NEW YORK -- Three weeks ago, Chris Kreider was a champion. With Boston College, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger helped the Eagles to their fifth NCAA title as the NHL regular season was coming to a close. Three days later, he signed with the Rangers, who drafted him 19th overall in 2009, and joined the top team in the Eastern Conference for a playoff run, getting acquainted with new teammates, a new coach and New York City.
It all seems like ages ago now to the 20-year-old from Boxford, Mass. A veteran of all of six NHL games, the rookie has impressed since making his debut in Game 3 of New York's first-round series against Ottawa. In Game 1 of the Rangers' series against the Capitals, Kreider took his turn as Broadway's hero, scoring the game-winner at Madison Square Garden as the Rangers beat the Capitals 3-1.
With the stingy game knotted at 1-1 through the first two periods, the rookie caught a stretch pass from center Derek Stepan. With Capitals defenseman Mike Green skating to his bench, looking for a change, Kreider saw the open ice. He was on the end of a long shift, nearing a minute on ice, and he was feeling it. He didn't have many options, and so he gained the zone with impressive acceleration, which created even more space for him, and he blasted a slapshot past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
"The minute I got [the puck], I was thinking to try and take that to the net, but I had to pull up because I was tired," he said with a laugh. "So I just tried to get it on net."
In his sixth NHL game, Kreider scored his second goal of the playoffs, his second game-winner. But unlike the goal he scored in Game 6 against the Senators, which put the Rangers up 3-1, his score Saturday afternoon effectively changed the game.
Just 1:30 later, New York center Brad Richards cushioned the lead. Keeping the puck deep in Washington's zone with strong play against the half-wall, Richards regained the puck right below the circles and walked in on Holtby. Seeing few options for passes, he fired a quick and low shot that gave the Rangers a two-goal lead.
Richards may have made that goal, his third of the postseason, look easy, but in fact, the chances throughout the game didn't come that easy for either team. Through two periods, the Rangers and Capitals put up a paltry 21 shots on net combined.
"Defensive priority is No. 1," Rangers winger Ruslan Fedotenko said. "I felt like Washington played a similar game. They kept everything to the outside."
The tight defense, the grinding games both teams employ, may make for perhaps less-than-thrilling hockey for some, but it fired up the Garden faithful. A second-period penalty kill ignited the crowd as much as a winning goal. With Rangers defenseman Marc Staal in the box, center Brandon Prust took a boarding penalty that gave the Capitals a 5-on-3 advantage for 34 seconds. The subsequent kill, particularly the play of Fedotenko, who led the Rangers with two takeaways and three blocked shots, helped create the energy that was really rather absent in a dull first period. And it wasn't long before that energy turned into offense.
Despite getting no shots on Holtby through the first half of the second period, New York managed to open the scoring at 12:38. Fedotenko charged into the zone with speed and strength, taking the puck into the corner and finding support from linemate Artem Anisimov behind the net. And even with Green draped over him like a bad suit, Anisimov barreled around the cage and found a hole through Holtby. It was the team's seventh shot of the game, second of the period.
The Capitals answered before the period was through, scoring an equalizer in the closing moments. Rushing down ice with a 3-on-2 advantage, Washington center Brooks Laich feathered a pass right onto the tape of Jason Chimera. The winger fired the puck through Henrik Lundqvist's legs as the clock stopped with just 3.5 seconds left. It was the kind of goal that could have easily deflated New York, but the Rangers instead relied on patience.
"We kept within ourselves and played our game," coach John Tortorella said. "It's going to be a grind, and we found a way to win one."
After the game, Kreider sat in his stall, wearing the Broadway hat, a felt fedora awarded to the Rangers' player of the game. Surrounded by cameras and microphones, the youngster was visibly uncomfortable, maybe a little nervous while peppered with questions for 15 minutes. This was the hard part; the stuff on the ice seemed to come pretty easy.
A champion three weeks ago, Kreider hopes to again be a champ six weeks from now.