To watch the way Chris Kreider played Wednesday night at the Garden, it is hard to imagine him packing his bags and moving on to another team before the NHL's Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Kreider returned to the lineup after missing Monday’s game with an upper-body injury and the veteran forward showed why his is the most attractive name among players expected to be dealt before the deadline after he had a goal and assist and used his speed all night to terrorize the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Rangers’ 5-3 victory.
At the same time, Kreider also showed the Rangers just how much he can do for them if they decide to hold onto him, rather than trading him, and instead re-sign him to a new contract.
“I think anytime you lose a player like ‘Kreids,’ you’re gonna notice it, and you’re gonna notice when he comes back,’’ linemate Mika Zibanejad said. “I think you got a pretty clear picture of what he means to this team. Especially for me. I’ve been playing with him quite a bit, obviously, my four years here. Obviously, I missed him and it’s good to have him back.’’
It was Zibanejad’s knee that accidentally hit Kreider in the head during the game at Detroit on Saturday that caused Kreider to miss Monday’s game.
On Wednesday, the two players scored goals six seconds apart late in the first period to break a 1-1 tie and put the Rangers ahead to stay. Kreider won a left circle faceoff back to Zibanejad, who fired a wrist shot past Toronto goalie Michael Hutchinson at 17:18 of the period to make it 2-1. Then, on the ensuing faceoff, Zibanejad won it to Pavel Buchnevich, who passed to Kreider cutting in from the left wing. Kreider cut across the slot and slipped a backhander past Hutchinson at 17:24.
“I feel good,’’ Kreider said, when asked about returning to the lineup. “Just worried about Mika’s knee, really.’’
With Kreider back in the lineup, coach David Quinn put him back in his usual spot, on left wing with Zibanejad at center and Buchnevich at right wing on the Rangers’ top line. Buchnevich had been demoted in the third period of Monday’s 5-3 loss to the Dallas Stars. But Quinn put him back on the first line and Buchnevich had a goal of his own, plus two assists.
“I thought all three of those guys were really good tonight,’’ Quinn said. “Kreider, coming back from a scary incident, and missing one game . . . give him a lot of credit for stepping up and picking up, really where he left off. He didn’t have any rust; there was no apprehension on his part, and he had a really good night. And I thought Buchnevich was outstanding tonight, too. He bounced back from a tough night. And Mika was really good.’’
Toronto took the early lead, when John Tavares banged in a rebound for his 20th goal of the season at 7:36. But Filip Chytil drove the net and directed in a feed from Tony DeAngelo at the back post for his 12th goal of the season to tie the score at 8:50.
Toronto’s Auston Matthews scored his 38th goal of the season at 16:56 of the second period to get the Maple Leafs within 3-2. Buchnevich, though, restored the two-goal lead when he scored 34 seconds later.
“That was huge,’’ Zibanejad said. “The way we responded to their goals was really good . . . They’re really good riding on their momentum, and I thought we did a good job killing it and creating our own.’’
Matthews scored his second goal, on the power play, with 2:30 left in the third period to pull Toronto within 4-3. But Buchnevich set up an empty-net goal by Greg McKegg with 58.2 seconds left to make it 5-3.