by Paul West
After an unimpressive start to the season, the New York Rangers have gone 7-3 in their last ten games and have climbed in the Eastern Conference standings. Their turnaround has been fueled by a number of factors, from Cam Talbot‘s stellar backup goaltending to the return of key players from injury to better physicality in front of the net. Amidst this team-wide improvement, one trio has really stood out; the line combination of Chris Kreider, Mats Zucarello and Derek Stepan has provided tangible and intangible and intangible contributions on both ends of the ice.
Left winger Chris Kreider made a big splash in his NHL debut for the Rangers, catching fire in the playoffs in the same year during which he won the NCAA title with Boston College. He’s had his ups and downs since then, but has settled in nicely since his most recent callup. Despite having only played in 12 of the Rangers’ 19 games so far, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with ten points and already has 8 assists. His blazing speed has put pressure on opposing defenses, allowing his linemates more freedom to operate. With a plus-minus rating of +4, he’s a solid two-way player, and at 6’3″, he’s hard to push around. And despite only having two goals thus far, he’s shown some ability to finish around the net, which bodes well for working with a playmaker like center Derek Stepan.
Derek Stepan is developing into a real offensive force. The six-foot center has vision, puckhandling and an ability to set up teammates. He’s second on the team in scoring with 14 points, including ten assists, but he also has a nose for the net with 52 shots on goal. He also knows how to put it away, as evidenced by this wrist shot off of a fabulous Mats Zuccarello pass. His -3 plus-minus rating is disappointing, but his play in the defensive zone is improving. And his combination of playmaking and scoring ability points to a bright NHL future.
Right winger Mats Zucarello has provided a play-downhill, bowling-ball presence reminiscent of Esa Tikkanen (though as a player, he’s a bit more clean). He’s tied with Kreider at ten points, and the energy and forechecking he provides defy quantification. He flies around the ice, he camps out in front of the net, he helps clear space for Kreider’s downhill speed, and he agitates the opposition without taking penalties.
As a composite, the Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello line have put points on the board during the Rangers’ recent upturn. But they’ve also infused the team with energy, physicality, speed and passion. Most importantly, they seem to have excellent chemistry, increasing their cumulative effect. When they’re clicking, they’re nearly unstoppable. If they keep playing the way they’re playing, they’ll soon be recognized as one of the NHL’s most dangerous lines.