By Phil Stacey
---- — BOSTON — Your average NHL hockey player doesn’t equate a Stanley Cup playoff game to an ancient practice that originated in Imperial China.
But Chris Kreider isn’t average. He’s a first round pick out of Boxford who’s as cerebral as he is gifted athletically and summed up last night’s Eastern Conference semifinal game quite accurately.
“Both teams like to try and beat their opponents by death by a million cuts, I think it is,” said Kreider, the New York Rangers rookie left wing, following his team’s 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1 at the TD Garden.
“You’re out there fighting through every single shift, it’s unbelievable. They’re a defense-first team that capitalizes on their opportunities and force turnovers. You’ve got two teams trying to chip away at one another; it’s an absolute dogfight.”
This is not Kreider’s first time at the NHL’s postseason dance. A year ago, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound speedster burst onto Broadway and shone brightly, joining the Rangers early on in the playoffs after helping lead Boston College to its second NCAA title in his three years. Playing beyond anyone’s expectations, he scored five goals and two assists as the Rangers reached the Eastern Conference final. In doing so, he set an NHL record for most playoff goals in one postseason by a player who had yet to skate in a regular season game; he’s also the only player in NHL history whose first two goals were game-winners in the playoffs.
This year has been markedly different for him. Touted as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate before the shortened NHL season began, the 22-year-old Kreider has gone through the growing pains that so many players, particularly those who crack the big leagues at such a young age, are almost predestined to experience (see: Hamilton, Dougie). He shuffled between New York and the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford throughout the season; producing 2 goals and an assist in 23 games with the Blueshirts. His most recent callup was the fourth time he’s been summoned from the minors.
Skating on the Rangers’ fourth line with center Brad Richards and right wing Aaron Asham, Kreider’s 11 minutes and 37 seconds of ice time were the second-fewest on his club. Over 13 shifts he dished out three hits, blocked two shots and fired one wide of Bruins’ netminder Tuukka Rask in the overtime session.
“That one I fired around the boards: I had speed and could’ve taken it wide or at least put it on net,” the one-time Masconomet, Phillips Andover and Boston College star acknowledged.
He also had a chance to give his team the lead midway through the third period. Getting the puck low in the near circle — the exact same spot he works out of during the latter stages of every pregame warmup — Kreider fired a shot on goal that was partially tipped out front before Rask got his right pad on it.
“Did it get blocked? Ahhh, I should’ve elevated it,” Kreider said. “I just tried to get it off quick, tried to beat his leg ... I should have gotten it up.”
Rangers head coach John Tortorella — bet you didn’t know he played a season of hockey at Salem State before transferring to the University of Maine -- is loathe to doll out significant minutes to young players who may not have a complete and total grasp of his defense-first, block-any-shot-you-can system. Like any good soldier, Kreider is a team-first guy, saying he’s willing to play any role the team needs him to in order to win hockey games.
“This team focuses on the little things; you don’t just pick up on the them overnight,” said Kreider. “You need to play hockey, gain experience and practice those things to eventually develop into a better player.
“There are things I could’ve done differently tonight that would’ve helped. I don’t know how much they would’ve helped, but then again they could’ve been the difference in the game. So there’s definitely some things (for Game 2 Sunday) that I’ll focus on that I struggled with or didn’t do well tonight.”