Though coach Alain Vigneault wouldn’t say it outright, it sure sounds like winger Chris Kreider is getting very close to returning to the Rangers’ lineup.
Kreider has missed the team’s last 19 games with an undisclosed left hand injury and would be a major addition to New York’s suddenly offensively-starved lineup.
Vigneault has been married to his unofficial top line – Benoit Pouliot/Derick Brassard/Mats Zuccarello – and his outstanding fourth line – Brian Boyle/Dominic Moore/Derek Dorsett – for most of the second half, but he’s had a devil of a time finding the right combination with Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. Even when Kreider was healthy, chemistry wasn’t automatic, but at least Vigneault had a complete set of top-six forwards (in theory) to choose from. It’s a lot easier to mix and match that way then when a fourth liner like Danny Carcillo is being asked to skate with key offensive players.
Though Kreider was still very inconsistent in his first full pro season, he finished just behind Anton Stralman for the best CF% (55.2) and CF% rel (3.6) on the team. At his best, Kreider was a game-changer at even strength for stretches this season.
Then there’s Kreider’s impact on the power play. Pouliot has been the team’s lone net-front presence on the man advantage in Kreider’s absence, and the team desperately needs a big power forward to play in the dirty areas and distract the easily distracted Marc-Andre Fleury. Kreider finished third on the team with six power play goals in 66 games during the regular season – just one behind Brassard and Pouliot. Given that the Blueshirts have a wealth of distributors and not enough finishers on the man advantage, the insertion of Kreider could make a huge difference.
Of course, all of the positives Kreider might bring to the lineup are dampened by the fact that he hasn’t played an NHL game in over six weeks. Will he really be at game speed if/when he returns? It’s a lot to ask a guy to jump straight into the most physically taxing postseason in sports – but if anyone has practice doing that, it’s Chris Kreider.