Monday, April 30, 2012

Kreider's time has arrived

Ranger rookie Chris Kreider celebrates.
It doesn't get any better than what Chris Kreider's experiencing. A couple of weeks removed from leaving Boston College where he helped lead his school to a second NCAA title in three years, the former Rangers' 2009 first round pick is one of the biggest headliners in the playoffs. From collegiate star to a bright eyed rookie thrown into the fire by John Tortorella last round when another freshman Carl Hagelin served a three-game suspension, the big kid on campus has adjusted to life on the fly in the toughest league.

What makes it so remarkable is that Kreider's doing this in the postseason. Even as a rookie during a challenging 82-game schedule, it's not easy to just fit in. It's a much faster and more physical game. Something all kids learn quickly. If it's true that the Boston native has the size and strength to offset that aspect, it's also true that he's still only entering his seventh game when the Rangers aim to take a 2-0 series lead tonight against the Capitals. Perhaps that explains everyone's amazement over Kreider's contribution to the Blueshirts' 3-1 victory in Game One over the weekend.

Unfazed by the pressure, he's already found a home on the Team USA line with teammates Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. Ironically, I suggested that Tortorella try Kreider with the duo and ever since, they've been our best line, getting the puck deep and cycling as well as chipping in offensively. With Marian Gaborik continuing to struggle, the American trio has picked up the slack. It just so happened that Kreider was the Rangers' most effective forward, notching his second-game winner on a lethal slapper from the left circle that flew past another great story Braden Holtby. For an encore, he forced a turnover and then patiently set up Brad Richards, who buried the insurance marker from in tight to salt Game One away.

''I'm kind of at a loss for words,'' the low key Kreider acknowledged after being named the game's first star. ''I'm just trying to keep my head down and work hard. Whether or not the puck goes in, I'm just trying to play the same role I play every night and be consistent and be defensively reliable.''

When your own crowd chants your name as a raucous MSG did the other day following just Kreider's second goal as a Ranger, it has to feel awfully good for a player many diehard Blueshirts couldn't wait to see don the jersey. Admittedly, he stated that he was out of gas when he opted for the slapper, hinting that he would've skated in more if he wasn't tired. Kreider then summed it up the end of a classic shift by pointing out how the chants reenergized him on the bench. That's what a loud atmosphere at The Garden which hasn't been seen in nearly two decades can do.

''It's a surreal experience,'' he added. 'I got goose bumps, obviously. I was really tired after the goal, but I didn't feel so tired when they started chanting.''

Today, Kreider celebrates his 21st birthday. The Rangers have an important game to win, which could make life easier against a grittier Washington team that plays a similar style. Blocking shots. Hitting. Keeping shots to the outside. A team that possesses more skill with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green all dangerous as four goal posts attest. Not that Hart hopeful Henrik Lundqvist minded while finishing with 17 saves in a tightly contested game that saw a combined 32 shots. The Blueshirts prevailed despite only getting 14 through on Holtby, who didn't look like the netminder we saw in Round One against Boston. It would be advisable if the Broadway hosts fire at least double on the wiz kid who's been an even bigger surprise than Kreider. Holtby is the No.1 reason the Caps are here. With Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth sidelined, he has been brilliant. Figure him to be stronger.

The Rangers bring a lead into tonight due to strong performances from Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov. All were instrumental in Saturday's win with McDonagh in particular, continuing to excel alongside Girardi against the Caps' top gun- limiting Ovechkin to one shot and a minus-one. Even if he's not being used as much under Dale Hunter, Ovi is always a threat. It's no easy task which takes diligent checking from everyone, including the forwards who always help out. Only once did they get burned late in the second on Jason Chimera's goal with 3.5 seconds left in the second that tied it off a great feed from Brooks Laich. A quick counter following a blown opportunity that demonstrated Washington's speed and skill.

While most of the attention centered around Kreider's heroics, Lundqvist and the top three D, without Fedotenko's yeoman effort during a Washington 5-on-3, there's no telling what happens. His hustle and willingness to get dirty prevented the Caps from mustering anything, including two huge clears. It's that kinda of rugged play from the grizzled vet who's been part of two Cup winners that gets lost in the shuffle. However, he made sure people noticed with another strong play along the boards that allowed Anisimov to stuff a wraparound past Holtby for his first of the postseason. The play was eerily similar to '94 hero Stephane Matteau, who just happened to be in the building and was shown prior to Artie's goal. Go figure.

Without Brandon Dubinsky (ankle) and Brian Boyle who could return later in place of Steve Eminger, that's what the Rangers need. Others to step up. It's how they've done it all year. As I've said repeatedly, they're a T-E-A-M. From top to bottom, everyone contributes. It's why maybe Kreider's two goals and helper all over the past three games shouldn't be that surprising. Tortorella has gotten everyone to buy in. Even if his media handling has become a tired act, there's a reason he was selected along with Ken Hitchcock and Paul MacLean for the Adams. Our players love him. He has their backs.

It's why it works. The vets have made it easier for Kreider to fit in and why I can't find one player who doesn't play hard. I might critique a select few out of frustration but everyone gives an honest effort. That approach is the one necessary for these Blueshirts to march on. The fun continues for the birthday boy and his teammates tonight.

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