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Early in career, Kaapo Kakko staying late to put in work

Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko skates against the

Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko skates against the Oilers during the first period of an NHL game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Kaapo Kakko was the last player on the ice Wednesday, finally wrapping up long after most of his teammates had finished practicing, and players and coach David Quinn had completed their post-practice interviews.

Was Kakko, the No. 2 pick in this summer’s draft, getting a few extra reps in as he prepared for his first NHL meeting Thursday with No. 1 pick Jack Hughes?

Uh, no.

“I’m the youngest guy and we take the pucks, so that’s why,’’ Kakko explained. “And I want to be a better player, every day, so that’s why I’m staying a little bit more.’’

Turns out, Kakko always stayed on late in Finland, so doing it here is nothing new. And it definitely has nothing to do with the fact that the Rangers return to action against the Devils Thursday in Newark and Kakko will get to face Hughes, the player the Devils chose ahead of him in the draft. Kakko said he is looking forward to the game, but not because he has anything to prove to the Devils.

“Yes, of course, I’m excited to play again after four days off, but it’s not like me against Jack Hughes,’’ he said. “It is Devils against Rangers.’’

Quinn, whose team has played just three games over the first 14 days of this season and last played Saturday, a 4-1 loss to Edmonton, is far more concerned with making sure his 2-1 team finds a way to beat the 0-4-2 Devils than he is about whether Kakko will outplay Hughes. But he understands there’s a lot of interest to see how the two players compare to each other.

“I mean, listen, [Kakko]'s 18 years old,’’ Quinn said. “I'm sure him and Hughes have had their eye on each other for a long time. I'm sure, [if you] put 'em under truth serum, they're both excited to face each other. But both teams are looking for a win, and, hopefully that's way more important than the individual matchup. And I'm pretty sure it is.’’

Kakko is feeling better about himself these days after scoring his first NHL goal in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Edmonton at the Garden. Three games (and two weeks) into his career, he is feeling more and more comfortable, he said.

“That first goal helps me so much,’’ he said.

Hughes, also 18, has played six games so far, and is yet to score his first point. But he stood in as the No. 1 center at Wednesday’s practice with Nico Hischier missing because of an upper body injury.

Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei, who played with Hughes on Team USA at the World Championships, said Hughes and Kakko are similar players.

“They both have incredible skill,’’ Skjei said. “Their hockey sense is really good, and just the way that, you know, they play the game. They play the game at such high speed . . . Kaapo's a little bigger. But, you know, both, are really good players.’’

Notes & quotes: Alexandar Georgiev will start in goal against the Devils and Henrik Lundqvist will play Friday in Washington against the Capitals, Rangers coach David Quinn said. Georgiev last played Oct. 5 in the 4-1 win over Ottawa. Georgiev said that having been a backup all last season, he’s used to long layoffs between appearances. “It’s not the first time I haven’t played for one-and-a-half, two weeks,’’ Georgiev said. “I don’t think about it too much.’’ … Quinn wouldn’t confirm whether Brendan Lemieux will be scratched Thursday, saying it is yet to be decided. But Lemieux was working with skills coach Mark Ciaccio at the end of practice. If Lemieux is scratched, Micheal Haley would make his season debut.

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