by Paul West
As the postseason closes in, the New York Rangers are continuing to secure their foothold on the second position in the Eastern Conference. But even as their play has steadily improved, their achilles’ heels continue to be the same: failure to control both creases, and failure to finish–or even shoot with proper conviction–on the power play.
In last night’s dominant win over the Montreal Canadiens, they were excellent in both regards. This was exemplified, and sparked, by the play of Chris Kreider. If the Rangers are going to be a true threat to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals and change last year’s ending, Kreider will have to continue to be a tone-setter.
When Kreider first exploded onto the scene as a rookie, his dazzling speed and downhill playing style opened up the offense and created space for his teammates. But as important as his contributions were, the Rangers weren’t necessarily dependent on these aspects; Martin St. Louis was arguably their primary tone-setter on offense, taking the place of former captain Ryan Callahan as the guy who combined talent and intensity to get the team’s gears going. There was also the resurgent three-zone play of Rick Nash, for whom 2015 was maybe his best year ever; unfortunately, he’s missed a fair amount of time this season due to injury, though he’s beginning to show signs of breaking out again. Ryan McDonagh is clearly a tone-setter, but he’s also not a forward–and as such, his primary responsibilities lie in areas that don’t allow him to be the prime mover on offense. And Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello are the team’s primary playmakers, but even with Zucc’s energizing style of play, none of them are capable of having the specific kind of impact Kreider can provide.
Kreider scored two goals last night in Montreal, both of which showcased the ways in which he can be most dangerous. His first goal was a beautiful finish on the power play, getting low to one-time a beautiful Brassard pass into the back of the net. Just a couple of minutes later, Kreider stole the puck at center ice and steamrolled up the left side; he was on top of goalie Mike Condon in the blink of an eye, and made a splendid move to put away an unassisted goal. And on Stepan’s power play goal later in the game, it was Kreider’s presence in front of the net that drew a defender’s attention and cleared a lane for Stepan to gather a rebound and shovel it past Condon.
When Kreider is controlling the crease on offense–and helping to clear the crease on defense–the Rangers go back to being a balanced, explosive, three-zone threat. He isn’t just fast; he’s 6’3″ and 230 pounds, and capable of playing even bigger than his size. He’s also got good hands and a strong wrist shot, and when he puts it all together, he can seem unstoppable. He’s also a force-multiplier that leaves playmakers like Stepan, Brassard and Zuccarello–and Keith Yandle, who continues to increase his contributions on offense–room to operate.
Of course, Henrik Lundqvist continues to be the team’s spiritual leader and miracle man–but as we’ve seen before, the Rangers at their best can’t just be the Henrik Lundqvist show. With the playoffs around the corner, Chris Kreider is heating up at the right time. At his best, he’s a locomotive on skates with good puck skills–and he’s one of the biggest keys to the Rangers’ success.