He is a gifted 21-year-old from Massachusetts, smart enough to speak some Russian, respect coaches and be cautious with the media. As a Ranger, Chris Kreider never will declare that he's the straw that stirs the drink. On off-days, you might find him near his Manhattan hotel, lunching at Chipotle.
But if the Rangers are to find the recipe for success this year, Chris Kreider must be in the mix.
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In a season when the Rangers have scored the fewest goals in the East and the roller-coaster record looks like a social media abbreviation gone awry -- LLWLWWLWL -- Kreider isn't to blame. He played through the first three games with a painful bone chip in his right ankle suffered on Jan. 5 from a blocked shot in the AHL, rehabbed, and in his return in a 3-1 loss to the Devils on Tuesday, scored the team's lone goal on a laser over Martin Brodeur's shoulder.
"It's a lot better than I've felt in a while," Kreider said.
During the first three games, there were only glimpses of the speed and impressive release that scouts praised when the 6-3, 226-pound winger was chosen 19th overall in the 2009 draft and when he scored five goals in 18 playoff games right out of Boston College last spring.
Whether he was aware of the severity of the injury or not, coach John Tortorella critiqued his defense, benched him against the Flyers on Jan. 24, and hinted that he might need more seasoning in Hartford, where he played 33 games during the lockout.
To his credit, Kreider simply addressed the topic by saying that he trusted the organization to do what was right for his development. After an MRI revealed the chip, he stayed off ice, treated and strengthened the ankle, and watched games he missed from press row, another learning experience.
Kreider realized that while on ice, the pace was so fast that everybody looked like Wayne Gretzky. But watching from above, the big picture emerged. "I saw that you have some time [with the puck]," he said. "You saw where your support is."
Just as he is becoming used to the rhythm of the NHL, Kreider is adjusting to New York. "I haven't been able to get out much because of the ankle," he said, "and I'm focusing on hockey. I've been in TriBeCa. That reminds me of some parts of Boston, but Boston is a much smaller city. I hope I'll be able to explore more in the future."
With his mobility back, more games like Tuesday's won't hurt his chances. Racing down the left side, he collected a pass from Brad Richards, looked at the net and beat Brodeur between his right shoulder and the crossbar at 6:28 of the third period for his first regular-season goal. "I closed my eyes and shot. I'm serious," he said. "I didn't know it went in at first. I thought he made the save. It would've meant something had we won, but we didn't."
Kreider and prospect J.T. Miller, 19, who made his Rangers debut, were twice singled out by Tortorella, first postgame, when he warned underperforming players that the youngsters were putting their jobs in jeopardy.
Then at a briefing Wednesday, Tortorella went into detail. Miller, he said, "had a big body on the puck, he banged, he was confident with the puck, made some good plays. I thought Kreider did the same things."
Tortorella shrugged off a suggestion that Kreider's extra jump came from a stronger ankle. "Nah, I just thought he played good," he said. "I hope he does it again." Tortorella turned, then added with a grin, "And again."