'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers winger Chris Kreider is starting to separate himself from the pack in a crowded Calder Trophy race.
The dynamic 22-year-old displayed further evidence of his Calder credentials on Sunday night, as the Rangers demolished the rival Philadelphia Flyers, 4-1, in front of an adoring Madison Square Garden crowd.
Kreider connected with linemate Rick Nash at 2:42 in the second period to increase the Rangers' lead to 2-0. The American winger won the puck behind the net, wheeled around the boards and fed a cutting Nash with a slick assist.
It was a two-point night for Kreider, as he later found twine in the second period. Kreider walked in on Ray Emery, stalking the Flyers' netminder with a dazzling array of stick-handling moves before scoring a backhander past Emery that gave the Blueshirts further breathing space at 4-0.
Nash is a keen admirer of Kreider's unique package of abilities. Nash projects Kreider to do big things as he continues to mature and develop his high-end skill.
"He's got all the skills to be an All-Star in this league," Nash said of Kreider in December.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has repeatedly praised the multi-talented Kreider, who has become a handful for opponents.
"Ever since he's been back, he's been one of our more efficient players," Vigneault said earlier this season. "He uses his strength. He's a good skater, he's a strong skater, he could push the defense back and make them pay on the forecheck -- and he's real tough to handle in front of the net."
Vigneault appreciates that Kreider has a fearlessness about him. The 6-foot-3 winger isn't afraid to get his nose dirty and gobbles up loose-puck chances like a powered-up Pac-Man.
"He loves those tough areas," Vigneault said. "He gets rebounds. He's been a real good player for us."
Kreider leads the Rangers with 12 goals. He is tied with Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot for a team-leading five power-play goals.
BRASSARD ON KREIDER: 'THE GUY IS A MACHINE'
"He's got that skating (ability) and that stride that no one has," Brassard said. "He's a big body that uses his speed really well. He's 6-foot-3, 240 or something. The guy is a machine. The best for Chris is ahead of him. He's really, really important for our team. There's not a lot of guys that can play his style of game. We're really lucky to have him around."
Brassard could be forgiven for mistaking Kreider for a 240-pound player. While Kreider is listed at 226 pounds, he plays even larger than his actual size.
Kreider's plus-11 also leads the Rangers in plus-minus by a 10-point margin. The Blueshirts simply play better hockey when Kreider is on the ice. He has registered nine points (four goals, five assists) in his last 12 games.
The Boxford, Massachusetts, native only trails Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon for the rookie lead in points. MacKinnon has collected 29 points in 45 games, while Kreider has totaled 27 points in 40 games.
San Jose Sharks winger Tomas Hertl had established himself as the early frontrunner for the Calder Trophy before right-knee surgery halted his exciting progress. Since then, Kreider has picked up the Calder torch and run with it.
Vigneault is being rewarded for his faith in Kreider's natural abilities. Previous head coach John Tortorella was accused of concentrating on forcing Kreider into learning defensive concepts first and foremost. And that, perhaps, stunted Kreider's overall growth.
A.V. has taken the training wheels off Kreider, who is flourishing on a top-line role.
"Last year, he was kinda trying to reinvent himself," Brian Boyle said. "This year, he's playing to his strengths. He's always had a good understanding of the defensive zone, offensive zone and how to play. Sometimes when you're not playing as many minutes, it can affect your confidence."
Boyle has seen Kreider taking large strides forward in his development and views Kreider as a difference-maker.
"He's grown tremendously," Boyle said. "This year, he's played phenomenal. He's been a huge part of our team and a big reason for some of the success we've had."
Lately, the Rangers are staring to look like a formidable team and are finally getting to grips with Vigneault's system. Kreider seemed to grasp A.V.'s philosophies quicker than others.
As time goes on, both Kreider and Vigneault will benefit from each other's presence. Kreider is a razor-sharp weapon and A.V. knows how to use him.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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