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NEW YORK -- His cap pulled low over his eyes, a small laundry bag slung over his right shoulder, Chris Kreider still looked like a college boy on scholarship, a kid ready to retreat to his dorm room to plan a late-night pizza or prank.
Only this isn't your garden variety 21-year-old athlete. Kreider is the son of Boxford, Mass., who grew up to win national titles at Boston College -- something a fellow local, Doug Flutie of Natick High, couldn't even pull off.
Kreider doesn't talk about his faraway dreams; he lives them. So there he was Monday night in his Madison Square Garden locker room, the winning locker room, calmly explaining how a New York Rangers rookie who didn't see even a nanosecond of regular season ice time could treat Game 1 the Eastern Conference finals as if it were a pickup game with his friends on the nearest frozen pond.
He was told at his locker that he'd made a seamless transition from the NCAA tournament to the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Kreider immediately batted away the thought. Someone asked if he was settling into this series with the New Jersey Devils, and Kreider acted as if he was asked whether he'd return to BC for his senior year.
"That's not the way I'd put it," he said. "The last thing I want to do is settle in. I don't want to be complacent, especially at this level. If I get complacent, next thing you know I'm minus-2 and giving [Alex] Ovechkin a one-timer in the slot."
Yeah, he made a couple of rookie mistakes against the Washington Capitals and got demoted as a reward. But Kreider wasn't about to let that benching ruin his postseason experience anymore than, say, a bygone rookie named Derek Jeter allowed a lousy Game 1 of the 1996 Division Series spoil a charmed championship run.
Chances are, Kreider didn't follow up Game 4 of the Washington series by telling John Tortorella to make sure he got his sleep and got ready for the most important game of his life (essentially what Jeter told Joe Torre). But then again, Jeter spent part of '95 and all of '96 in the big leagues to prepare for his first postseason.
Kreider? He was all but pulled out of a frat house, handed a stick, thrown onto the ice, and ordered to help the Rangers win their first Stanley Cup since Messier and Matteau did in the Devils, and then Vancouver, in '94.
And Monday night, Kreider became the fourth player in NHL history to score three goals in the playoffs without playing in a regular-season game. His third-period goal was pretty sweet, too, reviving the Rangers' dormant power play and beating the most prolific winner of them all, Martin Brodeur, to make it 2-0 with eight minutes left.
"Absolute snipe on the greatest goalie of all time," tweeted Parker Milner, Kreider's goaltender at BC. "Pretty decent @ChrisKreider..."
Kreider was born in 1991, a year after Brodeur was drafted by the Devils. Though it was fitting a rookie made the 40-year-old legend look, well, old, Kreider made a bigger impact on Game 1 with an assist that defined his otherworldly poise.
|No regular-season action? No problem. Chris Kreider has now scored three goals for the Rangers this postseason.|
Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist were staging their scoreless mano a mano, making yet another tense struggle out of yet another Rangers-Devils series, when Kreider gathered the puck near the right circle in New Jersey's zone in the first minute of the third.
"Whoever was going to score first tonight," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer, "was going to win."
Everyone in the building could feel that. This is where the game is supposed to speed up for the young and inexperienced, especially in the postseason, and yet here was Kreider making time stop, waiting and waiting for a teammate to make a decisive move.
Dan Girardi had just jumped onto the ice and was heading for the point. "I got it and looked up ice," Kreider said. "I knew both teams were kind of changing, he was calling for it, and he was coming straight off the bench."
Kreider made eye contact with Girardi. "And I was going to lay it out there for him," the rookie said.
Girardi fired, and Brodeur never saw what didn't hit him, not with Derek Stepan providing the winning screen. The Devils' goaltender had blinked first and the Garden mocked him again by chanting, "Mar-tee ... Mar-tee ... Mar-tee." If nothing else, it sounded better to Brodeur than "Matteau ... Matteau ... Matteau."
The only Rangers-Devils holdover from that epic '94 series had no chance on Kreider's power-play goal 11 minutes later, when the rookie beat him to the glove side. "He's got a lethal shot," Ryan McDonagh said, "and if he gets a second to get it off, scary things can happen."
When it was over, Kreider conceded that this journey has been "surreal," a journey that actually inspired a thoughtful news conference response from Tortorella, a man who keeps them in short supply.
"I think he's been responsible away from the puck," Tortorella said. "He's been consistently understanding of how we have to play. We want him to be instinctive, and I think he's done a really good job of that, as far as chasing down things, shooting the puck, obviously a quick release tonight on his goal. He's played well."
All things considered, Kreider has played out of his mind. He wasn't even allowed to buy a celebratory beer in New York before April 30, his 21st birthday.
"I just think I'm surrounded by some really good players," he said. "I've been lucky enough to get a lot of help from coaches, players, and the front office. I think I've just been protected a little bit more."
Truth is, people aren't protecting Kreider at the Garden any more than they protected him at BC. If he looks like a boy, he sure doesn't skate like one.