Mika Zibanejad was leaning against the door as Chris Kreider spoke, for emotional support, he said. If it sounded like a joke in the moment, it wasn’t.
When Kreider was asked about Zibanejad — his linemate and close friend — he finally broke.
“It’s a challenge and it’s difficult, but it’s hard to get frustrated in moments like that, because it’s a sign of respect,” Kreider said of opposing teams manipulating matchups to try and stop Zibanejad. Then he paused, his voice choking. “And I couldn’t be more proud of his response. It’s very contagious when your leader, best player on your team, guy that does everything for you, rises to the challenge, night in and night out.”
He couldn’t continue after that.
For the five minutes he could get the words out on Monday afternoon, Kreider talked slowly and deliberately, holding back tears even two days after the Rangers’ season had ended at the hands of the Lightning. The team’s longest-tenured player, who made his debut during the playoffs a decade ago and has seen the franchise through a painful rebuild, knows how hard it can be to make it back to the mountaintop.
By any measure, this was the most successful season of Kreider’s career. His 52 regular-season goals were nearly double what he had scored in any other season. His 62 combined regular and postseason goals tied Adam Graves’ franchise record.
“People talked before I got here that he was inconsistent for 20 games at a time,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “He was consistent from Game 1 right until the end of the season.”
Kreider said Monday that even when the Rangers made deep playoff runs as a matter of course during his first few seasons, he had never seen the city rally around them like it did recently. This group, he said, was special. He and Zibanejad talked about how it felt the same way it did when they were 12 years old and nothing mattered other than trying to win.
“Something that I absolutely loved was the coaches, they were never in their offices,” Kreider said. “They were always together. Guys on the team were always together. It was always a ‘we’ thing. There was never a line drawn in the sand, even when stuff hit the fan and things might not have been necessarily going well.”
He knows how rare that can be. He knows that this group won’t be together again. And he still has not gotten over the fact that it’s over.
“It’s funny,” he said. “You go on a great run like that and so many people reach out and tell you how proud they are of you, of your group. But right now it stings. But it’s hard to be proud a couple days after you get bounced like that.
“But the sting is important. We were just talking about when Tampa lost four straight to Columbus [in the 2019 playoffs]. And [then-Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella] said, ‘We’ve created a monster.’ So I think obviously we felt like we could’ve gone the distance, but that sting is what’s gonna push us over the edge, I think.”