NEW YORK -- Nobody who plays for the New York Rangers would publicly say that third-year forward Chris Kreider is doing what star Rick Nash, New York's 43-goal scorer who has again gone nearly silent in the playoffs, is supposed to be providing right now. That would be divisive, a buzzkill, you name it. And anyway, Kreider is 6-foot-3, 233 pounds and he's among the fastest players in the league. Nobody really expects Nash to match Kreider's speed, or even his hitting.
But provide clutch goals? Opportunistic plays around the net? Tone-setting plays, especially when the Rangers are wobbling in a series?
Kreider is doing all of that right now, and Nash has not. And it's been essential for a Rangers team that has been starved for goals -- a trend the Rangers better get over quickly now that they have to hit the reset button and face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden in the opener of their Eastern Conference finals series.
The Lightning led the NHL in team scoring this season. They're one of very few teams that the speed-based Rangers might not want to get into a wide-open game with, trading rush for rush.
Nash finally scored his first goal of the series against Washington in Game 6. But after two postseasons of seeing him largely unable to find the net, at this point it doesn't feel like anybody is really holding their breath and waiting for him to break out anymore. Even making Nash a piata for the Rangers' inability to close out series grew old long ago. It's not like Nash isn't trying or publicly acknowledging how scoring only two goals this entire postseason is a disappointment.
And so it's down to this: The Rangers agree it would be nice if Nash starts producing again. The same is true for Martin St. Louis, after forcing his way out of Tampa a year ago. But beyond that? The Rangers' offensive struggles right now are why Kreider's play has become so vital. They have to hope he can continue to be the best postseason scorer they have had pretty much since he hit the NHL straight off after finishing a national championship run with Boston College.
Kreider's first NHL game was a 2012 playoff game against New Jersey. He'd never even spent a day in the minors. And yet he was terrific.
Not that Kreider would characterize himself this way. He's a funny mix -- an ascendant star with an overpowering style of play and a smart kid who knows his place and seeks out vets for advice.
He just turned 24 and defers again and again to the older vets in the room, even after he's just won games or saved the day, as he did in Game 5 of the Rangers' series against Washington. Early in the game it was funny when he overpassed on a 3-on-1 break and the Garden crowd actually howled at him, "Shoot the puck! Shoot the puck!" With barely 90 seconds left in the Rangers' season, he beat Caps goaltenderBraden Holtbyfrom the left circle to force overtime. From there, the Rangers reeled off three straight wins to take the series. Kreiderscored their first two goals two nights later, in Game 6.
It's not an exaggeration to say everything pivoted on those goals of his.
And yet, if you ask Kreider to take you through one of his goal-scoring plays, he credits current linemates Derek Stepan or Jesper Fast for winning a faceoff or making the pass. He says, "Those are teamwork goals" or "I'm just the beneficiary."
Which isn't entirely true.
Now and then proof surfaces that Kreider really believes he belongs and that he seems to play better the bigger the postseason moments get.
When told he had a team-high 10 hits against Pittsburgh in Round 1, Kreider smiled a little and actually allowed himself a little boast: "I actually thought it was a little more."
Kreider no longer looks like the confidence-shaken player whom former Rangers coach John Tortorella kept on a shuttle between the minors and the NHL in Kreider's first full season because he felt Kreider was too inconsistent and not developing fast enough. At times, Tortorella was accused of punishing Kreider gratuitously.
But even current Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, a much more temperate man than Tortorella, didn't keep Kreider with the team for the first seven games of last season, Vigneault's first. Vigneault described his first impression of Kreider as, "There wasn't a lot going on" during his ice time in preseason games.
Kreider could've pouted. But he was smart. When Tortorella sent him down he went back to the AHL and scored six goals in the first eight games he played. He earned his way back last October for Vigneault, too. Weeks later, when he scored a hat trick in his first game against Vancouver since Tortorella took over there as head coach, Kreider insisted, no, no, it wasn't born of vengeance.
He surprised a lot of people by saying Tortorella's tough approach toward him was right.
"I'd struggle trusting me too," Kreider told Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News, characterizing his relationship with Tortorella as a "pretty positive one."
"He communicated what he wanted from me, what he expected of me," Kreider added. "He worked closely with me and helped me be a better player. I think I learned a lot -- a lot of the smaller nuances and the little things you need to do to help your team win."
Like everyone else, Kreider has been asked to discuss how the Rangers have survived living on the edge this playoff run. The Rangers have played 14 one-goal games in the playoffs, winning nine.
"I think it just comes from the confidence of our leadership that we have in the room, and the advice and calm they bring," Kreider has said, ticking off the names of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, St. Louis and Ryan McDonagh, in particular. "It can be a challenge to remain optimistic sometimes. "But we've been getting chances. You've just got to be confident and just play."
The Rangers have hacked out some good shots on net. But right now no one is scoring with the frequency Kreider is. He has 16 goals in 52 career playoff games, the most on the team since he made his 2012 playoff debut. Five of those goals have come in 12 games this season, again most on the team.
Kreider is the Rangers' most dangerous young player because he can do everything: Skate. Shoot. Score. Pass. See the ice. Anticipate. Do the dirty work in front of the net. Dave Maloney, the former Rangers captain who is now an outstanding analyst for their radio broadcast team, still laments Kreider's defensive lapses, especially along the boards. But it's hard to think of another Ranger, besides Nash, who could make the sort of power rush that Kreider did in Game 5 against the Caps by holding off Matt Niskanen with one arm while controlling the puck with his free hand as he pulled away and fired a backhand past Holtby.
When Kreider does things like that, his most enthusiastic evaluators say he has all the tools to be a star forward in the league. Same as Nash.
If the two of them ever start scoring at the same time in the postseason?
The Rangers' chances to win their first Cup since '94 would increase exponentially.