July 31, 2014

Strong postseason makes Chris Kreider a key cog for Rangers

Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) came up short in trying to top fellow New Englander Jon Quick (Hamden, Conn.) in this year's Stanley Cup Final, but his strong postseason was a big bright spot for the Rangers.

By Wayne Fish

Nobody among the thousands in the Bell Centre appreciated the Blue Streak as it went hurtling down the ice on a crash-course with the opposition net … unless you count the 18 young men sitting on the visitors’ bench.

Rest assured the New York Rangers knew how much Chris Kreider’s rush on the Montreal Canadiens’ goal meant to the psyche of their hockey team.

Kreider, sent loose on a breakaway and storming in on Habs goaltender Carey Price, didn’t score on that play late in the second period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. But the subsequent crash — setting off a storm of controversy and sending Price to the sideline for the remainder of the playoffs — helped set the tone for a skill-heavy Rangers club in need of some “edge.’’

Kreider already had sent a message to Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6 of the previous series, one in which the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit for the first time in their history.

And now Kreider had done it again, unintentionally taking out one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Price and paving the way for the Rangers’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.

These are the types of plays that give teams swagger. When your roster is dotted with smallish speed types like Martin St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin, it’s helpful to have net-crashers like Kreider and Brian Boyle (Hingham, Mass.) at your service.

Not that the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Kreider is just a physical force. As demonstrated by the Price play, he can skate with the best of them. In fact, some say he could hold his own against the team’s acknowledged speedster, Hagelin, who goes a mere 5-foot-11, 175.

Although the Rangers came up short in their quest for hockey’s ultimate prize, there were a number of positive developments to the postseason run, and one of them was Kreider.

Kreider led the Blueshirts with three power-play goals in the playoffs and was tied for fourth on the team with 13 playoff points.

It appears the 23-year-old native of Boxford, Mass., has finally established himself as a bona fide NHL regular.

Coach Alain Vigneault gave him plenty of responsibility, including a regular shift on a top line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash.

The coach knows what Kreider brings to the table — a passion for the game and a will to compete.

Vigneault watched Kreider bounce back ahead of schedule from a hand fracture suffered in late March to play in Game 4 of the Pittsburgh series.

It took him all of one game to get his timing back. Then he became the same force that made him the first rookie in NHL history to score five goals in the playoffs (2012) before registering his first regular-season goal.

Perhaps now the constant shuttling back and forth to the minors, the mind games with former coach John Tortorella (Concord, Mass.) and the uncertainty of his role can become distant memories.

“He’s been huge,” teammate Ryan McDonagh said of Kreider’s contribution in the playoffs. “He’s been enjoying it himself, finding his groove and his game and finding out what works for him.

“It’s been fun to watch, seeing him come up for the first time and going up and down from the minors and figuring out what he needs to do to be effective out there. It’s great to see.”

The play involving Price epitomized Kreider’s all-in approach to the game. The crash, he insisted, was simply a bang-bang play.

“I wasn’t trying to run him,’’ Kreider said. “I just had my head down trying to settle the puck. I think I got a shot — no I put it wide, right? — and somehow lost my footing. I thought maybe someone pressured me from behind. I seem to have issues staying on my feet on those (plays). Then I went in skates first and had too much momentum. I couldn’t really avoid him. It didn’t feel too good.”

Price suffered a leg injury on the play, forcing Montreal to use backup Peter Budaj for the third period and then third-string rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski — with just 10 NHL regular-season games under his belt — for the remainder of the series.

The Canadiens squawked that Kreider could have avoided the collision, but replays were inconclusive.

“The guy is pretty much on a breakaway, his thought process isn’t to run the goalie,” said Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, echoing exactly what Kreider said after the game. “It happens throughout a playoff series, where people … disagree.”

Kreider has been known for his competitive drive going all the way back to his high school playing days in Massachusetts. Most people don’t realize it was tough for Kreider to convince people of his game even back at an early age. He was once cut from the Masconomet Regional High School varsity squad and had to play on the JV club.

“It’s kind of a running joke we have,’’ Masconomet head coach Andrew Jackson told NHL.com. “Goes to show what we know; we had a future NHL first-round pick. He immediately jumped right in after that.”

Reportedly, Kreider quickly grew some 6 inches before his sophomore year, and he was off to the races. In addition to hockey, Kreider played lacrosse and soccer while maintaining a 4.3 grade-point average. “He was like a role model when he was 15,’’ Jackson said. “He did all the right things; kids looked up to him both on and off the ice. He was extremely polite. He’s what you want your program to represent. He was awesome.”

That punched Kreider’s ticket to Phillips Andover Academy and eventually Boston College, where he won a pair of NCAA titles under coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.).

Along the way, Kreider registered a total of 10 goals in the World Junior Championships, putting him in a tie with former NHL legends Mike Modano and John LeClair and behind only Jeremy Roenick (13) and Stephen Gionta (11)

Kreider played so well the Rangers made him their first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2009 draft. After winning the NCAAs in 2012, Kreider was called up for the playoffs and scored big goals against Ottawa and Washington, becoming the first player in NHL history to make his first two goals game-winners.

That performance, however, didn’t save him from a trip back to the minors with Connecticut the following year. Tortorella didn’t see enough consistency in Kreider’s game. Of course, Tortorella wasn’t singling out Kreider. Vigneault did the same thing at the beginning of this past season.

While the hand fracture made him late for the playoff show, he quickly made up for lost time against Pittsburgh, Montreal and Los Angeles.

“This is the position we want to be in this time of year,” Kreider said. “I think it brings out everyone’s best. This time of year, it’s just exciting to be able to come to the rink.”

Vigneault welcomed back Kreider with open arms. “Chris with (Stepan and Nash) have been a real consistent line for us,” Vigneault said. “Bringing that speed back in, bringing that physical game he (Kreider) can play, it makes it real tough on the other team.”

While the outlook for Kreider appears rosy, there’s still the matter of working out a new contract. Kreider, a restricted free agent, is coming off the completion of an entry-level contract that paid him $800,000 per year on the salary cap.

The Rangers have a bunch of restricted free agents to sign (Kreider, Zuccarello, John Moore, Justin Falk), plus potential unrestricted free agent Daniel Carcillo. Boyle, Anton Stralman and Benoit Pouliot signed elsewhere at the start of free agency, while the Rangers retained Dominic Moore with a new two-year deal.

Clearly, Kreider is somewhere near the top of general manager Glen Sather’s list. Sather watched how Kreider, just one game back from that hand fracture, stepped in during Game 5 of the Penguin series and ended the Rangers’ 0-for-36 drought on the power play.

Kreider has proven he belongs. The support he and his teammates receive from the demanding Madison Square Garden fans is proof of that. “I think, from the little experience I’ve had in New York … the fans value hard work,’’ Kreider said. “They can see that. For some people, if they’re smooth, or it kind of comes kind of more easily — (I) feel like they love the guys who look like they’re working their ass off.’’

This fact is not lost on his old high school coach, Jackson, who will be the first to tell you Kreider is the pride of his hometown in northern Massachusetts, about 30 minutes above Boston.

“It’s incredible,’’ Jackson said. “All my friends and family know he came through our program. So I feel like a celebrity just knowing that they know I know him.

“There’s not a more deserving guy. His combination of size, speed and skill is something to watch, it really is. It’s pretty cool.”

This article originally appeared in the July edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.

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