Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers tries to...

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers tries to control the puck during the third period against Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

EDMONTON, Alberta – Talking about his old pals playing for Finland in the World Junior Championships was enough to light up Kaapo Kakko’s face on Tuesday.

“I know the whole team,’’ the 18-year-old rookie said after he and about half the Rangers team took part in a morning skate at Rogers Place, before their New Year’s Eve game against the Edmonton Oilers.

Kakko, of course, led Finland to the gold medal in both the World Junior Championships in 2018 and the World Championships in May. And while he said this year’s World Junior squad isn’t the same group that beat Jack Hughes and the USA in the championship game, the guys playing are his buddies.

“They’re the same age, like me, so they are my friends,’’ he said. “I played with those guys back in the Under-18 tournament a couple years ago. It’s a good team.’’

Kakko, who is still eligible to play in the World Juniors, isn’t having quite the magical season he did a year ago, when he lit up the Finnish pro league with 22 goals in 45 games, a record for an NHL draft-eligible player. Entering Tuesday night’s game against a 20-17-4 Edmonton team that is in a dogfight to get into the Western Conference playoffs, Kakko’s six goals and eight assists (14 points) were 12th-best among NHL rookies and second-best among 18-year-olds, behind New Jersey’s Hughes (6-10-16).

His overall numbers are realistically about where they should be, but expectations were sky-high for the No. 2 pick overall in this summer’s draft, a teen who inspired a group of fans to create a unique fan club called The Church of Kakko (churchofkakko.com). After a sluggish start (one goal, one assist in the first nine games) Kakko got hot, with four goals in a five-game span from Oct. 29-Nov. 12. But then he got the flu, which caused him to miss both games on the mid-November trip to Florida. And he hasn’t been the same since. He entered Tuesday night having gone 18 straight games without a goal.

The native of Turku, Finland, missed the Rangers’ last two games before the Christmas break with a bruised left lower leg, and in the first two games coming out of the break – wins over Carolina Friday and at Toronto Saturday – he was dropped from the first power play and got the least amount of ice time he’s gotten all season, 11:14 against Carolina and 9:09 against Toronto.

“I'm seeing an 18-year-old that's adjusting to the National Hockey League,’’ coach David Quinn said Monday, when asked about Kakko. “The pressure's real for these guys -- him and Hughes, and all the hIgh-end picks that people think these guys are gonna step into this league and run away with Rookie of the Year honors. That's not how this works. And he's a guy that's learning. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He holds himself to a high standard, and I think sometimes that's an issue for him. He gets down on himself. But we're going to stick with him. He's a good player, he's a big piece of our future. And, game to game, his ice time may vary, based on what he's doing from a performance standpoint.’’

Kakko, who trains in the summer with Patrik Laine and Mikko Rantanen, comes off the ice after practices and morning skates with a face reddened from a solid effort put in at practice. He is doing his best to stay positive, but conceded it’s hard not scoring goals.

“Of course, a little bit,’’ he said. “Because I think it’s, a little bit, my job to score goals. But I get the chances, so it’s a good thing. But yeah, I think it’s coming. I trust myself.’’

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