- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEWARK, N.J. -- He was a total stranger when he splashed down in the New York Rangers' dressing room during their opening playoff series against Ottawa without having played a minute of NHL hockey.
But now the top-seeded Rangers don't want to even think where they might be this postseason without their kid sniper.
They were in danger of losing their grip on their third series in a row Saturday when rookie winger Chris Kreider continued to give them the one thing goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can't -- a backbreaking goal, some rare breathing room and some quick-strike offensive magic they aren't reliably getting from anyone else.
"The puck just seems to fall around him," Rangers coach John Tortorella said after Kreider's deflection of a slap shot by Ryan McDonagh gave the Rangers their second goal in a 1:57 span of the third period, turning what had been a scoreless game at the Prudential Center into a rousing 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils.
The Rangers now lead the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals 2-1 and yanked home-ice advantage back from the Devils in the process.
"I was just lucky to get my stick on it," Kreider said of his goal, speaking in a shy near-whisper after he'd trudged to his locker still wearing most of his game gear.
Kreider looked like the second-most reluctant interview left in the Stanley Cup playoffs -- after Tortorella -- when he half-heartedly tried to pull two laundry carts into the path to his locker, unsuccessfully trying to hold back the oncoming cameras and notebooks and microphones.
But luck had nothing to do with his goal.
With every one of these playoff games that he plays, Kreider continues to look like a talent who is going to be starring on Broadway for the Rangers for a very long time.
And these playoffs, which Kreider jumped straight into after leading Boston College to a national championship, are going to go down as one long coming-out party for him.
Eighteen years ago, the breakout rookie star in this Rangers-Devils rivalry was New Jersey legend Martin Brodeur. Now Brodeur is the legendary goaltender Kreider has beaten for three goals through the first three games of this series.
Back in '94, Brodeur couldn't quite stop the Rangers after Mark Messier made his guarantee in Game 6, and Stephane Matteau sent them winging toward the Stanley Cup finals in Game 7. Brodeur admits the way that series ended sticks with him.
Now Kreider -- whose five playoff goals are second only to Brad Richards' six for the Rangers -- is giving Brodeur something else to think about, with the way he has helped push the Rangers two wins from getting by the Devils goaltender and back to the Stanley Cup finals.
Although Kreider joined the Rangers just five weeks ago and turned 21 only after he arrived, Tortorella started playing Kreider on the Rangers' top line with Richards and Marian Gaborik in this series. And there were already some fans walking around the Prudential Center on Saturday wearing game jerseys with Kreider's name and No. 20 on them.
"I don't even know the kid. ... I had no idea [how good he is]," Tortorella said. "I've probably only spoke to him three or four times since he's been here."
A couple of those conversations happened when Tortorella chewed Kreider out, then slapped him into his doghouse during two games of the Rangers' second-round escape against Washington after Kreider made a couple of gaffes.
Kreider still mentions that temporary benching as proof he has a lot to learn. But what he doesn't mention is that by the end of that series, he was tied for the playoff lead in game-winning goals, with two. And that rather than curl up in a ball after Tortorella was hard on him, he came back stronger.
On Saturday, Kreider tried flicking the credit for how he's scoring in this series to playing with Gaborik and Richards. And while it was true that Richards' huge faceoff win directly back to Dan Girardi resulted in the Rangers' first goal -- Girardi slapped a one-timer by Brodeur -- nobody is buying that Kreider brings little to the party himself when, speaking of his own goal, he insisted, "Anyone could kind of polish off some of the chances they've been giving me."
Many of the Rangers still don't know Kreider that well, either. But something Girardi said shortly after Kreider arrived sounds like the best take yet on what the 6-foot-2, 230-pound left winger brings. Girardi said: "I knew a little about him, but I didn't know he was built like a Mack truck and could skate like the wind. ... We're lucky to have him."
Lucky. Grateful. Amazed. Take your pick.
Lundqvist was sensational, keeping the Rangers in the game as the Devils outchanced them nearly 2-to-1 through the first two periods. Kreider's insurance goal finally gave even him a chance to breathe a little easier before Ryan Callahan accounted for their last score with an empty-net goal.
Kreider was asked whether he can believe he has been with the Rangers only five weeks, and for the first time in his postgame interview, he sparked up and finally admitted to a little amazement.
"I guess it's pretty cool," he allowed. "But I can't even tell you what day of the week it is. If you told me if it was one week or five weeks I've been here, I'm not sure I'd know the difference."
No problem. All he really needs to know now is the number six.
Just six more wins during this whirlwind he's on, and he'll be the unlikeliest current Ranger to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.