When Chris Kreider went down with his hand injury in March, the immediate effect wasn’t apparent. The Rangers kept winning, and the hole in the lineup, specifically on the second line, wasn’t exposed. That’s to be expected when you consider the relatively easy March/April schedule for the Rangers, but with the playoffs looming, the club had a real problem on their hands. They didn’t have the depth to replace a top-six forward.
The hole was something that New York struggled to fix. Jesper Fast proved to be effective in a defensive role, but lacked the offensive punch (for now) to be a mainstay in the lineup. J.T. Miller had the exact opposite problem, as his play without the puck was too erratic to counter his aggressive play. Dan Carcillo was certainly effective, but he has always been more of a wild card than a reliable offensive force. Call him the new Sean Avery, circa 2011. None of these three had the ability to fill the hole Kreider left, and it showed.
If not for some savvy coaching by Alain Vigneault, the Rangers would not have survived the first round with Philadelphia. All three replacements saw time in the series, and each time the initial change was made, the player made a difference in the lineup. But it was very clear that none of them would stick long enough in the lineup to make a bigger difference.
When Kreider returned for Game Four, the effect was almost instantaneous. Kreider’s combination of speed, tenacity, net presence and physicality were something they were sorely missing from their top-six. Kreider was parking himself in front of the net, getting offensive opportunities, and providing the Rangers with top-six depth they needed to rattle off three straight wins to beat the Penguins.
With Kreider back, the Rangers have the depth and skill at forward to match some of the Western Conference powerhouses, should they advance past the Montreal Canadiens. He’s not without his faults, as he is still a bit of a liability without the puck (not as bad as Miller, but worse than Fast and Carcillo). But you deal with that since his speed and talent (1-1-2 in his four games these playoffs) more than make up for it.
Kreider certainly wasn’t THE reason why the Rangers came back from 3-1 down to beat the Penguins, but he was certainly a key contributor. Before, the Rangers had two scoring lines, a defensive line, and a bit of a question mark line. Now they have three scoring lines and a defensive line. Kreider’s return has made them an even more difficult opponent in the playoffs. These Rangers are certainly a different team than the ones that almost bowed out of the playoffs in uninspiring fashion.