Part of the reason why Kaapo Kakko has been able to get into an offensive groove lately is because his spot in the lineup hasn’t changed, the Finnish winger has said.
When Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Kakko have all been active on the Rangers’ roster, head coach Gerard Gallant had consistently deployed those three on a line together — until the Rangers’ 4-1 victory over the Islanders on Wednesday night at UBS Arena.
Gallant opted to move Kakko next to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, while placing Dryden Hunt on the wing of Panarin and Strome.
“We were sort of discussing it as coaches [on Tuesday] and we sit there sometimes, we have too much time on our hands and we make decisions like that,” he said after the win, which improved the Rangers to 12-4-3. “We talk about Huntsie’s speed on the forecheck and then Kaapo has played really well, so it was a combination of things and we’ll see where it goes tomorrow.
“But I was happy with both [line changes]. The sad part of it though was so many penalties that Huntsie didn’t get the time he should have got with those guys and Kaapo didn’t play a whole lot, either. We were killing penalties a lot and there were a lot of power plays.”
Kakko extended his point streak to five games with an assist on Chris Kreider’s second goal of the night at 11:02 of the third period. Prior to the Rangers’ win on Wednesday, the Panarin-Strome-Kakko line had been on the ice together for seven goals and just three goals against in 153:40 through 13 games, per Natural Stat Trick.
It could’ve been a risky move to break up the Rangers most consistent line, especially when its success had seemingly been fueling Kakko’s confidence. But Gallant said prior to the game that he felt the Rangers had another level in them, and experimenting with the lines is certainly a strategy to unlock it.
“I think me and Mika have played with him on and off the last few years, different combinations,” Kreider said of Kakko. “Just continuing to talk on the bench, on the ice, trying to help each other out in terms of what we’re seeing, what we’re reading. I think that kind of speeds up that process [of developing chemistry].”
Goalie Igor Shesterkin earned the starting nod for the Rangers’ inaugural matchup at UBS Arena on Wednesday night against the Islanders and turned aside 20 of the 21 shots he faced.
It marked his sixth appearance in the last seven games after he relieved backup Alexandar Georgiev three nights earlier against the Sabres.
When Gallant was asked how much stock he puts into a goaltender’s record against opponents when collaborating with the Rangers director of goaltending Benoit Allaire, the head coach said he personally doesn’t.
“I don’t take that into account a whole lot,” Gallant said. “Benny does, you know, he looks at records in the past and all that stuff. I’m more worried about this year with what I know about our goaltending and the way they’re playing. Shesty has been outstanding.”