‘I could see his number in the rafters’: Chris Kreider establishing his place among all-time Rangers playoff greats


NEW YORK — Mark Messier first met Chris Kreider when the New York Rangers forward was playing at Boston College over a dozen years ago.

“He looked like he was going 100 mph standing still on the ice. He looked like a Ferrari,” Messier said. “You don’t realize how big he is until you get up next to him. He’s so perfectly proportioned.”

It’s the 30th anniversary of the Rangers’ last Stanley Cup victory in 1994, perhaps the signature moment in Messier’s Hockey Hall of Fame career. He won league MVP twice and playoff MVP once, and he’s third all time in career points scored. But that image of Messier becoming the first Rangers player in 54 years to lift the Cup — after successfully guaranteeing victory in the Eastern Conference finals as their captain — still defines him decades later.

“I’ll tell you what: You make your money in the regular season, but you make your name in the playoffs,” Messier said. “And Chris Kreider is a playoff performer.”

No one has scored more postseason goals in Rangers history than Kreider’s 47 tallies in 117 games. The 33-year-old winger is also second to defenseman Dan Girardi (122 games) in team history in postseason appearances. When the games matter most, Kreider has mattered the most for the Rangers.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of things you have to do inside of the game. But one thing I know you have to do is put the puck in the net, and he has an incredible knack for that,” said coach Peter Laviolette, who led the Rangers to the President’s Trophy in his first season with New York. “Chris has been a great leader on this team. We needed to have a big performance in Game 6, and I thought he really delivered.”

If Kreider’s reputation as a playoff star wasn’t already cemented, it became concrete after his natural hat trick in the third period to eliminate the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 of their second-round series. Only two other players in NHL history have had a natural hat trick in the third period that included a series-clinching goal — the others were Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2018 and Ottawa forward Jack Darragh in 1920.

“I think we were down on ourselves after the first two periods [of Game 6]. Whenever you’re in a spot like that, you need your big players to come up big, and that’s what Chris did,” Rangers center Vincent Trocheck said.

Kreider’s hat trick sent the Rangers to the Eastern Conference finals, where they’ll face the Florida Panthers starting Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) for the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

It also inspired one of the Stanley Cup playoffs’ oddest images: Kreider removing hats that were thrown on his lawn by celebrating neighbors after his victorious team returned from Raleigh last week.

“I can’t believe he picked them up by himself. He should’ve had someone else go pick them up,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba joked.

Those hats on the grass are indicative of Kreider’s importance to Rangers fans and his status as a franchise icon. “He is right up there with the best of them,” said Ryan Callahan, who played eight seasons with the Rangers.

Callahan sees the Rangers’ recent history as a series of eras. There was the generation that won in 1994, with homegrown players like Brian Leetch and Mike Richter blending with imports like Messier. Then came the Henrik Lundqvist generation, which crossed over with the early part of Kreider’s career. But this generation, according to Callahan, “is definitely Chris Kreider’s generation” with the Rangers.

“If they go on to win a Cup, I could see his number in the rafters. That’s how impactful he’s been on this generation,” Callahan said. “Even if they don’t, who knows? He’s had so much success there.”

MESSIER SAID THAT Kreider is a “conscientious” player.

He plays in all situations and makes a difference in each phase of the game. Kreider has averaged 3:40 per game on the power play in this playoff run, when he has two goals and two assists, and he has averaged 1:59 per game on the penalty kill, where he has a shorthanded goal and an assist. His mind is on all facets of the game, at all times. His teammates have described him as “very intelligent,” on and off the ice.

“He’s a thinker. At times early in his career, I think he might have been paralyzed with a little too much thought and perhaps was too hard on himself,” Messier said. “Those are the things that come with maturity.”

Understanding the plight of a young player, Kreider took a rookie under his wing this season — a 6-foot-7 one at that. Forward Matt Rempe became Kreider’s teammate at the Rangers’ Stadium Series game at MetLife Stadium, and he said Kreider has been a valuable advisor during a turbulent first year in the NHL.

“He’s been so good to me. Like a big brother. I talk to him every day. He gives me books to read. We talk about bulls— fantasy books that we’re reading,” Rempe said. “For the last two months, I’ve just been reading all the books he’s been giving me.”

Kreider has been known as the Rangers’ renaissance man during his 12-season NHL career, which began after they drafted him 19th overall out of Boston College in 2009. Teammates have noted the Massachusetts native has a noticeable intellectual curiosity.

Kreider speaks multiple languages, including Spanish and Russian. Along with his fantasy book recommendations to Rempe, Kreider once put together a summer reading list for CNBC that spanned from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” to Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code,” which argues that greatness isn’t born but can be grown within an individual.

“This book will change your perspective on what society has labeled ‘natural talent,’ and will hopefully convince you that you can teach yourself basically anything if you work smart,” he said at the time.

Kreider has his share of talents, starting with his speed. “I think his speed is just tremendous,” said Callahan, who would later face Kreider as an opponent with the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It’s straight-line speed. It’s not east-to-west speed or anything like that. The kind of speed when you’re on the ice against him, it’s almost intimidating the power he has coming at you.”

But as “The Talent Code” proffers, there are other aspects to Kreider’s game that weren’t inherent. Things he has taught himself through the years.

“When I first played with him, he wasn’t known for being a net-front presence guy who tipped the puck or anything like that. I think he’s kind of evolved,” Callahan said. “He realized with his strength and his size that if he goes to that area he could do damage.”

Rangers goalie Jonathan Quick has known Kreider for a while, having skated and trained with him during the summer. But he’s seeing a different side of Kreider as a teammate, having previously been acquainted with his back while Kreider was planted in front of the crease.

“It’s difficult to play against him because he’s not trying to do one thing every time. He has different things he could do; you’re trying to figure out which one he is going to do,” Quick explained. “He could score on tips, he could score on screens, he could score dropping off with the chop. He’s as good as there is in front of the net.”

True to form, Kreider’s natural hat trick in Game 6 against Carolina totaled just 18 feet in distance for the three goals.

The combination of speed and immovability in front of the net makes Kreider a unique talent in today’s NHL.

“What makes him special is his speed and his size. I think he’s one of the true power forwards that are left in the league,” Callahan said. “He’s like an old-school power forward where he’s fast, he’s big and strong.”

The NHL has seen elite players add to their games as they age. Steve Yzerman went from being an offensive dynamo to a Selke Trophy-winning, two-way player. Jaromir Jagr went from skating through defensemen with Connor McDavid-like precision to more of a power forward later in his career. Callahan said it takes a special player to augment what they already do with new tricks.

“I think there’s a lot of guys that are set in their ways, right? That had success as they were younger and they get stubborn. They feel like that’s the way they have to produce,” he said. “Kreider realized that with his size and his strength that if he gets to that front of the net, he’s going to get a lot of opportunities if he goes to those dirty areas, he is going to get a lot of opportunities. You don’t see that often, guys adding that extra element to their game at the pro level.”

But one of the biggest lessons Kreider has learned through his career is when to rise to the occasion, said his coach.

“He’s learned that in the biggest moments, some guys really step up and they’re able to deliver what can make a hockey game go your way. He’s one of those guys,” Laviolette said.

Just don’t ask Kreider if he savors those moments.

KREIDER SAT IN HIS dressing room stall at the Rangers’ practice facility near Tarrytown. He was a few days removed from Game 6 in Raleigh, and a few days before facing the Panthers in the conference finals.

Did he think about the enormity of that moment against the Hurricanes during the break?

“You turn the page,” he said.

What about immediately after Game 6? Did he savor it even a little bit?

Kreider pretended to hold an open book in his left hand, then pretended to turn a large page from one side to another with his right hand, drawing laughter from the assembled media.

“I mean, we’re in the middle of a playoff run. Got a ways to go. We’ve got to prepare for our first game [against Florida],” he said.

Linemate Jack Roslovic, whom the Rangers acquired at the trade deadline from Columbus, has come to know this dichotomy of Chris Kreider: the dry humor blended with stoic focus on the task at hand.

“Just an awesome human,” he said. “He’s very light, but very serious.”

Does Kreider typically strike the balance well behind the scenes?

“Most of the time. Except for when he’s having a bad day,” Roslovic said.

The days on the ice have been mostly good for Kreider over the past few seasons. He had 10 postseason goals in the Rangers’ run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2022. In last year’s disappointing seven-game loss to the New Jersey Devils, Kreider had six goals. His hat trick against the Hurricanes gives him seven goals in 10 games in the 2024 playoffs.

In the regular season, Kreider is seventh among all NHL players in goals scored over the past three seasons (127), including a career-high 52 tallies in 2021-22. This season, he passed Adam Graves (280) on the Rangers’ all-time goal-scoring list, leaving him behind only Rod Gilbert (406) and Jean Ratelle (336).

“It’s cool, especially for an organization like the Rangers, an Original Six team, all the legends, all the names, big names, who have played here and he’s getting up there with those records,” said Mika Zibanejad, who has been Kreider’s friend and frequent linemate since the Rangers acquired him in 2016. “Just the fact that he’s been here his whole career and has been able to do what he’s done is impressive.”

Gilbert’s No. 7 and Ratelle’s No. 19 hang from the rafters at Madison Square Garden. So does No. 11, for both Vic Hadfield and Messier, the latter of whom believes Kreider’s longevity and productivity with the Rangers could result in his No. 20 joining those legends in the Garden ceiling.

“One of the great things about Chris is that he was drafted by the Rangers and he’s played his whole career there,” Messier said. “You think about Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, the players that were drafted and played their entire careers there. … Chris came in, got out of college and really carved out a niche for himself with the Rangers. He’s turned into a bona fide star.”

Kreider could end up with his name on a banner in the MSG rafters one day. But more important for him at the moment is being eight wins away from helping this Rangers team earn its own banner inside the Garden and a place in history.

“When you go to Madison Square Garden, you see our ’94 championship banner hanging there. That will never be taken down,” Messier said. “To have a banner raised above the biggest stage in New York City, maybe the biggest cathedral in sports, is pretty powerful.”

That’s the legacy Chris Kreider is creating, goal after goal, moment after moment for the Rangers.

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