To say it’s been a whirlwind April for New York Rangers rookie Chris Kreider would be quite the understatement.
After all, it wasn’t long ago that the 6-foot-3, 230-pound forward was skating for Boston College and celebrating his team’s Frozen Four championship in Tampa, Fla., with the upcoming NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup the last thing on his mind.
Kreider, the 19th overall pick in the 2009 draft, joined the Rangers just before their first-round series against Ottawa, but he wasn’t necessarily expecting to play, and he certainly wasn’t expecting to make a difference, even if he did see the ice.
But on Saturday against the Washington Capitals, he was the difference for New York, as he helped the Rangers jump out to a 1-0 series lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Exactly three weeks to the day after winning that collegiate national title, Kreider earned first-star honors in his sixth career game. And his game-winning goal and subsequent assist in the Rangers’ 3-1 win had the rabid Madison Square Garden crowd chanting the 20-year-old’s name.
Linsanity, eat your heart out.
"It was kind of a surreal experience," Kreider said of the standing ovation, his first as a professional and undoubtedly the biggest of his life. "I got goose bumps. … It’s kind of crazy."
After a lackluster first two periods for both teams, Kreider gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead with 13 minutes left in the third, rocketing a 43-foot slap shot past the Capitals’ 22-year-old goalie, Braden Holtby, giving Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist all the cushion he would need.
"Usually, I think I’d try to take that to the net, but I pulled up," Kreider said. "I don’t usually take slap shots, so that was a little unorthodox for me. I just wanted to put it on cage, and I’m lucky that it went in."
The go-ahead goal sent a surge through an MSG crowd that had, to that point, been somewhat subdued — at least by New York standards — and left the Rangers’ faithful chanting the rookie’s name, their loud voices reverberating off the Garden’s hallowed walls.
"I was obviously really tired after the goal," Kreider said, noting that he was at the end of a long shift when he scored the goal. "But I didn’t feel so tired when they started chanting."
Kreider’s night wasn’t done just yet, though. Before the chants could even die down, he got back on the ice and almost immediately set up veteran Brad Richards, who scored with 11:30 left on the clock to give the Rangers the final 3-1 advantage.
For the game, Kreider played 15:28 over the course of 22 shifts. In addition to regularly finding himself in the right place at the right time, the rookie also found himself on the ice during the game’s biggest moments, including a third-period power play while the Caps’ Alex Ovechkin served a Washington penalty for having too many men on the ice.
"All the players dictate their own ice time with how they play," Rangers head coach John Tortorella said. "What he’s getting, he deserves."
Tortorella had already made it clear after Game 7 against Ottawa that he held no reservations about giving his newest addition major minutes.
"He has no fear, and that’s what I like about him," Tortorella said at the time. "He’s not here to test the water; he’s trying to make a difference."
On Saturday, Kreider gave his coach just what he asked for, and the change in Kreider’s game since earning Tortorella’s trust and being inserted into the lineup midway through the first round has been hard not to notice.
"It is a big difference; how could it not be?" Richards said of his new teammate. "It’s quite a situation to be thrown into in Game 3 (against Ottawa) when we need to win and he’s never played, he hasn’t really practiced with us — all that stuff. You’ve seen a little more of the real Chris Kreider now."
The real Chris Kreider hasn’t been perfect — he is a rookie, after all — but he’s been effective nonetheless. And in the playoffs, teams will take anything that may provide the spark that wins them the Cup.
"We went over our concept with him, but then we just wanted him to play," Tortorella said of Kreider’s transition. "There are a number of things where we’ll end up working with him, but this isn’t the time of year to do that. We just want his instinctiveness and his speed, and we just want him to go out and play."
That speed — perhaps, along with a lack of familiarity on the part of his opponents — is what’s allowed Kreider to get off to such a hot start to his career this postseason. And his teammates, who have taken the rookie under their wing the last few weeks, see that working to his advantage long-term.
"His legs, they’re churning all the time," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "He keeps that speed going the second he starts his shift, and it’s a scary combination to have. When he’s hounding down on your defensemen there, you see the D-men panic, and he’s able to jump on those pucks and create for someone else. His skating is what’s going to make him a successful player in this league for a lot of years."
After the Rangers’ first victory of the season, a 4-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 18, Lundqvist sat at his locker and conducted postgame interviews with a black fedora perched upon his head. The hat, now malodorous and well worn-in, has come to be known as the Broadway Hat, and it goes to the Rangers’ top player after each win.
Kreider wore the hat Saturday,
And while everything about him off the ice screams "rookie" — from his bashful, soft-spoken voice at his locker to his wispy beard to his hesitance to ask teammates questions and his reluctance to even put the Broadway Hat on his head — his play answers any questions about whether he’s cut out for this game.
"I guess I’m kind of at a loss for words," Kreider said Saturday, shaking his head. "I’m just trying to keep my head down and work hard, and if the puck goes in, it goes in."
And when it does go in, it’s an experience unlike any other.
"It’s something that I’ve wanted to do my entire life, to play hockey," Kreider said. "To wake up and go to the rink, it’s hard not to enjoy it."