By Matt Williams
---- — BOSTON — No one in their right mind would tell you that the NHL regular season is more difficult than the Stanley Cup playoffs.
There may be times in 2013, however, when it looks that way for New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider.
Such is life for a wunderkind, as the pride of Boxford made arguably the most unique regular season debut in NHL history when the Bruins beat the Rangers, 3-1, at TD Garden Saturday night.
Having already skated in 18 Stanley Cup playoff games, scoring a record five goals and seven points for a player with zero regular season games last spring, Kreider’s debut was hardly a baptism. It was also delayed more than three months by the most recent NHL lockout, time he spent playing for the Connecticut Whale in the American Hockey League.
Because of the lockout, the Rangers first regular season game wound up against Boston, in a building where Kreider was a perfect 6-0 with three Beanpots and three Hockey East titles while playing a few miles away at Boston College.
“I was excited to come back to Boston for this first regular season (game),” Kreider said in the barren visitors’ locker room after Saturday’s contest. “But it would’ve been a lot better to win.”
Just 21 years old, Kreider took 16 shifts Saturday night. He played 10:13, somewhat less than the 13:02 he averaged in last year’s playoffs. He didn’t have the puck on his stick much and didn’t have the flash, or dash, of the player that scored three goals in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring and led USA Today’s preseason Calder Trophy hopefuls for Rookie of the Year.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort by Kreider, who skated hard and did his job defensively on the third line with Hingham native (and fellow Boston College product) Brian Boyle at center and Taylor Pyatt on the opposite wing. The New York press dubbed them the ‘Beanpot Line.’
“Brian’s easy to play with. Everyone on this team is,” said Kreider, who could have unique chemistry with the 6-foot-7 Boyle because of both players’ reach and BC background. “He does some things where you shake your head because its something he might’ve picked up at BC. He’s a real approachable, personable guy.”
For the most part, Kreider skated only in even strength situations against the Bruins. That seemed to limit his ice time, with Boyle and captain Ryan Callahan killing penalties and Pyatt often slid to fill the captain’s spot on the second line. That sort of flow is different for Kreider, but is certainly not an issue, he said.
“It’s not hard to stay in these games. You’re always excited, encouraging the guys. At this level, you’re always up for the games.”
Coming out of a four minute Boston power play, which New York killed, Kreider took a shift with top center Brad Richards and nearly created a scoring chance in the offensive end. Coach John Tortorella also called on his line after the Bruins’ crucial third goal. Both situations were a glimpse of the trust and offensive ability Kreider showcased in last spring’s playoffs.
“He’s getting his feet wet,” Callahan said of his rookie teammate. “He’s such a big guy ... he’s going to be good for us.”
Kreider, a 2009 first round draft choice, worked primarily against Boston defensemen Andrew Ference and Adam McQuiad. He was credited with his first regular season hit when he checked Ference in the first period — “If you don’t finish checks in this league, you don’t play,” Kreider said — and was jostling for position with fellow Boxford native and Bruins winger Chris Bourque in front of the net in the third period.
“Being from the same hometown, it was a little battle,” Bourque said. “I’ve seen him around, going against him in the summer, and it was fun.”
It was a whirlwind week for the former Phillips Andover and Masconomet standout. He’d played 33 games in the AHL, with 12 points, and was asserting himself physically with 55 penalty minutes. He had less than a week of training camp time with the Rangers before Saturday’s game.
“Lot of information. Still a lot to learn, though being up for a little while last year helps,” said Kreider, who flew back to New York Saturday night to open Madison Square Garden with a 6-3 loss to Pittsburgh.
Kreider signed with the Rangers days after winning his second national title at BC last spring. He got into the playoffs when Carl Hagelin was suspended in the first round series against Ottawa and played so well that he had to keep a spot in the lineup. His 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame, tremendous shot and world class skating have Rangers fans excited to watch him grow up in front of their eyes.
“I thought he skated very well in camp and I’m anxious to see him play,” Tortorella, who played at Salem State for a season in 1977, told the media before Saturday’s game. “We know his strengths and to have him and Hagelin in the same lineup, the way they skate, it just ups your team’s tempo. Hopefully he can be consistent with it.”
Sharing the moment with family and friends among the sellout crowd of 17,565 at the Garden — “There’s so many people here tonight, I couldn’t go over them all,” he said — was something Kreider will always be grateful for. He said he thinks about his journey from the halls of Masconomet, playing for coach Bill Blackwell with best friend Keaton Cashin, to the pro’s every day.
With the offseason acquisition of winger Rich Nash and Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in top form, New York is a Stanley Cup favorite in some circles. So is Boston, so there’s a chance these Original Six rivals could meet again beyond the regular season.
If the Rangers fulfill those expectations, you can bet Kreider will play a big role in their success.
“I said it last spring, and it’s true. It’s pretty easy to fall in love with this group,” said Kreider.