We might start calling them the dark days, but there was a time when a pretty large number of Rangers fans wanted Chris Kreider gone. After setting such an extraordinarily high bar for himself when he entered the NHL, scoring five goals and seven points in 18 games during the 2011-2012 playoffs, he had serious struggles his next season -- spending a majority of it in the AHL.
When John Tortorella was fired, many people assumed Alain Vigneault would be the solution to the problem. Instead, Vigneault cut Kreider from the opening roster, and made him start this season in the AHL. This was the "final straw" for most fans who were on Kreider to begin with. "Even the offensively open-minded coach in Vigneault couldn't find a place for him," they cried.
The solution for Kreider actually turned out to be two things: 1) He needed more time to season as a professional player, which he was able to do in the AHL where he was getting real minutes rather than being on the ice for less than five minutes in the NHL under the old regime. And almost more importantly, 2) He needed to get his mojo back. He needed his confidence.
Vigneault is one of the best coaches I have ever seen in terms of getting the most out of his players. The Benoit Pouliot transformation is the biggest example of this. Kreider is another.
Today things couldn't be any different. I really wonder how he must have felt, being painted the savior before the opening music played prior to his entrance to the playoffs in Game 4 of the Second Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's a 180-degree turn from where things were a year ago.
But something happened to Kreider this season. Something clicked. He became that player everyone thought he could. He scored 17 goals and added 20 assists for 37 points in 66 games. He started using his speed more effectively, he started using his size more effectively, he had a mean streak, he was scoring, he was doing everything.
What his performance so far in these playoffs (five points in six games) has done is shine a spotlight on the type of player he is. He's a difference maker. He's coming up enormous in big moments. There is no player on the Rangers' roster who brings the combination of skills he possesses. His blend of speed, size and offensive IQ is unmatched. He's a player opposing teams need to worry about even if he's not scoring, which is truly one of the highest compliments you can give a player in today's NHL.
And he's doing the little things. It was Kreider who made the perfect pass to Rick Nash for the game-winning goal in Game 2. It was Kreider who was screening the goaltender when Martin St. Louis rifled home the next goal in Game 2. It was Kreider who was smartly chipping the puck off the boards to create a breakaway for himself. It's Kreider who is hammering people in the corner. It's Kreider who relentlessly forechecks because he's simply faster. It's Kreider who can keep a defense on their toes because they need to keep up with his speed.
He brings an element to the game the Rangers missed drastically when he was gone. Sometimes you don't appreciate what you have until it's gone. Well, the fans probably appreciate him now, even those who wanted him gone earlier in the year.
And after all he's done, how can you not?