As is his wont, Chris Kreider was flying.
He had just whipped an off-angled power play goal past San Jose goalie Martin Jones midway through the second period of the Rangers’ 7-4 win over the Sharks at the Garden on Oct. 17. As he curled behind the net, his face a mask of triumph, he was slowing down.
Ironically, just not at a fast enough rate.
Krieder turned alongside the right wing boards and into referee Tom Kowal for the briefest of moments, before the winger celebrated with teammates Kevin Hayes, Ryan McDonagh, Brandon Pirri and Mika Zibanejad.
Seems like Kowal is among the very few who has been able to hold up Kreider in the very early portion of the 2016-17 National Hockey League season. Entering Saturday’s game against the Capitals at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., Kreider’s is tied for third in the NHL in goals (three), assists (four) and points (seven).
“He just came in here with the right attitude and he’s playing to his strengths,” Alain Vigneault said of Kreider after the Rangers opened the season with a 5-3 win over the Islanders on Oct. 13 at the Garden. The game was the season opener for both teams, and Kreider’s goal at 9:45 of the the third period put the Rangers ahead for good. “Obviously, that’s being a power forward, using his speed when he has the puck and using his speed on the forecheck to create a turnover. Power forwards have to go to the tough areas, and we saw that tonight. It was a good start for him and his line. I thought they had a good game and it was a good start for our team.”
Due to an offseason in which general manager Jeff Gorton reconfigured his forward units by adding Pirri and Zibanejad, among others, Vigneault spent training camp and preseason experimenting with line combinations. What he learned during the trial-and-error portion of the season was that the triumvirate of Kreider, Zibanejad and rookie Pavel Buchnevich were able to compliment each other.
Against the Islanders, the trio finished with a goal and four assists for five points. Two nights later, in the Rangers’ 3-2 loss to the Blues at Scottrade Center, Krieder and Zibanejad accounted for all of the Blueshirts’ scoring with a goal and an assist apiece.
“I can speak all day about the guys I am playing with because they’re incredible,” Kreider said after the win over the Islanders. “They make some ridiculous plays.”
The line lasted for two games before Vigneault was forced to reconfigure his forward units in response to Pavel Buchnevich’s back spasms. Rick Nash was moved onto the line and fourth line center Josh Jooris dressed for the first time this season against the Sharks. Kreider finished that game with a goal and an assist, and he recorded a secondary assist on Zibanejad’s goal in the Rangers’ 2-1 loss to the Red Wings on Oct. 19 at the Garden.
According to the team following the Detroit game, Kreider matched his career high with his stretch of points in four straight games, and he set a career high with his four assists in the four games.
“I didn’t change much. I had the same approach, the same mentality. The team is just going right now. We are getting the bounces, playing with some very good line mates,” Kreider said after the win over San Jose. He later added he was focused on playing “instinctually.”
“Anytime you’re overthinking plays, you’re not reading and reacting,” he said. “There’s ebbs and flows. I think it’s just about leaning into the hard times and the times you’re overthinking, and not trying to change stuff. You simplify your game; you get back to the stuff you know you do well. A lot of time that adversity helps you focus. From there, lock in on what you do well and do on a consistent basis.”
You can follow @MetroNewYork NHL writer Denis Gorman at @DenisGorman.