By Sean Hartnett
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You’ve waited for him; now he’s finally arrived.
The real Chris Kreider is standing up and playing the most complete hockey he’s ever played. His improved contributions at each end of the ice have been instrumental to the supercharged Rangers, who have ripped off four consecutive wins.
For too long, Rangers fans have pondered whether Kreider would ever be able to put it all together. Those concerns grew when the 26-year-old forward began the season in inconspicuous fashion. The powerful, fast-skating, net-driving menace that Kreider can be when he’s at the top of his game was missing from the equation. It’s no coincidence that the Rangers started 3-7-2 while Kreider was delivering suboptimal performances.
Over the past four games, however, Kreider has been a powerhouse on both ends of the ice. He’s physically bulldozing his way past opponents in the offensive zone, consistently positioning his big body to take away the vision of opposing goaltenders, and is playing committed, intelligent hockey on the defensive end.
Call it Kreider 2.0, an upgraded version of the player you once knew and perhaps didn’t think would ever be this good.
“It’s something that he’s been spending a lot of time on — trying to get his complete game,” head coach Alain Vigneault said of Kreider. “Not just the offensive side, but the defensive side, and he’s doing a better job on the wall in our end. He’s doing a better job of recognizing his assignments in our end, and he’s a player that’s improving his game and that’s what we want and that’s what we need.”
Kreider has scored in three of the last four games, in four of six, and five of the last eight. The Rangers are 5-0-0 when Kreider has lit the lamp this season.
At 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds of pure muscle, Kreider is a huge specimen. And he played even bigger than that during Monday’s 5-3 home victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Boxford, Massachusetts native scored a goal, tied a team-high with three shots on goal, and recorded two hits.
He screened Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to perfection on Kevin Shattenkirk’s third-period power play goal. I think Kreider has become one of the best in the league at disrupting opposing goalies’ tracking of the puck.
Late in the final period, Kreider scored three seconds into a power play to even the game at 3. Pavel Buchnevich fired a shot from the point and the loose puck fell to Kreider’s stick. In one motion, he stuffed it into the back of the net.
It’s not surprising that Kreider can be difficult to contain in the offensive zone, given his physical gifts and his straight-line speed. What may be surprising to some is the way he has molded himself into a very aware and dominant player on the defensive end.
“He’s been making great plays on the walls, getting pucks out, and then he knows what his job is on that line,” Shattenkirk said. “Since that line (Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich) has been put back together, they’ve had a lot of success. When he plays with those two guys, he knows that they’re the guys who are going to make the plays and he’s got to get to the net. He’s such a dynamic player. He’s got a ton of speed, great shot. When he’s going and playing a north and south game, that’s when he’s at his best.”
There’s been a genuine need for Kreider to assert himself as an unquestioned franchise player, the kind of dominant force that doesn’t disappear on occasions and instead serves as the lifeblood that can drive a team. When the Rangers were at their dire worst earlier in the season, his name cropped up in the rumor mill as a potential centerpiece of a deal that would bring back a bonafide second-line center.
But the A-game version of Kreider is a player that the Rangers surely never considered trading away — especially with three years remaining on his current contract at a fair cap charge of $4.625 million.
Kreider has flipped the switch. You’ve heard it before, but he’s never been this complete of a forward and it looks like this version is here to stay. I think this scholarly figure, who is trilingual, can play the guitar and the saxophone, and owns a diverse library of books, has finally solved the toughest equation of his professional career.
He’s figured out how to be a 200-foot beast.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey