Happy Kakko ends scoring drought with two goals in win over awful Sabres, Kreider notches a pair on power play, Knoblauch makes smart move


Nobody needed a game like this more than Kaapo Kakko. The 2019 second pick had been in a bad scoring slump. In fact, it was exactly two months since his last goal. That drought ended tonight with Kakko coming through in a big way with two goals during a Rangers’ 5-3 win over the awful Sabres at Madison Square Garden.

It’s kinda funny too. Early into the game facing an opponent that entered winless in their last 13 (0-11-2), I had this thought on Twitter. One which proved prophetic.

As you can tell, I got my wish. Many fans of this team have wanted to see Kakko get another chance playing with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Thankfully, Kris Knoblauch noticed that Colin Blackwell was ineffective for some shifts and finally stuck Kakko on the second line. Off a Strome face-off win in the Buffalo zone, Panarin was able to get the puck in front to an open Kakko, who was able to beat Sabres third string goalie Dustin Tokarski to tie the score with his third at 7:13 of the second period.

By that point, the game was a bit unpredictable as well as ugly. Despite a territorial edge during a first period that saw them outshoot the Sabres 10-5 including at one point 9-1, the Rangers couldn’t break through on either starter Carter Hutton (2 saves) or injury replacement Tokarski. Let’s get to what happened to Hutton first.

On just hideous transition defense by Buffalo, they allowed Julien Gauthier to skate right past and get off a good shot that Hutton stopped. However, Rasmus Ristolainen shoved him right into Hutton, who was in immediate pain. Unable to continue, he was helped off the ice while limping badly. It’s an apparent leg injury. Maybe the knee or something else. It was as ugly as it looked.

It became a battle of goalies who were third on the depth chart at the beginning of the season. With Keith Kinkaid looking good in his second straight start with Alex Georgiev backing up, the former Devil was finally challenged early in the second. After having not much to do in a lopsided first where the excellent penalty kill took care of a Jacob Trouba hooking minor on Jacob Bryson, Kinkaid was pretty busy early. He made some outstanding saves to keep the surging Sabres off the scoreboard.

There were two great stops. First, he denied Bryson on a breakaway by getting a piece of his backhand deke attempt to nudge it wide. It looked like it might’ve hit the crossbar. At least from the sound of it, that’s what Sam Rosen thought. It definitely made a distinct sound. So it’s possible Kinkaid made the save and had some puck luck thanks to his goalpost. It was fantastic. Notice I didn’t say what Joe Micheletti always says. The word “FABULOUS,” which Sean M always makes light of in his blog has gotten to the point where if you played a drinking game, you’d be passed out drunk from taking shots every time Micheletti says it. It’s FABULOUS!

I normally steer clear of this stuff. But even I noticed that Joe Micheletti was overdoing it. This was against the Sabres. Technically, they are listed as an NHL team. You just wouldn’t know it by how poorly they play defensively. I really feel bad for old friend Dan Girardi. He’s now an assistant coach on the Sabres trying to fix all the dreadful mistakes they make. The Rangers could’ve named the score. That’s how many point blank opportunities they had. It was absurd.

Kinkaid still deserves a lot of credit for staying focused. He made another unbelievable save to rob the hexed Jeff Skinner of a sure goal. On a defensive breakdown, he was all set up for a gimme. With Kinkaid down and the top of the net to shoot at, Skinner fired a laser only to see an acrobatic Kinkaid make a ridiculous glove save to commit highway robbery. The fans that were there sure appreciated it. Everyone who watched did. Trust me. We were not believing our eyes either in our Twitter game chat. It was tremendous.

As what usually happens when the goalie is making great saves, they get beat on a fluky one. That’s exactly what the Sabres were able to do to jump in front 1-0. On kind of a strange play off a forecheck behind the net from Victor Olofsson and Riley Sheahan, Buffalo lineup insert Rasmus Asplund found a loose puck beside the net. With nobody else including Kinkaid aware of where it was, he calmly retrieved the puck and stuffed it in short side at 3:52. It was a slick play by a young player who was in the lineup for Kyle Okposo. Of course, that goal had many fans wondering. I wasn’t one of them. But you couldn’t help but laugh at it.

The Sabres once led in shots 5-0. But that sure turned around rather quickly. Following a stoppage, Knoblauch made the line adjustment I was hoping for. Prior to the face-off, MSG Network caught all three forwards discussing the play they executed. It started with a Strome win and then Panarin getting the puck and finding enough room to pass for Kakko for his first goal since Jan. 22 against the Penguins. The look on his face told the story. He sure needed it. It was nice to see. Good job by Knoblauch recognizing that Kakko was going and getting him out there. That one goal could be important for his confidence.

After being outshot 5-0 at the start of the period, the Rangers proceeded to outshoot their defenseless opponent 17-3 the rest of the second. They flat out dominated the Sabres, who may as well have had Rochester on their jerseys. I wish I was kidding. They might be an NHL team with some good players. But you wouldn’t know it by the way they play. What a fragile team. An interim coach isn’t fixing that mess either. They really need to get a proven coach in there. It’s a nightmare. To quote our close friend Brian, “What a disgrace.” I don’t know how he does it. They’re going to go exactly a decade without a postseason in Buffalo, which is a great sports town. I would know. I went to a Bills game and met these fans. They are the most passionate fans I’ve ever seen. At least their football team is on the right track.

How bad are they? When you’re bad, you find ways to lose. Former top pick Rasmus Dahlin took an unnecessary interference minor on Kevin Rooney in a tie game. After giving Rooney an extra shot, Dahlin got a strong response from Brendan Lemieux. Lemieux got into it with Tage Thompson, who wanted to go. It probably wouldn’t have been wise for Thompson. Of course, the refs broke it up because modern NHL crap. They each were sent off for two apiece for unsportsmanlike conduct. Phooey. With Dahlin serving his penalty, Bryson slashed Strome during the five-on-four. That handed the Blueshirts a 19-second five-on-three.

If this were any other opponent, no way what happens does. On another face-off win back to Adam Fox, who was celebrating his 100th career NHL game, the top defenseman got the puck over to Panarin, who easily fed an open Chris Kreider for a tip in. His team-leading seventh power play goal 16 seconds into the two-man advantage gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead. All he did was park in front and neither Buffalo defenseman bothered to check him. It was easy. Still on the power play, they could’ve had more. But Pavel Buchnevich took an undisciplined hooking minor in the offensive zone when he got his stick caught between Brandon Montour.

The teams skated four-on-four for the next 1:16 until the Sabres got an abbreviated five-on-four power play. They did nothing with it. Prior to the power play, the four-on-four looked like a Rangers power play. It really was bad if you were a Sabres fan. As usual, the penalty kill got it done against a Buffalo power play that’s been in a funk without Jack Eichel. I think it’s something like 0 for the last 24 now. They were 0-for-2 officially.

Late in the period with the Rangers toying with their overwhelmed opponent, Mika Zibanejad and Buchnevich combined to set up Fox for his third goal in front of Mom and Dad at 18:18. They definitely looked overjoyed to see their son already up to 60 points in his second year. He’s in elite company among Rangers defensemen. I don’t have to rattle off the names. Besides, I don’t love the comparisons. Adam Fox is a splendid hockey player. The Rangers are lucky to have him. He wanted to play for his hometown team. He sure has been well worth those two second round picks to Carolina. Foxy produced a three-point night and was named the game’s First Star.

I’ll be honest. With the game looking over, I didn’t put it back on in time for the third right away. To my amusement, the Sabres came back to tie it by scoring their two goals on two shots. Dylan Cozens and Skinner each tallied 3:13 apart to suddenly make it 3-3. What I did notice was my alerts in our Twitter game thread with a few fans going off over it. All I could do was chuckle. If you can’t laugh at it, what’s the point? All I’ll say is people need to understand where this team is. They’re not a playoff contender. If they somehow managed to get in and beat out the idle Bruins (COVID) and the Jekyll and Hyde Flyers, that would be quite an accomplishment. Boston still has five seven games left with the Sabres.

So, when they were handed another power play, I pretty much figured they’d score the go-ahead goal and put this one to bed. It was another Kreider specialty. On a simple play by Fox and Strome with the latter taking a wrist shot that Tokarski couldn’t control, the rebound went right to Kreider who steered it in for his team-leading eighth power play goal and team best 16th at 5:47.

Speaking of which, where are all the Kreider critics? The fools who bash him when he doesn’t score and think he doesn’t do anything. Nowhere to be found. So what if Kreider’s a streaky scorer. Many players are. Where would this team be without those 16 goals, or all the grunt work he provides along with the veteran leadership? I’m glad they kept him. He’s the unofficial captain of this team. Wouldn’t it be something if he somehow got to 30 in a shortened season? Let’s enjoy what Kreider means to the Rangers for a change.

They could’ve had more goals on Tokarski. Give him credit. Aside from the bad rebound on Kreider’s winner, he actually gave the Sabres a chance. His team was outshot 40-19. He faced 37 of those 39 and did well. If not for him and the Blueshirts thinking they were the Harlem Globetrotters Mighty Ducks, it could’ve wound up a more crooked number. But that’s how our team plays. They must pass the puck around like it’s a Broadway show instead of sometimes simplifying their approach. There’s not much more to add.

With over a minute left in regulation, Tokarski was lifted for an extra attacker. Knoblauch did another wise thing. He put Kakko out to help protect a one-goal lead. He didn’t disappoint. On good defensive plays from Strome and Panarin, they got the puck over to Kakko for the empty netter with 58 ticks remaining. Just that easily, he doubled his goal output. It had to feel good for the 20-year old Finnish right wing. He was all smiles.

That’s going to do it for now. For the time being, the Rangers are over NHL .500 at 14-13-4. With 25 games left on the divisional schedule, they’re up to 32 points and 12 regulation wins. One more than both the fifth place Flyers (2-1 overtime losers to Islanders) and the fourth place Bruins. Philadelphia has 34 points in 30 games. Boston has 36 in 28. They don’t know when they’ll play again. All the Rangers can do is win the two games at the Flyers coming up on Thursday and Saturday. Get that pair and then let’s talk.

At the moment having won four of six, they’re feeling better about themselves. With Zibanejad looking much more in form and the top line on a good roll, they finally have the dangerous top six they boasted last year. Even more encouraging, Kinkaid has supplied a spark in net that Georgiev wasn’t. More often than not, he’s coming up with big saves at key moments. That’s all you can ask. With Igor Shestyorkin inching closer to a return, that’s good news.

The only other notable is that the reason Gauthier was back in the lineup was due to Brett Howden being unavailable. I don’t know the details on why. But seeing a few foolish fans act like it was great made me roll my eyes. Howden was playing his best hockey recently with two assists and an empty netter while continuing to provide strong penalty killing. I don’t like when fans celebrate such stuff. It’s ridiculous. Enough already.

The Rangers next face the Flyers in two days at 7 PM. It’s officially Tuesday. The rematch is another HSIAM on Saturday. If you’re looking for a translation, it’s a partial reference to the late great George Carlin, who did real comedy unlike the crap that’s around now. Boy. Would he be ashamed. I sure miss him. But he’s always a click away on YouTube.

THREE STARS OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (2 power play goals for team-leading 15th and 16th)

2nd 🌟 Adam Fox, NYR (3rd of season plus 2 🍎)

1st 🌟 Kaapo Kakko, NYR (2 goals to finally end his scoring drought)

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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