By Phil Stacey
---- — BOSTON — Four minutes into yesterday’s game, you got a glimpse of why the New York Rangers have always thought so highly of Chris Kreider.
Following a great scoring chance by Bruins winger Reilly Smith, the Rangers transitioned the puck up ice as Kreider gathered it in front of his own bench. With long, powerful strides the Boxford native shot into the attacking zone, going right-to-left across the ice until he was in the bottom of the left circle. His shot on Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask from the bottom of the dot was turned aside, but his skill set was on full display in a matter of seconds.
Kreider didn’t factor into the scoring during yesterday’s 3-2 Boston victory at the TD Garden, but the 22-year-old is clearly at the point in his young career where he not only seems to get what it takes to play at the NHL level, but how to stay there, too.
“I think that’s the NHL ... you’re constantly re-proving yourself every time you lace ‘em up,” said the 6-foot-3, 225-pound left wing. “Then again, that’s a lot of fun to do when it’s something you obviously love and to compete every day.”
While technically still classified as an NHL rookie, this is the third season that Kreider has been playing with the big boys following the splash he made in the 2011 playoffs (5 goals, 2 assists) after coming straight out of Boston College, followed by a shortened 2012-13 season where he spent as much time in the minors as it did in the bigs while dealing with bone chips in his ankle.
He also began this season in the American Hockey League with the Rangers’ farm team in Hartford, but since his Oct. 20 callup to New York, it doesn’t appear Kreider will be headed back soon — if ever.
As he has matured as a player, his confidence has grown and so has his game. Whereas former Rangers coach John Tortorella was a stickler for defensive zone responsibilities and shot blocking, new coach Alain Vigneault has seemingly given Kreider the go-ahead to use his greatest strengths — tremendous skating and offensive zone awareness — for a New York team that has a difficult time scoring goals (their average of 2.12 per game is the third-lowest in the league).
His playing time has certainly increased; so has Kreider’s spot in the pecking order that is the New York lineup. He’s been cemented on the second line with center Derek Stepan (a teammate of his on the U.S. World Juniors gold medal club in 2010) and right wing Mats Zuccarello. The trio has clicked well, with Kreider potting three goals and 10 assists in 19 games since his recall from the AHL.
“He moves up and down the ice very well. He’s a strong skater; you get him the puck and he can really go,” Zuccarello, a 26-year-old Norwegian, said of Kreider. “I think that’s how we have to get him going; that’s his game. We have to let him do his thing, chasing pucks, accelerating into the offensive zone.”
The credit, says Kreider, goes to his linemates. “It doesn’t matter who you put them with; they’re going to make you look good,” said the former Masconomet Regional and Phillips Andover superstar. “They’re extremely cerebral and communicate very well on the bench, and if there’s ever an issue on the ice ... they’re very easy to approach.”
The former first round pick had a chance to give his team the lead in the third period yesterday. With about 10 minutes to go in regulation and the score tied at 2-2, Kreider got behind Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk by using his speed and taking a stretch pass from Zuccarello. He came off the left wing boards towards Rask, but his wrist shot whistled wide of the net. Less than a minute later, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara’s rocket from inside the blue line gave the home team what turned out to be the game-winning tally.
Although he’s probably considered a longshot to make the team, there’s been talk Kreider’s size and frame could work nicely on the bigger ice surface for Team USA during the upcoming Olympics this February in Sochi, Russia.
Of course it’d be a dream come true, but I’m just focusing our next game. We’ve got Vancouver (at home this afternoon),” said Kreider, who got to spend a few hours at his parents’ Boxford home on Thanksgiving Day. Prior to that, his father David joined him as the Rangers’ dads accompanied the team on their road trip through Nasvhille and Tampa.
“(Yesterday) wasn’t the outcome we’d have liked ... we did some things well, did some things we have to improve on. That’s hockey.”