Kaapo Kakko’s ability to overcome adversity is paying Rangers dividends

Regarding the Rangers, who have produced a festival of highlights leading into the holiday recess:

1. Kaapo Kakko displayed his resolve and ability to confront and overcome adversity well before Thursday night, when he rebounded from an egregious second-period giveaway (off which Mat Barzal scored on a breakaway) to record the late third-period game-winner against the Islanders .

The steel in Kakko’s spine was on display last season in the aftermath of his stunning healthy scratch by head coach Gerard Gallant in the elimination Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the conference finals.

Another individual might have demanded out. Another player might have aggressively sought an offer sheet as a restricted free agent over the summer. Kakko did neither. Rather, he recommitted to the Rangers, vowing to play at a level high enough that something like that would never happen again.

The 2019 No. 2 overall pick has likely taken the greatest leap of the three young forwards we have conveniently tagged as “The Kids.” Filip Chytil has expanded his skill-set. Alexis Lafreniere is still seeking a foothold, although he made a clever and elite relay to K’Andre Miller on the winning goal Thursday. But the body language that radiates confidence represents a stark change. It has brought Kakko to a different level.

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers celebrates his game winning goal against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden on December 22, 2022 in New York City.  The Rangers defeated the Islanders 5-3.
Kaapo Kakko’s ability to face adversity is paying dividends for the Blue Shirts.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A possession machine below the hash marks, Kakko is getting out into open ice and to the net. The Finn’s finish is not what he wants it to be and probably not what he needs it to be, but he is unafraid to make plays, even if burned. At age 21, that is a growth spurt worth noting.

A year ago, I would have traded Kakko straight up for Patrick Kane (50-percent retention) in a rental that would have yielded two playoff runs for Kane.

Now, not a chance.

2. I don’t know whether Jacob Trouba’s late third-period tantrum on the ice in the Dec. 3 defeats to the Blackhawks fired up the Rangers (if so, it took another 40 minutes of desultory hockey against the Blues two nights later for it all to kick in), but it sure seems to have fired up the captain.

Trouba hasn’t been perfect in the interim, but he has played with far more discipline and increased effectiveness while dramatically cutting down on his errors, both of the mental and physical variety.

Over the past nine games, during which the Blueshirts have gone 8-1, Trouba has been on for 11 goals for and seven against. That represents a glaring contrast to the first 26 games, in which the captain had been on for 15 goals for and 25 against.

3. The first 26 games of Miller’s season are kind of like Bobby Ewing’s death in the old TV series, “Dallas.” Just a bad dream. Didn’t actually happen (Kids, look it up).

From one day to the next, it seems, Miller has picked up exactly where he left off in the playoffs as an ascending nation. His defensive reads and coverage have improved dramatically while No. 79 is picking his spots on offense rather than trying to force things as he had been doing the first eight weeks of the season.

The circus goal in Philadelphia was special, but not so much more so than his feed from the left half-wall that set up Kakko for the 4-3 goal against the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin at 17:13 of the third on Thursday.

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers celebrates his game winning goal against the New York Islanders and is joined by K'Andre Miller #79 (L) at Madison Square Garden on December 22, 2022 in New York City.  The Rangers defeated the Islanders 5-3.
K’Andre Miller has been a catalyst for the Rangers during their recent stretch of games.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s all instinct now for Miller, who has been on for 11 goals for and eight against over the past nine games after having been on for 15 for and 23 against before that.

As a pair, Miller and Trouba have been on for nine for and seven against in the past nine games after having been on for eight for and 20 against in the opening 26 games. Gallant no longer has to shelter the pair, nor exchange Trouba with Braden Schneider.

The Rangers have a legit top four again.

4. Julien Gauthier is not just the most unlikely Rangers hero, he is the most unlikely Ranger, period.

In 2020-21, then-head coach David Quinn scratched the winger 24 times in the 56-game season, including 14 straight times at one point. Last season, Gallant scratched the winger in 30 of 82 games, including 17 times in an 18-game span at one point. Then, he was scratched 20 times in 20 playoff games.

Between 2020-21 and 2021-22, the Rangers left Gauthier exposed in the Seattle expansion draft. Kraken general manager Ron Francis, who’d drafted him No. 21 overall in 2016 while with Carolina, passed and instead chose Colin Blackwood.

Last summer, the Blueshirts received no offers for Gauthier when he was on the market. Placed on waivers out of training camp despite a strong offseason, Gauthier cleared.

And now he is here, an important part of the fourth line. Gauthier has always been able to skate. He has always gone to the net off that wide right wing power move. But that had been the end of the story. A disconnect invariably appeared over those final five feet.

Entering this season, Gauthier had scored five career goals on 117 shots for a shooting percentage of 4.3. This season, Gauthier has scored five goals on 20 shots, which translates to 25 percent.

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