Early returns positive as Kreider earns Rangers' trust

by Dave Lozo / NHL.com

NEW YORK -- The arrival of Chris Kreider in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is as remarkable as it is unexpected.

Eighteen days ago, Kreider was a junior at Boston College celebrating his second national championship in three seasons. The 20-year-old from Boxford, Mass., spent the hours after the victory celebrating with teammates and family in Tampa, Fla., in what turned out to be one of his final nights as a genuine college kid.

The following day, Kreider received a call from the New York Rangers asking if he would forego his senior season and join the club for the postseason. The Rangers thought so much of the 6-foot-3, 230-pound left wing that they burned the first year of his three-year entry-level deal just to have him in the fold before taking on the Ottawa Senators.

Rangers coach John Tortorella admitted before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals that he didn't know much about him, and Kreider said he hadn't talked with Tortorella before his first practice with the team. Tortorella, perhaps preparing for an onslaught of questions about a player who had never skated in the NHL, delivered a statement about how he welcomed Kreider to the club and would not take questions.


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Eighteen days later, in the hours before Game 7 against the Senators, the reticent Tortorella was not only willing to talk about Kreider, but willing to heap high praise on him.

"I have no hesitation putting him in all situations tonight," Tortorella said.

"That's good to hear and it's definitely a confidence booster," Kreider said, "but at the same time, my mentality doesn't change. My mindset doesn't change."

Kreider spent the first two games of the series studying Carl Hagelin, a fellow left wing who possesses just as much speed as Kreider but not the size. Kreider said it was great seeing how Hagelin drives back defenders with his speed and chases down pucks in order to feed linemates Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.

In a coincidence straight out of a movie, Kreider was thrust into his mentor's role when Hagelin was suspended for Games 3-5 for an elbow to the head of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. Kreider called the 11:11 of ice time he received in Game 3 the most exhausting minutes of his life and lamented a chance for a goal when he fanned on a puck that was sitting in the crease.

In a penalty-filled Game 4, Kreider only had 3:29 of ice time. He played 7:34 in Game 5 and likely would've returned to watching from the press box for Game 6, but an injury to Brian Boyle guaranteed Kreider's spot in the lineup.

All of the note-taking and studying paid off in Game 6 for Kreider, whose first NHL goal was the game-winner that allowed the Rangers to stave off elimination and even the series. Kreider spent most of Game 3 in Hagelin's spot on the top line and moved up and down from there in the following games, but he found a home on a line with Derek Stepan, his American teammate at the 2010 World Junior Championship, and captain Ryan Callahan during Game 6.

"All the players, from top to bottom, have been extremely helpful in helping to get me acclimated," Kreider said. "They've been talking to me on the bench and in the locker room before and after games. I can't say enough about the group and how helpful they've been."

Kreider's goal revealed how comfortable he's become without the puck, as he jumped into an opening on the left side, took a pass from Stepan, and buried a wrist shot before the defense could rotate to him.

"I think every single shift, every single game, it's been like that," Kreider said. "I'm more and more comfortable and things start coming second nature. It's being in the defensive zone and being a little bit more aware of what you're supposed to be doing and where you're supposed to be.

"If you can get there a half-second earlier, it can make all the difference."

Kreider has never participated in a Game 7, although the NCAA Tournament is one elimination game after another. He isn't kidding himself into thinking that experience is identical to what he'll face Thursday night, but he believes there are small details between the two that are similar.

"I think it's just different," Kreider said. "It's just the nature of the game at this level. Every game in this series has been that much more intense than any game I've played in college, regardless if it was elimination. I think the mindset might be similar with getting pucks out, getting pucks in, not taking risks.

"I'm excited. I've never played in a Game 7 and I've only played one game [at Madison Square Garden], so I hope so. I can't speak from experience. I've heard unbelievable things, so I'm really excited."

Excited? Yes. But his coach isn't worried about Kreider being overwhelmed on the big stage.

"There's no chance he's intimidated," Tortorella said.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo