The indefinite loss of diminutive yet highly skilled and gritty forward Mats Zuccarello was a major blow to the New York Rangers as they headed into their second round playoff series with the Washington Capitals. While no one could replace Zuccarello, the Rangers needed the rest of their players to raise their levels.
While not everyone has done that consistently, one player who has stepped up his game is rising star power forward Chris Kreider.
A “Freak of Nature”
From a physical standpoint, the 6’3″, 230-pound Kreider is pretty much the exact opposite of the 5’7″, 180-pound Zuccarello. While both possess great speed and skill, Kreider is the rare athletic specimen who can combine those attributes with size and strength.
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi described Kreider’s unique traits.
Dan Girardi on Chris Kreider: “He’s kind of a freak of nature, really. He’s just so big and strong and fast.”
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) May 11, 2015
Head coach Alain Vigneault has helped push the 24-year-old Kreider to continually improve his game. Coming off a regular season that saw him collect 21 goals and 25 assists, the former Boston College star could be well on his way to becoming a household name in the NHL. He just needs to play his straight-ahead, aggressive game consistently, which he has done so far in the Rangers’ series against Washington.
Kreider had helped the Rangers set the tone in a pivotal Game 2 against the Caps at Madison Square Garden, scoring in the first minute of an eventual 3-2 New York victory that evened the series.
However, after the Rangers dropped the next two games in Washington to fall behind 3-1 in the series, the team then found itself less than two minutes away from a disappointing elimination, as they trailed the Caps 1-0 late in Game 5. It was then that Kreider — who had had a difficult game early on with several turnovers and puck misplays — came up huge for the Blueshirts. He whipped a one-time shot from the left circle past the previously impenetrable Braden Holtby to revitalize the Rangers. They would ultimately win in overtime on Ryan McDonagh’s goal.
In Game 6, Kreider again set the tone early, displaying his superior physical abilities. Kreider took a bank pass from Jesper Fast in the neutral zone and then made Matt Niskanen — a very good defenseman — look silly by beating him with his combination of speed and strength. He finished the play by flipping a backhander past Holtby for a 1-0 lead just 40 seconds into the contest.
Kreider wasn’t done there, as he added a critical goal with just 0.3 seconds left in the first period for a 2-0 New York lead. The Rangers would need that goal and then some to hold off a furious onslaught by the Capitals, ultimately winning 4-3 to force a Game 7.
Zuccarello’s absence, without question, takes away some of the Rangers’ offensive punch. But the inspired play of Kreider, who is now tied with clutch playoff performer Derick Brassard for the team lead in playoff goals with five, has helped fill the void. Kreider is also showing that in addition to his rare physical gifts, he possesses the intangible quality of being a clutch playoff performer. Since making his debut in the 2012 playoffs, he has tallied 16 postseason goals. Not too bad for a 24-year-old.
The Rangers looked to be just about finished only a few days ago. Now though, thanks in large part to Kreider, they have new life. They will need him to continue his clutch play if they are to defeat Washington in Game 7 and continue to win beyond that.