The Rangers' season has only just begun, and Saturday's game against the Edmonton Oilers was never on its own going to make or break an 82-game campaign. And yet there's a good chance that it could be remembered around New York for a long time to come.
Those fans who packed Madison Square Garden for a weekend matinee all can say they were at the game where Kaapo Kakko scored his first NHL goal. It came 18 minutes 28 seconds into the opening period, and it was no soft goal or excuse-me bounce off a shin pad, either - it was a give-and-go to perfection, set up by Kakko's speed and by Ryan Strome's pass, topped off by a clever finish and an 18-year-old's joyful celebration on Garden ice.
"It feels good," Kakko said afterward. "I think it was a great goal, and a big goal for us, for the team - first goal is always big. But it's not enough, one goal."
Playing their first game in a full week, the Rangers couldn't beat Mike Smith or his goalposts to pad their early lead, then watched Connor McDavid score the game-winner on a goal that very much was an excuse-me bounce off a shin pad, but which nevertheless sent the Oilers toward a 4-1 victory and their fifth win of the season, all of them coming from behind.
Edmonton is 5-0 for the first time in 34 years, while the Blueshirts went down to their first defeat of 2019-20 and will have to wait until Thursday to play again - when the Rangers and Devils square off in Newark in the first NHL meeting of the top two picks of the 2019 Draft.
"It wasn't obviously our best game," Mika Zibanejad of Saturday's matinee, which was the Rangers' first game action since Zibanejad's hat trick led to last Saturday's win in Ottawa. "We didn't play as fast as we wanted to, and might have been out of sync there. The ice was rough out there, and I thought they did a better job getting the puck behind us and generating more after that. It just wasn't good enough today."
Zibanejad had eight points in the season's first two games entering this one, which wasn't even 20 seconds old before he stripped McDavid of the puck at the Ranger line, then won a 125-foot race from one of the sport's most celebrated skaters. But his chance turned into the first of Smith's 20 saves, and once the tie score carried through to the third, McDavid's power-play bank-in off of Jacob Trouba gave Edmonton its first lead with 10:16 to play.
It was an unfortunate bounce for Henrik Lundqvist after some of the stops he had made to maintain the tie: Two of them came in quick succession early in the third on Leon Draisaitl, but the Oiler winger later tacked on an insurance goal, then an empty-netter in the final seconds.
"It was a battle. It came down to a tough bounce," said Lundqvist, who finished with 23 saves. "It's a 1-1 game, and then on their power play it hits our guy. Special teams was the difference."
"Definitely a fortunate bounce," admitted McDavid, whose 12 points lead the NHL.
Kakko would have much preferred discussing his first NHL goal with some music blaring in a winning locker room, but nevertheless the memorable moment of the afternoon belonged to him. Skating on the right wing, he backed in Oscar Klefbom at the Edmonton line, then handed the puck off to Strome and cut inside the Oiler defenseman. Strome held and then flipped a perfect backhand saucer in stride to Kakko, and the rookie took it from there: His forehand deke had Smith cooked, his backhand finish found the back of the net.
Kakko screamed in pure joy and jumped into Strome's arms. He is just the eighth player age 18 or younger ever to score for the Rangers.
"That was a great pass by Stromer," he said. "It was a good feeling."
For the Rangers' bench, too.
"He's a special player and he has worked really hard in this camp and on our team the past few games," said Marc Staal. "That was nice to see."
"Good to see, for a lot of reasons," Quinn said. "Now he's got the first one behind him, and he can continue to improve and move forward.
"But," the Head Coach lamented, "you're not going to win many games scoring one goal."
Klefbom got off the mat to provide Edmonton's answer 6:45 into the second, a goal off a faceoff that followed back-to-back Ranger icings. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins won the draw and Lundqvist had no chance of picking up Klefbom's left-point shot through the traffic.
The Rangers' power play, 0-for-4 on this day, came up empty for the first time this season, including a first-period 5-on-3 and one third-period opportunity when McDavid was sent off for tripping Zibanejad. The Edmonton captain had barely come out of the box when he was interfered with, and on the ensuing Oiler power play, Trouba went to a knee to stop McDavid's pass out of the corner; instead, the carom found its way into the net.
"It was kind of a stalemate for both teams," Staal said. "A lot of turnovers on both sides, not a lot of room, a lot of bouncing pucks, rolling pucks all over the ice. It's one of those games that you know special teams are making a difference there in the third. So we were right there. It's just, we didn't execute and they did on their power play, and that's the way it went."