A few weeks ago, when the Rangers were waiting for Chris Kreider's college season to end, we were talking with Leitch about how he'd be signed to a contract more or less immediately once his Boston College team was finished for the year. Will asked a reasonable question, given the salary-cap era in which the Rangers play: Is it worth burning a year of his entry-level contract to have him join the team during the playoffs, since it was very much unclear at the time how much of an impact he'd have. We said we thought it was: The team isn't especially deep at forward beyond the guys who dress every night, and so in the event of an injury or suspension, he'd be their best option, especially if he was as good as advertised. We'd cautioned at the time that expectations for Kreider should probably be kept in check this season, but you know what? So far, he's been as good as advertised. And so today, in just his sixth NHL game, Kreider was named the first star in the Rangers' 3-1 series-opening win against Washington.
Kreider today broke a 1-1 tie with a third-period goal, then added an assist 90 seconds later on a Brad Richards goal that gave the Rangers a two-goal cushion. Kreider's speed has really been something to watch, and he looks more and more confident with the puck as he gets more and more experience. And Rangers fans have totally embraced him: Let the record show that when the two assists for Richards's goal were announced, the cheers for Kreider were louder than the ones for Marian Gaborik. (Kreider, by the way, now has more playoff goals than Gaborik this year, so perhaps it's no wonder he got the louder ovation.)
If the first game is any indication, this could be a series in which defense prevails: Washington took just eighteen shots on Henrik Lundqvist, and the Rangers managed just fourteen for the game. The difference? Lundqvist allowed just one goal on the eighteen he faced, while Braden Holtby didn't look much like Ken Dryden this afternoon, allowing three goals on the fourteen he faced. (Holtby said after the game that facing so few shots made it difficult for him to remain focused.) Artem Anisimov scored the Rangers' first goal on a Matteau-like wraparound. (Stephane Matteau was actually in the building, so surely he approved.) Kreider had the second Rangers goal, a slapper from the top of the circles that Holtby had a clear view of. And then Richards found a hole from in close after taking a feed from the rookie and getting to the net untouched.
The Rangers looked shaky at times in the first round when trying to protect a lead, but though they allowed Washington to tie the score as the clock wound down in the second period, they played a strong third period, even after they scored their goals, to secure the win. But back to Kreider for a moment. Consider the April he's had: It began with two victories in the Frozen Four to capture the NCAA championship, then continued with an opportunity to suit up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after he signed a professional contract and Carl Hagelin got suspended. He'd be credited with the game-winning goal in a must-win Game 6 in Ottawa, then was on the ice during crunch time in a one-goal Game 7. Then to begin the second round, he scored another game-winner and added his first NHL assist en route to being named first star. Fans, having heard about his potential for some time, are already starting to sport No. 20 jerseys now that they've gotten the chance to watch him with the Rangers. And he's still got one game left to play this month: The puck drops in Game 2 on Monday night, the 30th of April, at 7:30.