'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers have desperately needed someone to step up and be their lead dog while star sniper Rick Nash and heart-and-soul captain Ryan Callahan have been on the mend.
Ever since his October 20 recall, Chris Kreider has been the Rangers' most effective player on a nightly basis.
He's been a handful around the net and a constant on-rushing threat that puts opponents on their back foot. Kreider has finally figured out how to make full use of his physical tools at the NHL level.
His rare package of swift skating, imposing strength and natural hockey sense has made a sizeable difference in the Rangers' fortunes. The Blueshirts are just a point off the pace of pulling themselves into second place in the Metropolitan Division. They'll host the second-place Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.
Kreider's tremendous impact hasn't gone unnoticed by head coach Alain Vigneault, who declared the 22-year-old as probably the Rangers' best forward since his October 24 season debut in Philadelphia.
"Ever since he's been back, he's been -- if not our best forward -- one of our best forwards every game," Vigneault said. "Using his speed, using his size, going to the net hard, making it real tough on the other team's 'D'. He's gotta keep doing it, because we need that from him."
Kreider recorded the second goal in the Rangers' 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in stylish fashion at 11:21 in the second period by banking his shot off opposing netminder Ryan Miller from a near-impossible angle. He forced a neutral-zone turnover with an aggressive poke check that led to a frenzied rush on Miller's net. It was Kreider's second goal in consecutive games, as the Rangers have put together their first winning streak of the young season.
The Rangers are now a team that's on the precipice of doing big things. A large part of that credit is due to their line of Kreider-Derek Stepan-Mats Zuccarello that is firing on all cylinders.
"A big part of our line is Chris Kreider, the way he's moving his feet," Stepan said. "He's on pucks. And then when he does get pucks, he's getting the puck to Zucc and Zucc is making plays. I don't know how many times tonight Zucc makes a big pass that really breaks down the defense, and it allows us to get those chances in tight. Those are the two big keys to our success.
"It's easy to see (that) when (Kreider) gets going it's hard to slow him down. It's been a big part of our line right now. He's actually speeding my game up, he's pushing the pace. It's kind of like the same thing when I started with (Carl Hagelin) last year. Those speed guys, they push the pace and it makes it easier as a line to get some momentum."
KREIDER FILLING NASH'S BIG SKATES
There is still no update on the status of Nash. It is unclear how long Nash's "head injury" will keep the concussed 29-year-old out of the Rangers' lineup. Kreider has proven that he can be a go-to scorer as long as Nash is unavailable.
ZUCCARELLO HAS TURNED HIS SEASON AROUND
Early into the 2013-14 season, Zuccarello found difficulty gelling with his linemates and constantly was bounced from one line to another. Vigneault elected to scratch Zuccarello ahead of New York's road meeting with the Flyers on October 24.
Two days later, Zuccarello returned to the lineup at Joe Louis Arena, marking the occasion by scoring against the Red Wings. The pint-sized winger has tallied three points in his last four games. Zuccarello has been an ever-present playmaking force in recent games.
"The last two games, he's played extremely well," Vigneault said. "That line has generated some real, high-end quality scoring chances. With him and Kreids using their speed, and Step finding them, it's been a real efficient line."
Henrik Lundqvist attributes Zuccarello's hard-working nature and tremendous on-ice vision to his recent stretch of big performances.
"He's a hard worker," Lundqvist said. "He works hard in practice, he has a great attitude and he is a great player. He sees the game so well. You know, he opens it with his passing and he can shoot the puck. He plays hard every night. I'm happy for him."
Hagelin joked that he's responsible for Zuccarello's turnaround.
"I attribute that to me," Hagelin joked. "I took care of him on the ice when we did back-skating. Nah, I'm kidding. He worked really hard, he didn't take a day off. He wanted to get back and wanted to make a statement -- and that's what he's been doing. He's been playing hard and is strong on the puck."
CALLAHAN EDGING CLOSER TO RETURN
Lately, the Rangers have figured out how to plug holes in their lineup. That's an extremely promising sign with Callahan's return drawing closer. If all goes well, the Blueshirts could see their inspirational captain return to game action on November 7 in Columbus.
Vigneault indicated on Thursday that both Callahan (broken thumb) and center Dominic Moore (upper-body injury) are within seven to 10 days from returning. Callahan skated in a non-contact yellow jersey in Thursday's practice.
On Friday, Callahan skated in a full-contact regular jersey. The Rangers' captain has been missing from the lineup since breaking his thumb in Washington on October 16. Throughout his career, Callahan has habitually returned from injuries sooner than his expected return date. That was the case when he beat his timetable following shoulder surgery to make his season debut on October 7 in Los Angeles.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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