The NHL playoffs aren't poker, but in a way, Chris Kreider has been an ace in the hole.
In the first round, the Rangers beat the Flyers in seven games without the help of the powerful 23-year-old left wing, who was recovering from a broken left hand.
But few observers believed that the Rangers could squeeze past the Penguins, who finished first in the Eastern Conference, without more size and speed on the top two lines.
Kreider, who missed 19 games with the injury, returned and admittedly was rusty in the Game 4 loss to Pittsburgh that left the Rangers trailing 3-1 in the series. Then he reminded Rangers fans of his value and potential in Game 5 Friday night.
In the first period, he dived to tip a puck to the point and scored on the ensuing rebound, snapping the team's power-play slump at 0-for-36. He assisted on the final goal and delivered six hits and two shots in 11:55.
Asked Saturday if Kreider has another level, coach Alain Vigneault said: "Without a doubt. The more games he plays, the better he's going to become. It's not easy to step into playoff hockey having missed 19 games and not having other than a morning skate, one practice with the team.
"One thing Kreids has is he's a tremendously conditioned athlete. He really takes care of himself physically. The fact that for close to seven weeks he couldn't stickhandle, couldn't do anything, that's as good as I've seen anybody respond that hasn't had a full practice and stepping in and playing."
Kreider, who parachuted into the 2011-12 playoffs after playing for Boston College and scored five goals, produced 17 goals and 34 points (12 on the power play) in 66 games before being injured in late March. He had surgery to insert a pin on March 28.
For the past few weeks, the 6-3, 230-pound native of Boxford, Massachusetts, sweated through grueling on-ice conditioning drills with associate coach Scott Arniel at the team's training center, Madison Square Garden and on the road, and it has begun to pay off.
"The fortunate thing for Chris is that he's in unbelievable shape," Brad Richards said. "He's already one of the strongest hockey players I've ever seen in the gym, so for him to get all that time, where he could continue to work, not to mention how mentally fresh and excited he'd be, he did a good job of channeling all that."
Because it was a hand injury, Richards noted, Kreider "got to keep his legs skating and moving . . . so he could jump into that [playoff] pace. He'd probably like to have a little more of his hands and timing, but when you can skate and you're as strong as he is, it makes it a lot easier."