Rangers-Panthers Game 4 Notebook: Unhappy Kakko’s future in question

SUNRISE, Fla. — Speaking Monday for the first time since coach Peter Laviolette benched him for Game 2, Kaapo Kakko did not disguise his disappointment — despite his healthy scratch being two wins and four days in the rear-view.

“All the players want to play,” the New York Rangers third-line winger said. “So, not happy.”

Reinserted for Game 3 due to Jimmy Vesey’s injury, Kakko was more noticeable on Sunday, particularly diving in on the successful offensive-zone draw that led to centreman Alex Wennberg’s overtime winner.

Did he use the scratch as a wakeup call? As motivation?

“I don’t know if it’s motivation. I try to play the best game I can every time I’m out there,” Kakko replied.

rangers-panthers game 4 notebook: unhappy kakko’s future in question

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By his own admission, however, Kakko has not been at his best.

The 23-year-old has just one goal and one assist through 12 games in these playoffs. The Rangers are getting outshot 10-6 when he’s been on the ice in this series, and he’s aware that his line must spend more time in the Panthers’ zone.

Stewing, Kakko said he was “not really” given a reason for being taken out of New York’s playoff lineup for the first time since former coach Gerard Gallant benched him in Game 6 of the 2022 Eastern Conference Final against Tampa.

Laviolette says he spoke with Kakko before and after Game 2’s benching, which, in our opinion, was justified. Eager substitute Matt Rempe had a tangible impact in that night’s victory.

Asked about Laviolette’s communication through the process, Kakko paused and sighed.

“I mean, it’s part of the game,” he said. “Somebody’s not playing. I think I can’t say much about it. We just need to win six more games, so I’m not thinking about it.”

The player’s frustration is thinly veiled.

Rangers fans can spin themselves dizzy debating whether 2019’s second-overall pick needs a top-six opportunity, like the one Alexis Lafrenière got this season, to thrive, or whether he needs to make an offensive impact regardless.

Missing 11 games to injury, Kakko’s production dropped in Laviolette’s first season. His goal total fell from 18 to 13, his assists from 22 to six. A big yikes in a contract year.

Kakko is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights after those “six more” wins. Neither the coach who scratched him nor the six forwards ahead of him on the depth chart are going anywhere.

Safe to say, the organization and the underwhelming young talent are in for a tense negotiation this summer. Rival GMs should inquire.

The sun rises in, uh, Sunrise

How hard is it to generate positive vibes after you out-attempt your opponent 108-43 and still find yourself down 2-1 in the series?

“You wake up, the sun is shining, everything is good here,” said Panthers forward Sam Bennett. “It’s not too difficult.”

Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice says he dealt with the blown coverage that resulted in an untouched Wennberg getting a clean screen and tip on Game 3’s deciding goal. The staff pinpointed some slim areas of improvement they can make to an otherwise dominant performance.

rangers-panthers game 4 notebook: unhappy kakko’s future in question

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“Why would we flush that one?” Maurice said. “We put up 108. Gave up [43]. Where can we get better? Where can we turn that into a win? So, coming to the rink today determined to find answers, to deal exactly with the whole thing, to take a look at it and say, ‘All right, make us better. Make us a half-inch better.’

“That’s kind of what the coach’s job is, to make them walk out of the room certain, ‘This is how we’ll win.’”

How they win, according to Maurice’s plan, is by tweaking all forward lines.

The struggling Vladimir Tarasenko, who is in a five-game point drought, was dropped out of the top six part-way through Sunday’s loss. Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe — buzzing all series — each moved up a line.

Further, Maurice appears to be scratching fourth-line wingers Nick Cousins and Ryan Lomberg in favour of the fresh legs of Kyle Okposo and Steven Lorentz at the bottom of the lineup.

The coach says some of the changes are health related, some of it is simply the boost of new personnel and throwing a different wrinkle at the opponent.

Deadline pickup Okposo, 36, has 1,083 NHL games under his belt. Tuesday will mark his first in a conference final.

“There’s just an excitement,” Okposo told reporters at morning skate. “There’s four teams left. I’m excited to be part of it.”

Struggling stars on Broadway

Tarasenko isn’t the only marquee name with a quiet stat line in the series.

New York’s No. 1 centre, Mika Zibanejad, and Round 2 hero Chris Kreider have zero points.

MVP candidate Artemi Panarin and stud defenceman Adam Fox have but one assist apiece.

The Panthers are the NHL’s best defensive team, and two of the top-four Selke vote-getters, Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart, have been sicced on Zibanejad’s unit.

Despite being on the ice for only one 5-on-5 goal against, Kreider and Zibanejad are getting caved in territorially. The Cats have a 7-1 edge in high-danger chances when they’re on the ice, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

“It’s a good line,” Zibanejad said of Barkov’s group. “He’s obviously a good centreman, too, who plays down low and he’s good defensively, too. I think it’s been a tight matchup. We might not have created the looks, as many as we would’ve wanted. I think we’ve had some.

“We have a defensive responsibility to come out and be accountable to as well. Because of that, the suggestion we [should] be trying to go more on offence, just shoot for offence, I don’t know if that’s going to be the best for us.”

Panarin adds that the Rangers’ depth — Lafrenière, fourth-liner Barclay Goodrow, and Vincent Trocheck have made fantastic contributions — has been critical and that wins are the only thing that matter.

A power-play goal — something that has eluded the Rangers all series — would go a long way for the big guns’ confidence.

“It’s a team sport,” Laviolette said. “We need everybody contributing. Not everybody can be the story. You try to push that, right? Everybody go out and make the noise. Be the ink on the paper. For the good of the team, not for any individual reasons. It takes a team. In order to keep moving on, you need it from everybody. We’re confident in our group, and certainly confident in the players you’re talking about, as well.”

Americans watching more playoff hockey

U.S. broadcast partner ESPN is reaping the rewards of a New York–Florida semifinal. Friday’s Game 2 thriller averaged 2.1 million viewers (and peaked at 2.75 million). That’s a 28 per cent spike from the second game of 2023’s Carolina–Florida Eastern Conference final.

Sunday’s Game 3 — easily the most exciting of the series — jumped to 2.4 million average viewers (and peaked at 3.81 million), marking a 59 per cent jump from Game 3 of 2023’s ECF.

Through 38 playoff games, ESPN’s Nielsen ratings are up 19 per cent, averaging 1.32 million total viewers per game.

Good news for HRR (Hockey-Related Revenue) and the sport’s profile below the border.

One-Timers: We wonder if Laviolette takes Rempe out of the lineup in favour of Blake Wheeler. The big rookie skated just 4:02 in Game 3 and took a reckless roughing penalty that led to a Reinhart power-play strike. Rempe is better used at home with last change and the crowd behind him. … The Rangers’ six comeback wins lead the playoffs. … Shesterkin’s .925 save percentage tops all goaltenders left standing. … The Panthers’ awesomely named ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades, need a win tonight to advance to a third straight Kelly Cup Final.

Rangers projected lineup

Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Filip Chytil

Artemi Panarin – Vincent Trocheck – Alexis Lafrenière

Jack Roslovic – Alex Wennberg – Kaapo Kakko

Will Cuylle – Barclay Goodrow – Matt Rempe

Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

K’Andre Miller – Jacob Trouba

Erik Gustafsson – Braden Schneider

Igor Shesterkin starts

Jonathan Quick

Panthers projected lineup

Carter Verhaeghe– Aleksander Barkov – Sam Reinhart

Evan Rodrigues – Sam Bennett– Matthew Tkachuk

Eetu Luostarinen – Anton Lundell –Vladimir Tarasenko

Steven Lorentz – Kevin Stenlund – Kyle Okposo

Gustav Forsling – Aaron Ekblad

Niko Mikkola – Brandon Montour

Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Dmitry Kulikov

Sergei Bobrovsky starts

Anthony Stolarz

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