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Rangers need big night from Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere to be start of ascent




Rangers need big night from Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere to be start of ascent

Regarding the Rangers, who are somehow playing at a 116-point pace entering Friday’s match at the Garden against Vegas:

1. The two most positive developments out of Wednesday’s date in the desert could be the most encouraging and meaningful of the season if it represents the start of something and not just a one-off.

And that was the play of Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, the Ping-Pong Ball Twins, who both elevated their respective games when called upon to split the assignments left behind by Artemi Panarin.

Let’s face it. While the ultimate success of the rebuild surely depends on them, so does a lot of the present.

When No. 10 left the match for good 2:19 into the second period with an undefined lower-body issue, Lafreniere moved up to take his spot on the left with Ryan Strome and Dryden Hunt while Kakko stepped in on the first power-play unit.

Kakko, who had scored at five-on-five in the second period from the left porch, then got the 3-2 winner at 17:42 of the third period, right from the PP doorstep by converting Chris Kreider’s gorgeous feed. Lafreniere, meanwhile, was engaged throughout the match, using his body and moving his feet to disrupt and create.

Each responded to increased responsibility. Kakko’s 19:38 of ice time represented his second-highest of the season, most since No. 24 played 20:01 against the Devils on Nov. 14, and over a minute more than his next highest allotment of time.

Rangers Kaapo Kakko
Kaapo Kakko (#24) during the Rangers win against the Coyotes on Dec. 15, 2021.
NHLI via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Lafreniere, whose ice time had been dwindling over the previous week, also received his second-most work of the season, his 17:00 only behind his high of 17:06 in Ottawa on Oct. 23 and also nearly a minute more than his next highest total.

We all have learned that every player’s development curve is different. We all know that the Rangers will have to be patient with Kakko, the 2019 second-overall; and with Lafreniere, first-overall a year later. Regardless of expectations, neither came to the NHL as a ready-made product. That has become obvious.

But that does not negate the reality that the Rangers need more from these poster boys of the rebuild than they have received. The Rangers need Kakko and Lafreniere to be productive and reliable. You may have noticed that even when at full strength, the Blueshirts are shy a top-sixer.

Rangers Alexis Lafreniere
Alexis Lafreniere (#13) during the Rangers’ win over the Coyotes on Dec. 15, 2021.
Getty Images

If Panarin is down for a stretch, and “day-to-day” could mean just about anything the way the organization so liberally tosses around that term, then the Rangers will need the Finn and the lad from Quebec to step up and seize the moment.

Wednesday was a good start. For the team’s sake, it needs to be more than that.

2. So two goals in the last four games from streak-scorer Mika Zibanejad, and that is promising. But No. 93 still has only two goals for the season at five-on-five. His last one came in Edmonton on Nov. 5, 18 games ago. That is just not going to make it.

Zibanejad has scored his two goals on 44 shots. That is kind of like when Derek Jeter went 0-for-32 at the plate in April of 2004. (Except Jeter was getting booed. Where was the R2spect?) But, no, you knew Jeter was going to keep swinging and you knew it was going to end. It’s going to end for Zibanejad, too, if he keeps shooting the puck.

Mika Zibanejad Rangers
Mika Zibanejad celebrates after scoring a goal in the Rangers’ win over the Coyotes on Dec. 15, 2021.
NHLI via Getty Images

Kakko’s second-period goal against the Coyotes represented the Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko line’s first goal at five-on-five since Dec. 1, a stretch that encompassed seven games. No team can expect sustained success with that kind of five-on-five production from its top line.

It took Kakko a while to find a comfort zone playing earlier in the season with Panarin and Ryan Strome, No. 24 going without a point in his first seven games on that line before recording five points (3-2) in four games immediately before head coach Gerard Gallant rearranged his personnel. It took 11 games for Kakko to score a goal while playing with Kreider and Zibanejad.

3. Filip Chytil, on Wednesday a healthy scratch for the first time in more than two years, will likely be reinstated independent of Panarin’s status unless there’s more to the story beyond a dip in No. 72’s play.

I still do not understand why the Rangers haven’t experimented by moving Chytil to the wing, where he played some of his best hockey through a stretch of games in 2018-19. He’s not a natural playmaker, he doesn’t seem to have great vision in the middle but he does appear to have the attributes of a power winger.

Obviously the staff does not agree.

4. As first reported by colleague Mollie Walker, Sammy Blais underwent surgery on Thursday to repair the torn ACL he sustained on that sketchy collision in the corner with P.K. Subban on Nov. 14.


Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death




Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence




Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers




Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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