Martin St. Louis unexpectedly lost his mother to a heart attack last week, one day after the New York Rangers fell into a 3-1 series hole against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The passing of France St. Louis has proved to have a galvanizing, transformative effect on the Rangers, who rallied around their grieving teammate to deliver three inspired performances that knocked out the Penguins.
It’s a narrative that won’t go away as long as the Rangers are alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it shouldn’t.
It’s no accident that tragedy has coincided with the Rangers winning four straight games. It will likely be a topic of discussion when the Rangers look to build on their 1-0 series edge against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final on Monday night, as the entire Rangers team attended her funeral in Montreal on Sunday.
That is very clearly the emotional component to the Rangers’ season-shifting course, but there was another important change that has quietly flown under the radar—the return of Chris Kreider.
Kreider came back after a seven-week absence due to a hand injury for Game 4 against the Penguins, who rolled to a 4-2 victory and 3-1 series lead. At that point, the Rangers were in the midst of an 0-of-36 power-play slump and better off declining penalties and playing the game five-on-five, and that had much to do with Kreider’s absence.
Kreider's going to be a difference-maker in this series, adds Captain Obvious.— Rangers Report (@rangersreport) May 17, 2014
During this four-game winning streak, Kreider has two goals and two assists, including the winning goal against the Canadiens in Game 1. The power play is 6-of-18 over the past four games, and Kreider has been on the ice for four of those goals. He scored the opening goal of Game 5 against the Penguins and has been using his size and strength in front of the net to create a dynamic that was sorely lacking while he was out of the lineup.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was asked during a conference call after Game 3 against the Penguins about what Kreider would bring to the lineup when he returned; he looks quite prescient now.
“(His) size and speed obviously would put pressure on the defense,” Vigneault said. “Obviously Kreids was really good with the net presence on the power play. Him and (Benoit Pouliot), when we were using both of those guys on different units, we were doing a good job there.
“He would definitely bring a lot to our lineup. There’s no doubt there.”
|Chris Kreider's five postseason games|
At even strength, Kreider has also had an impact. In terms of personnel, his return bumped Daniel Carcillo off the second line and gave the Rangers a much more formidable top-six forward group. Carcillo had two big goals during his time playing with the top six, but he doesn’t possess any of the tools of the 6'3", 226-pound speedster.
Kreider’s jets were on display in Game 1 against the Canadiens, as he found himself alone behind the defense on two occasions. He buried a breakaway past Carey Price late in the second period and may have unintentionally done more damage to the Canadiens without scoring a goal when he crashed into Price, who may have suffered a serious right-knee injury, although the team swears he's fine.
In Games 6 and 7 against the Penguins, Kreider had an on-ice five-on-five shot-attempt differential of minus-20 (32-12), as he made his bones during the power play. He was a positive in that regard in Game 1 against the Canadiens (14-13) and has been using his speed to drive back defenders and create space for his linemates.
It's a scary thought for the Canadiens that Kreider, who is one of the more impressive physical specimens in the NHL, could still get better as he shakes off the rust.
"The fortunate thing for Chris is that he's in unbelievable shape," Rangers center Brad Richards said to the media (via Steve Zipay of Newsday) after Kreider's initial return. "He's already one of the strongest hockey players I've ever seen in the gym, so for him to get all that time, where he could continue to work, not to mention how mentally fresh and excited he'd be, he did a good job of channeling all that."
A healthy Chris Kreider might be the reason New York can beat that statistic against teams that play seven in both the first two rounds.— Steve Lepore (@stevelepore) May 17, 2014
The way the passing of St. Louis' mother has unified the Rangers, along with Henrik Lundqvist turning into the NHL's most handsome brick wall, will be the storylines for this team throughout the playoffs, and rightfully so.
But the 23-year-old Kreider has stealthily given the Rangers an offensive lift when they've needed it most.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.