By Sean Hartnett
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It seems injuries are the only thing that can slow down Rangers winger Chris Kreider.
The spry 25-year-old has started the new season with 11 points in 11 games despite neck spasms that have forced him to miss a total of six games.
Kreider has been given the all clear to rejoin the Blueshirts’ lineup after returning to practice at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday. Head coach Alain Vigneault confirmed that the 6-foot-3 winger is expected to dress against the Blue Jackets on Friday night.
His return comes at an important juncture in the Rangers’ young season. The 8-4-2 Blue Jackets will serve as a tougher test than any of the previous three opponents the Blueshirts faced while journeying through Western Canada. It will be followed up by Sunday’s home meeting against the Florida Panthers, a skilled team capable of playing better than its .500 record, and then a mouthwatering Monday-Wednesday home-and-home against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 13-4 Rangers have continued to stay hot even thought Kreider was unavailable in recent victories over the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. His presence as a top-six forward lengthens the Rangers’ scoring punch. The Rangers have thrived this season by rolling four fast and skilled lines that cause matchup problems for opponents.
“You need depth,” Kreider said earlier this month. “Good teams in this league roll four lines so it’s huge for us going forward.”
Kreider’s off-the-charts acceleration and powerful 226-pound frame are difficult for opponents to handle. His 3.77 points per 60 minutes trail only winger J.T. Miller for the team lead. No Ranger has bettered Kreider’s 2.74 assists per 60 minutes, his 3.2 shots per game or his 2.3 hits per game.
“When he’s at his best, he’s a nightmare for defensemen the way he skates, on the forecheck and causes turnovers,” alternate captain Marc Staal said of Kreider back in mid-October. “He just opens room for his linemates and he’s been doing that on a different level. He’s been impressive to watch.”
Before the neck troubles reoccurred, Kreider was playing the most consistent hockey of his five-year career. He was looking like an unstoppable force, a player who was finally realizing his high-ceiling potential. Rangers fans are hoping he’ll pick up where he left off.
“He’s a power forward who is playing to his strengths and he’s tough to handle on the initial rush or down low in the opposition’s end,” Vigneault said earlier this season. “He makes it real challenging on the other team.”
With the schedule getting tougher as Thanksgiving approaches, a healthy Kreider will be a welcome boost to the Rangers, who have their eyes set on challenging for the league’s best record.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey