BOSTON — There were moments Saturday night at the TD Garden when it appeared the visiting New York Rangers might be able to extend their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Boston Bruins. The Blueshirts were playing a heavy game and had life.
The physical play of rookie Chris Kreider of Boxford helped the Rangers stay in it. And while Boston ultimately overcame an early New York lead to win the game, 3-1, and the series, 4 games to 1, observers of Kreider had to be encouraged by what they saw from the former first round draft choice.
Early in the second period of Game 5, Kreider unloaded on Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. He won the puck, sent the Boston blueliner to the ice with an authoritative shove and briefly inspired his bench.
The hit, already made into a moving graphic by one Internet site, was a microcosm for what the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Kreider can be when he’s playing with speed and confidence.
After New York fell behind, 3-0, in the series, coach John Tortorella made a much-publicized decision to sit star center Brad Richards. That also moved Kreider from a limited fourth line role to top six duty. He was paired with blossoming center Derek Stepan and star winger Rick Nash here Saturday night, and the physicality he brought may have been a direct result.
“Its always a piece of my game. I was more cognizant of it (Saturday), playing with the players I’m playing with, trying to make space for them,” said Kreider, who by virtue of playing with Nash was also matched against arguably the best defenseman in the world, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, and his partner, Seidenberg.
“I wanted to make it hard for their top couple pairings when they go in deep for the puck ... they’re running around hitting (Nash), so I’m trying to do the same (to them).”
The 22-year-old Kreider was credited with six hits Saturday night, the most by any Ranger. The only player with as many hits was Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who also played one of his best, most physical games of the series.
“They were hard hits. I’m fine,” Seidenberg, who was returning to the lineup from an injury, said of Kreider’s hit. “He’s a thick kid, and usually that doesn’t happen, but I just lost balance.”
On the ice for the Rangers’ goal (a power play strike in the first period), Kreider earned more responsibility from Tortorella as the series progressed. The 16 minutes 52 seconds he played in Game 5 were his most of these playoffs. He was also on the ice for Bruin Gregory Campbell’s emtpy net goal, trying desperately to help New York force overtime.
“I hadn’t really considered that or looked at it,” Kreider said of his increased role. “I was focusing game-by-game trying to do my best to help the team win.”
Ever the pragmatist, Kreider deflected credit for his overtime winner in Game 4 two days earlier at Madison Square Garden, one that temporarily kept the Rangers’ season alive. “I’d say that was mostly the work of Rick and Derek and (teammate) Ryan McDonough,” he said. “It was obviously all for naught. We had an opportunity here (Saturday) with the lead and we couldn’t finish it off.”
A year ago, the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals with Kreider playing a huge rule weeks after signing out of Boston College. He had five goals in 18 playoff games a year ago; this year, he had one in eight contests (sitting out 4 of the 7 in the first round against Washington).
“(The Bruins) play a good game. They’re relentless. They capitalized on their surges and pinned us in quite a bit,” Kreider said. “We talked about how we play similar games, and they played their game better, so they’re advancing.”
It was an up-and-down season for Kreider, who played 23 games in New York and 48 with their minor league affiliate in Connecticut between the NHL lockout and being sent down during the shortened season. By the end, he’d earned his way back and it’s clear that when he’s cast in a top six role, he can a bright part of New York’s future.
“I think skating with the them brings out the best in pretty much everyone,” Kreider said of Nash and Stepan, the latter of whom he won a World Junior Championship with on Team USA in 2010.
There’s no substitute for experience, and with 26 Stanley Cup playoff games under his belt, Kreider has seen what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of the game. If he continues to play as he did Saturday night, it won’t be long before he’s helping bring out the best in his linemates, too.