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New York Rangers' Chris Kreider, left, struggles with New Jersey Devils' Bryce Salvador as Devils goalie Martin Brodeur blocks a shot during the second period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference final playoff series, Monday, May 21, 2012, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) (Kathy Willens/AP)
New York Rangers' Chris Kreider, left, struggles with New Jersey Devils' Bryce Salvador as Devils goalie Martin Brodeur blocks a shot during the second period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference final playoff series, Monday, May 21, 2012, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) (Kathy Willens/AP)

ROY MacGREGOR

Rangers' college kid makes the grade Add to ...

“That was in the early '80s, right?”

Well, no. It wasn't. But how can you blame a kid who wasn't born until 1991? Born one day and 20 years after Ken Dryden led his Montreal Canadiens into the 1971 Stanley Cup finals by defeating the Minnesota North Stars in six games.

Dryden's heroics – Montreal had already dispatched the defending-champion Boston Bruins – would then lead to a seventh-game victory in the finals over the powerful Chicago Blackhawks. It would also mean the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP for the Montreal goaltender, a college kid who was not yet technically an NHL rookie.

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It doesn't matter when New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider thinks all this happened, he does know that magic sometimes comes to the unknown in hockey playoffs and that he, like Ken Dryden 41 years ago, is living through one of those rare experiences.

Both were college stars – Dryden at Cornell, Kreider at Boston College – and each joined his team very late in the season: Dryden to play only six regular-season games before the playoffs began, Kreider just in time for Rangers' opening round against the Ottawa Senators.

Dryden had already won the starting position by the time the postseason got under way; Kreider was skating with the “Black Aces,” presumed to be there for the experience alone.

The Rangers added Kreider to the lineup for Game 3 against the Senators and he scored in the first NHL game he ever played.

In the conference final against the stingy New Jersey Devils and future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, he scored in the first three games – giving him five goals in 14 playoff games, now five in 15 following the Rangers' 4-1 loss Monday night in Newark.

Already, Kreider has established a new NHL record for goal scoring by a player yet to play a regular-season game – a record that had stood since Eddie (Spider) Mazur scored four times for the Montreal Canadiens 20 years before Dryden's debut and 40 years before Chris Kreider was born in Boxford, Mass.

“I don't know about that,” Kreider says of any comparisons. “It's a completely different situation.”

It is, of course. Different eras, different positions – but instant-college-to-pro-stardom stories in hockey are rare enough that the similarities are noted. It does not happen often. Rob Blake left college and played wonderfully for the Los Angeles Kings in the 1990 playoffs; Chris Chelios and Ken Morrow were college stars who had impressive playoffs.

That Kreider would make a good NHLer was widely predicted. Twice he led Boston College to the NCAA title. He was chosen MVP of the famous Beanpot Tournament. He held his own with NHLers at last year's world championship in Slovakia.

The statistic that is most surprising about Kreider, however, is his size. He is listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, yet in a dressing room he projects himself as roughly 5-foot-2 and 99 pounds. He speaks so softly even a tape recorder bouncing off his nostrils picks up little. He sits, slouches, in his locker, head down, barely mumbling until the impatient crowd gives up.

On the ice, however, his presence is undeniable, but far more for his astounding speed than his size. He also has remarkable eye-hand co-ordination, able to knock down passes and tip point shots with uncanny accuracy.

“I don't think there is a faster skater out there on either team,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella says. “He's instinctive. The puck follows him. I think his legs get him where he wants to be as far as getting to pucks.”

As for Kreider's character, Tortorella shrugs. “I don't know the kid at all. I've probably spoken to him three or four times since he's been here.

“We're not doing a lot of teaching and a lot of structure with him. It's just the wrong time. There's enough things going through his head where we just want him to play. He's had some breakdowns away from the puck. Those are things we've tried to teach a little bit, but not too much.”

Tortorella's highly structured, defence-first coaching style has had some joking that Kreider could win the Conn Smythe this spring and by late next fall be a “healthy scratch,” as defence first is not Kreider's natural inclination.

“I'm eager to learn,” he says. “Very eager to learn. I'm just trying to focus as hard as I can.”

Tortorella claims his critics do not understand his coaching technique. “Offensively,” he says, “we try to get of their way. Maybe if he's more seasoned, if he's coached, we might screw him up. I don't know how to look at it. Right now he's doing some good things for us, and we're going to leave him the hell alone.”

“I'm trying just to play and not think too much on the ice or off the ice,” Kreider says. “I just go out there and play so I don't screw myself up.”

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist says Kreider has nothing to worry about. “Everybody's here for a reason,” Lundqvist says. “They're not here because we think a guy's going to be good next year or two years down the line.

“He's here and playing because he's good right now.”

And who knows, next year he might be even better.

And, like Ken Dryden, win rookie-of-the-year honours a year after starring in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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