June 11, 2012

From NEHJ: Kreider makes brilliant debut on Broadway

By Elliot Olshansky

NEW YORK — The crowd at Madison Square Garden doesn’t chant a player’s name lightly.

Chris Kreider salutes the fans at Madison Square Garden as the No. 1 star after Game 1 against the Washington Capitals. (Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)

More often than not, when Rangers fans chant a name, it’s “HEN-RIK!” That seems more than appropriate, given that Henrik Lundqvist has been the team’s most valuable player for six consecutive seasons, and is up for the Vezina Trophy, the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award at this month’s NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas. At times in recent years, there have been chants of “AVE-RY,” as Rangers fans continued to embrace Sean Avery long after management had stopped, but those chants have given way to “CAL-LY” for the hard work and grit of Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.

None of those names, however, was the one being chanted by fans on the evening of April 28. That name had an unfamiliar ring to it, but that didn’t stop 18,000 voices from joining as one to call it out.

“KREI-DER!”

Clap! Clap!

“KREI-DER!”

For Boston College goaltender Parker Milner, watching with his family on television as the Rangers battled the Washington Capitals, the moment was worthy of a tweet.

“Are you kidding me kreids?!” came the tweet from @lilmilzy35. “Word is they are chanting Kreider at MSG #RunningIt”

For Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.), sitting on the Blueshirts bench just two days shy of his 21st birthday, the moment could only be described as “surreal.”

“It’s kinda crazy,” Kreider said. “That’s not a moment I’ve really daydreamed about, having a crowd chant my name, but it’s still pretty surreal.”

It’s certainly not anything that Rangers head coach John Tortorella (Melrose, Mass.) expected to hear when he addressed media at the team’s training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., on April 11, when Kreider — four days removed from his second NCAA title at Boston College — practiced with the Rangers for the first time.

“We’re happy he’s here,” Tortorella said that morning. “He’s a Ranger. From here, we go day by day. I’m not going to tell you our lineup, not going to get into any of that, but this is a young man that we feel has a great future, and he’s starting with us today.”

That “future” got put on a fast track two games into the Rangers’ 2012 Stanley Cup playoff run, when rookie winger Carl Hagelin drew a three-game suspension for an elbow to the head of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. Kreider was in the lineup, and while he didn’t always see much ice — he played just less than 3½ minutes in his second NHL game — he had shown enough by the time Hagelin’s suspension was complete that he had earned the right to stay in the lineup, even if Brian Boyle (Hingham, Mass.) hadn’t been sidelined by a concussion.

Rangers fans at Madison Square Garden co crazy for their newest hero, Chris Kreider, after his third-period goal in Game 1 against New Jersey. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

And while it was Rangers adversity that opened the door, there’s no question that Kreider made the best out of what was a bad situation for his team.

First, there was the wrist shot that beat Ottawa’s Craig Anderson with 41 seconds left in the second period of Game 6, a goal that stood as the game-winner. Then, there was Game 7, in which Kreider went without a point but was a plus-1 and was among the players Tortorella sent out in the final minute to protect the Blueshirts’ one-goal lead. And after that, there was the moment when Derek Stepan sprung Kreider loose on a breakaway, culminating in the slap shot that beat Washington’s Braden Holtby on that Saturday afternoon in Manhattan.

“I was tired,” Kreider said. “It was the back end of a pretty long shift, and there was an opening, so I thought I’d hit it. Stepan made a nice pass, and usually, I try to take that to the net, but I had to pull up. I was tired, so I was just trying to get it on net.”

That was followed by an assist on a goal by Brad Richards, and of course, the chanting of Kreider’s name. So impactful was that moment that when Holtby stopped Kreider on another breakaway two days later, the Capitals rookie was concerned not with revenge, but with containing the Kreider-crazy crowd at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

“If Kreider scores there,” Holtby said, “MSG goes wild, because they seem to be big fans of him right now.”

While not even Holtby’s save could slow the sale of Kreider jerseys and T-shirts — which became more and more noticeable at MSG as the playoffs went — Kreider’s momentum definitely slowed during the series against Washington. After he played 26:17 in the Rangers’ triple-overtime win at the Verizon Center on May 2, Kreider saw his ice time slashed in the next three games, playing a total of 20:37 in the fourth, fifth and sixth games of the Eastern Conference semifinal. By the time the Rangers emerged victorious in seven games, Kreider was a minus-4 in the series, with one particular errant pass during Game 4 going directly to Alexander Ovechkin and winding up in the Rangers net shortly thereafter.

As the Rangers turned the page to prepare for the New Jersey Devils and the Eastern Conference Finals, though, Kreider was able to turn the page in his own right.

In the first game of the series with the Devils, Kreider zipped a wrist shot past Martin Brodeur in the third period to give the Rangers a much-needed insurance goal in a 3-0 victory. Two nights later, he had his stick in the right place at the right time when Anton Stralman fired a shot at the net, scoring his fourth goal of the playoffs and putting the Rangers up 2-1 in a game they’d eventually lose, 3-2. He would come up with another deflection three days later, this time on Ryan McDonagh’s shot, once again giving the Rangers a 2-0 lead, but also making NHL history.

With his fifth goal of the postseason, Kreider became the sole owner of the NHL record for most goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a player who has yet to appear in a regular-season game. The record had belonged to Eddie Mazur, who scored four goals for the Canadiens in the 1952 and 1953 playoffs before finally making his regular-season debut for the Habs the following fall. It also was reported in mid May that Kreider had earned $300,000 for his playoff performance, based on clauses in his contract tied to the number of playoff games he appeared in.

All in all, it’s quite the start to what the Rangers hope will be a long and productive career for their first-round pick from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and quite the year for a young man who was winning an NCAA title in Tampa the night the Rangers closed out the regular season in New York. Kreider himself, though, never allowed himself to be satisfied.

Rangers star Chris Kreider celebrates his third-period goal against Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

“The last thing I want to do is settle in,” Kreider said after the Rangers’ first win over the Devils. “I don’t want to get complacent, especially at this level. If I get complacent, next thing you know I’m minus-2 and giving Ovechkin a one-timer in the slot. I have got to stay extremely focused, obviously. That’s pro hockey, right?”

Indeed it is, but it’s also something he learned from BC coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.). When York’s teams enter the postseason, the five-time NCAA championship winner talks to his teams about “taking the sticks away,” not in the sense of lifting sticks in the slot or otherwise denying an opponent the use of his stick, but of what it takes to try to end a team’s season.

“At this stage of the season,” York said in late March, just before the Frozen Four, “you have to take the sticks away from the team; you’ve got to end their season.”

The significance of York’s words is that no team that’s battled its way into the playoffs — whether it was the Minnesota-Duluth team that BC beat to advance to the Frozen Four or the Senators team that Kreider made his NHL debut against — is going to just hand over their sticks and go away quietly. Those sticks need to be taken, to be grabbed and pulled on and yanked on until they finally come loose.

“It was a phrase we used when there was an elimination game,” Kreider said, “and the opportunity to end someone’s season, and it could be said for us, too, to try to take our sticks away. When it’s said, you kind of acknowledge how hard it is, how difficult that game is going to be, because it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Of course, the games don’t get any less difficult at the NHL level, as Kreider has found through the ups and downs of his first NHL games. However, the act of “taking the sticks away from the team” remains one of tenacity, of determination and of grit, qualities that Tortorella clearly prizes in the Rangers team he’s assembled on Broadway.

“He has no fear,” Tortorella said after the Rangers eliminated Ottawa. “That’s what I like about him. … The biggest thing is in his mindset. He’s not here to test the waters; he’s trying to make a difference.”

Despite the Rangers’ eventual loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals, there’s little doubt that he’s succeeded.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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