NEW YORK – When you make an overnight trip from an NCAA championship to the Stanley Cup playoffs, what do you pack? Seriously. How many pairs of socks? How much underwear?
Chris Kreider was unsure. He had just gotten back from Tampa, where he had won his second national title in three years with the Boston College Eagles. He was headed to New York, where he would practice with the Rangers in the morning. He didn't know what was to come, how long it would last, everything he needed.
As he stood in his room at Voute Hall, a beige brick dorm on the BC campus, suitemate Samson Lee tried to help. Kreider had only one suitcase, but that was OK. He had ripped a pair of pants running around that day, so if Lee's memory is right, he might have had only one suit. He needed shirts. He needed ties. Hmm.
"You're playing Ottawa, right?" Lee said.
"Yeah," Kreider said.
"Make sure you have your passport."
"Um, probably something good to have."
That was April 11. Five weeks later, the whirlwind continues. Kreider has appeared in 14 games for the Rangers, playing almost every other day, soaking in new experiences nonstop, without acting like a wide-eyed rookie just happy to be here.
He has celebrated his 21st birthday in an NHL uniform, survived a triple-overtime thriller, won two Game 7s at Madison Square Garden and made headlines in the media capital of the world. He scored game-winners in each of his first two series, and he has scored in each of the first two games of the Eastern Conference final.
By notching four goals and six points before his regular-season debut, he has tied two NHL records. Eddie Mazur scored four goals for the Montreal Canadiens before playing in the regular season, though he needed three playoffs to do it – 1951, '52 and '53. George McPhee put up six points for the Rangers in '83.
The Rangers are already selling shirts with "KREIDER" and No. 20 on the back, and though he has probably (hopefully) bought some new clothes by now, he said he is still living out of the same suitcase in a Manhattan hotel.
"Yeah," he said with a smile. "It's a pretty big suitcase, though."
* * * * *
Many players have made the NHL at a younger age. Others have gone straight from college to the pros, even in the playoffs. But this is unique.
The Rangers are a tight-knit group. They added only two players from outside the organization all season. They won the Eastern Conference with a team-first style.
And along came this college kid who hadn't blocked a shot, hadn't thrown a hit, hadn't scored a goal, hadn't contributed to any of it. Despite a total lack of NHL experience, he took a lineup spot and precious minutes – in the top six, on the power play, in other key situations – at the most important time of year.
It's a credit to the guys in the dressing room and of course a credit to Kreider, who earned his coach's trust and his teammates' respect quickly. On the ice, he made an immediate impact, took a step back and rebounded to make an impact again. Off the ice, he has kept his head down and his mouth shut. Part of it is his personality. Part of it is just being a respectful rookie.
"He has no fear. That's what I like about him," said coach John Tortorella after beating the Ottawa Senators in the first round, when he put Kreider, in only his fifth NHL appearance, on the ice to protect a one-goal lead in the final minute of Game 7.
"His biggest thing is his mindset. He's not here to test the waters. He's trying to make a difference. You saw where I had him tonight at the end of the game. He was playing, the other guys weren't, and he deserved to be there."
Kreider wasn't your typical college kid, and he wasn't your typical college player.
He wasn't one to pull all-nighters. He would make sure he got nine or 10 hours of sleep, especially before games. He needed a lot of food for fuel – "he ate like a little pony," Lee teased – but loved healthier stuff like sushi.
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It doesn't sound like he was a partier. Asked about spending his 21st birthday playing for the Rangers instead of, well, doing what a lot of people would do, Kreider said: "I'd rather do this any day of the week than go out and destroy my body." Listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he looks like he has been building his body.
"He's, like, a creature," Lee said. "I think he's just a real mature kid. He knows that whatever he does, he has to earn it. He's determined. You can tell from the two national championships he won in college, he's a kid that when he sets his mind on something, he works hard at it. He gets it done."
Lee is the video coordinator for the Boston College hockey team. He has seen Kreider on screen as much as anyone, and when he watches him now – on the same 32-inch television in the suite they shared, in the same common room where they watched NHL games – he sees the same player he saw at BC. Great skater. Great shooter. "Prototypical power forward," Lee said. "You can hear him coming down the ice. He's like an impending force when he's hounding you on the puck."
Eagles captain Tommy Cross sees the same thing. "I see the kid that I played with for three years," Cross said. "He's so fast and powerful and strong. I see him being pushed. He's obviously playing in the best league in the world right now. When he's pushed, he can do special things."
The Rangers drafted Kreider 19th overall in 2009 and wanted to sign him last year. He turned them down. He was disappointed in how his sophomore season ended, with a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed, and he wanted to come back to get closer to his degree and take another shot at another national title.
But he gained valuable experience last spring. A Massachusetts native who twice represented the United States at the World Junior Championship, he played for the U.S. at the worlds for the second straight year, skating with NHLers, learning from them. He skated informally with some of the Rangers before their training camp. And though he was focused on the task at hand at BC with a team-leading 45 points in 44 games – he said it wouldn't have been fair to anyone, including himself, not to be – he might have had one eye on New York.
How could he not? It was all over the media that Rangers general manager Glen Sather refused to include him in a deal for Columbus Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash before the trade deadline. The playoffs were coming.
"He's a very humble kid and deflects attention, so he wouldn't say it, but I think he was watching," Cross said. "I think he was pretty confident in himself thinking that, 'Probably a couple months from now, a couple weeks from now, I could be wearing the blue jersey.'
"I think we were more vocal about it. People asked, 'Why was Boston College a good hockey team this year?' Well, we had a great coach, we had some players that played really well, and we had an NHL player on the team. So that helps."
On April 7, the Eagles won the NCAA championship. On April 11, they had a parade on campus. Kreider cut out early. "It was funny, because everyone wanted his autograph," Lee said. "Everyone was looking for him." Kreider was busy signing an NHL contract.
"I figured it all out with my parents, faxed the stuff over," Kreider said. "I got in a car at BC and drove down. Excited. Really excited. I hadn't come down yet off that high of winning the whole thing."
On April 12, Kreider practiced with the Rangers. On April 16, he made his NHL debut in Ottawa. He played on a line with stars Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Good thing he remembered his passport.
"Kind of a wave of emotions, I guess," Kreider said. " 'Special' probably doesn't do it justice. But at the same time, I was obviously locked in and mentally focused. I only had about three or four seconds to kind of take in the fact that I was putting on an NHL jersey before I had to try to do my job."
The players welcomed him. Several had come from U.S. colleges, just not as quickly. The coaches didn't overload him. They told him just to have fun and play his game, while stressing a few things in the defensive zone.
Still, it was almost overwhelming – the sights, the sounds, the pace.
"Obviously the environment's that much more intense, in the locker room, in the arena itself," Kreider said. "I've played in front of some pretty big crowds, but I don’t think it ever gets as loud as it does in some of these games. Obviously it's a whole different level. It was kind of hard to fathom. I don't think you can kind of prepare yourself enough for it. It's a big leap."
But he made it. Though he got into the lineup because of a suspension to rookie Carl Hagelin – who went from the University of Michigan to the American Hockey League playoffs last season, a more typical path – he didn't leave the lineup when Hagelin returned. He dropped to the fourth line for a couple of games, then rose to the second line with Derek Stepan and captain Ryan Callahan.
He scored the winning goal in Game 6 against the Senators. He made a key play in Game 7, forcing a turnover that led to a goal. He set up a goal and scored the winner in Game 1 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, earning the Broadway Hat, the too-small black fedora that goes to the player of the game in the Rangers’ room.
That was impressive enough. But this might have been more impressive: After going minus-4 over three games and committing a costly turnover to Alex Ovechkin – his favorite player growing up – his playing time dwindled dramatically. He didn't crumble.
He set up a goal in Game 1 of the conference final, using that speed to win a race to the puck and feed defenseman Dan Girardi. He scored, using that shot to snap the puck in mid-stride past goaltender Martin Brodeur. He scored in Game 2, too, deflecting a shot in front of the net. Both of those goals were on the power play.
"A lot of guys I think would have been shaken up out there at the end of the Capitals series, not seeing the ice time he would have wanted to because of the turnover to Ovi or whatever," Cross said. "But he came back the next series with kind of a fresh mind and scored some big goals so far in this new series. I think he's pretty resilient and focused and can keep his confidence, which is tough to do, especially at that level."
* * * * *
Back at Boston College, Kreider's college buddies gather around to watch the NHL, as they always have. Only now Kreider isn't there watching the television. He's on the television.
"One of our teammates is freaking playing," Cross said.
Had Kreider stayed in school, he would have been honored with his teammates at Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox games. He would have gone with them to the statehouse and city hall this week. He would have just finished final exams.
His dad moved him out of the dorm a few days ago, but that's OK. Even though he left after his junior year, he's only four courses short of a communications degree, which he said he intends to finish "in the relative future." We all make tradeoffs in life.
"He's scoring goals in the NHL," Lee said, laughing. "He'll probably take the NHL goals."
Kreider keeps in touch with his BC teammates, but mostly by text message. They want to support him. They want to ask questions – about the game, about the team, about the big-league life. But they know he's busy, and they want him to stay focused, and they want him to win. They'll catch up in the summer.
"Everybody keeps asking me, 'What's the secret? How's he doing it?' " Cross said. "When you have the tools he has and you put it all together like he's doing, it's pretty special.
"Around here, I think everyone's surprised, because no one makes that jump like he's doing. But at the same time, it almost makes sense. He was ready for a challenge, and this is a challenge, and he plays his best on biggest stages. He's doing that now. He's making the most of it."
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