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Kakko's First Is Only the Beginning

'A Special Moment' for the Rookie & the Rangers

by Michael Obernauer

If that indeed was history in the making that Rangers fans were witnessing on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, then there will always be two names attached to the moment, not one. Goal by Kaapo Kakko. Assisted by Ryan Strome.

"It's a special moment for him and it's something that our fans and he will never forget, that's for sure," said the set-up man himself, Ryan Strome, on Sunday. "He's going to have a good career, so it was fun to be a part of it. And hopefully many more at the Garden."

The first of many occurred at 18:28 of the first period on Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, Strome and Kakko combining on a textbook give-and-go that culminated in a textbook finish from Kakko and the 18-year-old rookie's first National Hockey League goal. With the Rangers practicing on Sunday and looking ahead to their matchup with the Devils on Thursday in Newark - they are on the back nine of this barren patch in their October schedule, four idle days between games this time - Strome was asked to look back not only on Kakko's first NHL goal but on his own too, a big moment in Strome's life that only came to pass because one of his teammates was having an even bigger one.

Kakko's goal on Saturday made him just the eighth player age 18 or younger ever to score for the Rangers. Strome was 20 when he scored his first in the League, and he remembers well the abundant emotions that consume a player in that moment. All of them were writ on Kakko's face after he beat Mike Smith to make it 1-0 Rangers, and got a bear hug from Strome behind the net.

"Great play. I mean, you saw his excitement - it was pretty cool, pretty special," Strome said on Sunday. "I think the building was as loud as I've heard it in my year or so here."

Strome's first goal came on Jan. 6, 2014 - a helpful reminder anytime he may want to remember Elliana Okposo's birthday. "The only reason I was on the ice was because the guy who was supposed to be on the power play was having his baby that night," Strome said. "So I know that I scored on the day she was born. I'll always remember that."

While Kyle Okposo was busy rejoicing in the birth of his first child, Strome was filling in on the left side of the Islanders' power play when a puck squirted out of a pack in front of the net; Strome reeled it in and fired it into an open side behind Dallas' Kari Lehtonen.

They all count the same, but even Strome admitted that Kakko's first had his beat in style points - partly because of Strome's own stellar pass, a backhand flick in between defenders, that set it up. "Everyone scores their first goal a different way," he said, "and I'm sure to the delight of all our fans and everyone, his was a beauty."

Strome scored in his 11th NHL game; Kakko did so in the first period of just his third career game - but Strome and others agree that no matter how long it takes a rookie to score, there's a kind of burden there, until there isn't.

"It's amazing what scoring does for a player's confidence, especially a young player," Strome said. "I remember just the weight being lifted off my shoulders. From there, you can kind of just go play."

"I think there was pressure he put on himself for sure," David Quinn said of Kakko. "You felt it in the building when he scored, right? I mean, the reaction was incredible, everybody felt so good for him. And without question, when you have all the attention on you and the focus on you, and as highly thought of as he is, I think he feels it, no matter what language it's in. It would be hard not to put extra pressure on himself. So I think he's very relieved that he's got that one out of the way."

If goal No. 1 does serve to relieve a little pressure from a young player, the spotlight certainly isn't about to grow dimmer, not this week anyway: The Rangers' next game is against the Devils, on Thursday night in Newark, where all the attention will be foisted upon two 18-year-olds, Kakko and New Jersey's Jack Hughes, in the first NHL meeting between the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the June Entry Draft. That will be an unavoidable storyline, but looked at one way, it will be just one game out of 82 for the Rangers, and Strome wanted to remind everybody that right now Kakko is still just at the start of something that will only grow in time.

"I think people are quick to forget that he's a teenager playing in the NHL. There's not many 18-year-olds that even play in the NHL, never mind perform, and are able to have the talent to do it," Strome said. "Just to make our team is good for him, and to score is another step, and I think he's going to keep building. Everyone is watching him, and I think each game he's gotten a little more comfortable with the puck. Now that he's scored I think he's going to want it more, and he's going to want to shoot it more.

"It was a special way for him to score, a great goal, a great move. Hopefully the floodgates are open for him. He's got all the tools to do it, so it should be fun to watch."

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