ he said, with a smile, about his English. “I remember my first days here – it wasn’t that good.’’
He’s comfortable enough with the language now to try and poke fun at his teammates. Asked about speaking his native Finnish with goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who is Russian, but played hockey in Finland and lives there in the offseason, Kakko smiled and said, “Georgie’s got a little bit of Finnish, but not much. Mika [Zibanejad] is better.’’
Four thousand miles away from his home in Turku, Finland, Kakko said he is feeling comfortable in his surroundings. He lives with a billet family near the Rangers’ practice rink, and he spends a lot of time away from the rink with fellow youngsters Libor Hajek, 21, and Filip Chytil, 20. His parents came over for the Rangers’ regular season opener, but now they are back home in Turku, watching his games on TV. He talks to them often, via FaceTime, mostly.
On the ice, Quinn said Kakko’s overall game is coming around, and he is doing the things the team needs him to do, beyond scoring.
But the scoring is what makes him happiest.
“Of course, I’m a forward,’’ he said. “I like to score goals.’’
Notes & quotes: Zibanejad, who has missed the last seven games with an upper body injury, has resumed skating on his own after shutting down for a few days late last week. Zibanejad did not travel with the team to Florida for games Thursday in Tampa against the Lightning and Saturday in Sunrise, against the Florida Panthers.