Rangers may be in the hunt for the top seed in the Metropolitan Division, but their real goal is to stay healthy with the playoffs on the horizon.
Kaapo Kakko is the A-exhibition for just how difficult it could be to achieve that goal. The Finnish winger suffered a lower body injury on Saturday afternoon after his right knee awkwardly bent in a fall along the boards early in the first period of Rangers’ 4-0 win over the Red Wings at the Garden.
He missed the majority of the game, only his fourth time since a suspected wrist injury sidelined him for more than 10 weeks, a much longer recovery time than expected. Trade deadline acquisition Tyler Motte has already been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, so any further injury to the forward group would be bad for Rangers.
The injury is particularly unfortunate for Kakko, who has missed 31 straight games and needs these final regular season games to prepare for the playoffs. It’s possible the injury wasn’t serious, and Rangers medical staff just kept Kakko out for the rest of the game as a precaution.
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If Kakko is to miss an extended spell, however, Rangers won’t be as deep as they thought just past the March 21 trade deadline.
Alexis Lafrenière, who started the day on the fourth line with Kevin Rooney and Dryden Hunt, took shifts on the third unit with Barclay Goodrow and Filip Chytil after Kakko left the game. The adjustment paid off. Lafrenière scored twice in the third period to end an eight-game drought and record the first multi-goal game of his career.
After landing his first on a partial run, Lafrenière refined a move between the legs that sent the Garden crowd wild as he finished with his backhand later in the third.
The win temporarily tied the Rangers with the Hurricanes for first place in the division, but Carolina had a chance to regain sole possession Saturday night against the Avalanche.
Goaltender Igor Shesterkin recorded his fifth shutout of the season with 20 saves.
Rangers generated substantial offensive zone time in the first 20 minutes and emerged with a 1-0 lead. After some quality early chances from Lafrenière and a breakaway from Zibanejad that was triggered by a perfectly threaded pass from Jacob Trouba, the Red Wings landed their first shot on goal at 6:13.
Detroit was called for back-to-back late game penalties, giving the Rangers a five-to-three advantage. Panarin then launched Zibanejad for a point shot from the top of the left circle to put Rangers on the board.
The assist was Panarin’s 90th point of the season. He now has two 90-point campaigns on his resume, in addition to becoming the sixth Ranger to achieve this feat multiple times with the organization.
The Rangers doubled Frank Vatrano’s 100th career NHL goal in the second period, when the trade deadline acquisition knocked one out of the slot.