GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers coach John Tortorella consistently talks about how he's always evaluating his players as the game is going on. If Tortorella sees that someone has it that night, no matter who it is, he'll use that player for more minutes. If Tortorella senses someone doesn't have it -- and it could be a star player -- that player will find himself on the bench in the third period.
For the better part of this season and certainly in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Chris Kreider has been the player who isn't playing in the third period because he wasn't playing well enough in the eyes of Tortorella to earn that important ice time. Trust is a big thing with the coach, and Kreider, despite his remarkable success in the playoffs last year, hadn't earned it.
Tortorella saw enough from Kreider in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Bruins to bump him up so he could play on the second line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard late in the second period. Kreider would have received more than the two shifts he got in the third period had he not gotten struck in the face by Tyler Seguin's stick.
When Tortorella made the decision to scratch center Brad Richards for Game 4, a byproduct of that was Kreider again getting to play on the second line. He made his late-game ice time count by scoring the goal that kept New York's season alive.
Kreider's winner 7:03 into overtime Thursday gave the Rangers a 4-3 win and forced the need for a Game 5 in Boston on Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
Kreider finished Game 4 with a postseason-high 18 shifts and 13:50 of ice time.
"It's terrific," Tortorella said after practice Friday. "I'm glad for Chris, I am."
Kreider, who stayed off the ice Friday, said he never wavered in his belief he could do special things for the Rangers this season, even though he experienced the ups and downs of being demoted to the American Hockey League twice and was a healthy scratch for Games 2-5 against the Washington Capitals in the conference quarterfinals.
He said he also didn't care he was a fourth-liner until late in the second period of Game 3 against the Bruins.
"I try to do the same things that I do regardless of who I'm playing with and how much ice time I'm getting," Kreider said after Game 4. "It's a big part about being a professional and I think I learned that this year. You don't change your game up. You might end up doing it regardless and you might not be aware of it, but I think you try to play the same way regardless of what's going on."
Kreider's maturity -- not to mention his size, skill and skating -- was a big reason Tortorella had enough trust to play him in the playoffs last year. Kreider answered with five goals, including two game-winners, in 18 games. He became the toast of the Big Apple. He was supposed to be a major part of the Rangers this season.
It never happened.
Kreider struggled in the AHL with the Connecticut Whale during the lockout, scoring 12 points in 33 games. He was brought up when the NHL season began and Tortorella used him sparingly in the first three games before he got injured and had to miss five in a row.
He played in four more games, and despite scoring a goal and picking up an assist, Kreider never topped 12:21 of ice time before he was a healthy scratch for two straight, Feb. 14 and 17.
Tortorella went back to him Feb. 19 against the Montreal Canadiens, but Kreider couldn't answer. Four games later he played 4:33 in a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 26. He was sent back to the AHL two days later and didn't return to the Rangers until March 21, when he played the first of six straight games that were capped by a season-low 3:23 of ice time against the Jets on April 1.
"A lot of guys going up and down like he did, sitting out -- you can go two directions with that," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "You can either feel bad for yourself, go down there and have it be a negative, or you can try to work your way back up. I think that's what he did. In the room he's always positive. He was never drawing attention to himself when he wasn't playing, and that's a big thing.
"To see him get a big goal, I think everybody in the room is happy for him."
Kreider, though, still is far from a consistent threat for the Rangers. He may one day become that, but he's not there yet.
Even after he was recalled late in the season, he went six straight games without a point and managed two shots on goal in that time. He had an assist in Game 7 against Washington, but his overtime winner in Game 4 was his first goal in the NHL since March 26.
"With the year that he had this year and the team we had, it just kind of happened that he needed to be somewhere else at the time, kind of up and down," Rangers center Derek Stepan told NHL.com. "But now he finds himself in a spot where he needs to step up to the plate, and that maturity level definitely helps."
So does his skill, speed and size (6-foot-3, 226 pounds). He earned Tortorella's trust back by using those three attributes, which are the three that have scouts everywhere gushing over the type of NHL career Kreider could have.
It was evident on the winning goal, when Kreider used his speed and size to gain inside position on Bruins rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton before flicking out his stick, showing his skill, to redirect Nash's pass into the net for the winner.
"I saw [Kreider] had an extra step on the guy and I just kind of floated it in," Nash told NHL.com. "It's a good play by him, he gets inside."
Odds are Kreider will get another chance playing on the second line in Game 5, but he'll again have to earn Tortorella's trust within the first 40 minutes if he wants to play in the third period.
Then again, so will everyone else.
"As a coach, you're always looking, you're making reads on players who aren't going and maybe you try that guy and maybe he will go," Tortorella said. "There's no science to it. You just watch. You just watch and see what you can do with the personnel."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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