DALLAS – The Rangers came on this three-game road trip needing to get some positive results to keep themselves in this playoff race they’ve battled so hard to get into. First, they needed to tighten up their defense, but second, they needed to get some goals from places other than Mika Zibanejad.
Kaapo Kakko hadn’t scored a goal since Feb. 9, but he broke out Tuesday night with two second-period goals that powered the Rangers to a 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars in American Airlines Center in the opening game of the road trip. Zibanejad got his 40th goal of the season and Adam Fox also scored for the Rangers, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin bounced back from a subpar outing with 31 saves as the Rangers improved to 37-28-4 overall and climbed back to within three points of a playoff spot.
Rangers coach David Quinn said the two-goal night, the first for Kakko since Nov. 12 against Pittsburgh, was a major confidence boost for the 19-year-old who was the No. 2 pick overall in last summer’s NHL draft.
“It’s huge for him,’’ Quinn said. “He’s a kid that has always gauged himself by points, as most 19-year-olds do, and guys that get drafted as high as [Kakko] do. We want him to score. As we’ve told him repeatedly, this isn’t about us trying to make him play defense at the expense of playing offense . . . I liked his game tonight. I thought he played a really good game.’’
“After a long time, of course, it was a good feeling,’’ Kakko said of his big night. “A couple of great passes, and easy job for me.’’
It wasn’t a perfect night for the Rangers, though: They lost third-line center Filip Chytil, who left the game after the first period with what the Rangers said was a lower body injury. Quinn said after the game that Chytil’s status is day-to-day, and the Rangers are “probably’’ going to have to call up a player from their AHL Hartford farm team to be available in time for Wednesday night’s game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche.
Fox got the Rangers off to a fast start when he took a pass from Artemi Panarin and skated, unchecked, up the middle of the slot and beat Stars goalie Ben Bishop for his eighth goal of the season, 23 seconds into the game.
“I was a little surprised,’’ Fox said when asked about all the room he had to work on the play. “I thought someone might jump me. He’s obviously a really big goalie, so I just tried to find a little hole and I was fortunate it went in.’’
Zibanejad’s goal, at 10:12 of the first period, made it 2-0. The red-hot Zibanejad extended his goalscoring streak to five games -- he has 10 goals in that span -- and gave him goals in 11 of his last 12 games. According to NHL Stats and Information, he set a team record for reaching 40 goals in the fewest games (56), breaking the old record of 57, previously held by Jean Ratelle, in 1971-72.
Kakko had gone 14 games between goals, registering just two assists in that span. But he found himself all alone in the high slot as Brett Howden took a pass from Fox in the left circle and Bishop aggressively came out of his crease to challenge Howden. Howden slipped a pass to Kakko who one-timed it into a wide-open net for his ninth goal of the season, to make it 3-0, at 7:03.
On Kakko’s second goal, Bishop again overcommitted to a shot, this time from Zibanejad, who slipped a pass to Kakko at the bottom of the left circle. Bishop tried to come out on Kakko, but Kakko stickhandled around the goalie and tucked the puck into the vacant net for his 10th of the season.
Dallas finally got on the board early in the third period, when Roope Hintz scored a power-play goal at 1:23, and the Stars made it 4-2 when Andrew Cogliano drove the net and popped in his third goal of the season at 11:52.