There’s no disputing that Kaapo Kakko is still trying to find his niche at the NHL level.
The No. 2 pick from the 2019 draft — now in his third season — is still just 20 years old, but his production hasn’t quite hit the levels that many were originally expecting him to post.
In 138 games entering Wednesday night’s game in Arizona against the Coyotes, Kakko posted just 22 goals and 26 assists (48 points).
But the arrival of Gerard Gallant as head coach this season has brought a bit more grit to the youngster’s game, coming in the form of a willingness to get down near the opposing goaltender’s crease to work in what’s usually deemed “the dirty areas.”
That term hasn’t been the style of the Rangers for quite a while — which led to the organization’s massive shakeup last offseason.
Kakko is heeding to Gallant’s advice, though, and it’s beginning to pay off. He potted a pair of close-range goals in the Rangers’ come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Coyotes.
The first came while cleaning up a rebound at the left post off a Mika Zibanejad shot in the second period to tie it at one. His second, and fifth of the season, proved to be the game-winner with just 2:18 to go in regulation when he parked himself in front on the power play and guided home a pin-point centering pass from Chris Kreider.
“It was great. Great for his confidence, great for us,” Gallant said of Kakko’s play. “Obviously, you bang that first one in, he was around the blue paint and we talk about that all the time with our young players.
“The second one was a huge power play goal. We battled back. It’s great for the kid and great for our team.”
Kakko’s heroics salvaged a night in which Gallant admitted his team looked tired and were outplayed for large stretches. Things got even tougher after Artemi Panarin went down with a lower-body injury during the second period and was done for the night.
“You have to dig down and find a way. He’s one of our best players if not our best player,” Gallant said. “We lose him early in the second and we just had to keep battling, working hard. It was a tough night… They were dragging their feet a little bit but they kept fighting, stayed close in the game. And we found a way late in the hockey game.”
The win was the Blueshirts’ 19th of the season, which is tied for the third-most through 29 games in franchise history. The 41 points accrued during that start is also the fourth-most in team history.
That certainly bodes well for the Rangers. The last time they put up 41 points in as little as 29 games was their Stanley Cup-winning 1993-94 season.
They have now won nine of their last 12 games, 13 of their last 17 games, and have recorded points in 16 of their last 21 games (14-5-2).
That’s one heck of a way to start turning the culture around.