Kakko set to return and Hajek gets his chance on birthday


Tonight, the Rangers return to action when the Capitals visit The Garden. It’s the first of eight match-ups against one of the division’s best teams. Coming off Monday’s 3-1 comeback win over the Penguins, it’ll be a good litmus test for the Blueshirts. They’re in the bottom part of the newly formed East Division tied with the Islanders at 3-4-2 for eighth.

Two points against a good Washington team that enters at the upper echelon of the division with a 6-1-3 record, would be a huge confidence boost. Especially given that they’ve yet to put together a good stretch. Don’t forget that Game 10 means there will be only 46 games left in the abbreviated season. One that’s threatened by COVID-19 with the Wild joining the Devils and Sabres who are the latest NHL teams to have games postponed due to several positives. It’s definitely a cause for concern.

For the Blueshirts, they got good news when second-year right wing Kaapo Kakko was cleared out of COVID-19 Protocol after missing a game for tonight. The sophomore has two goals in eight games so far while being moved around. His skating has improved and just maybe the former Rangers ’19 second pick will take advantage of a great opportunity. With Colin Blackwell still out, Kakko gets a look on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. This is what many fans want to see. If it clicks, we could get to see a lot more of Kakko on the second scoring line.

The other bit of news is that Libor Hajek will make his season debut. It’s been a while for the former Lightning ’16 second round pick, who was a key part of the 2018 Trade Deadline blockbuster involving Brett Howden that also netted former Blueshirt Vladislav Namestnikov, a ’18 first round pick (Nils Lundkvist) and a conditional second pick in ’19 that became Karl Henriksson. That sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning.

On his 23rd birthday, it’s a chance for Hajek to show the coaching staff what he can do. A player that’s dealt with injuries and been passed on the depth chart by promising rookie K’Andre Miller, he will be on the third pair with veteran Anthony Bitetto, who had a solid first game on Monday. It probably won’t be a lot of minutes because David Quinn can manage the shifts along with assistant coach Jacques Martin. But it’s important for Hajek to play a good game at five-on-five. That’s where he’ll be featured.

Igor Shestyorkin gets his second consecutive game in net. We’ll find out if he can build on his good outing three nights ago. He has an opportunity to give Quinn something to think about. While it hasn’t been the best start for the 25-year old rookie, he can make a case for the number one job with Alex Georgiev getting a mental break due to the unfortunate incident with soon to be former Ranger Tony DeAngelo.

I’ll have more later on the game.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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