NEW YORK – Chris Kreider is six games into his NHL career and days shy of his 21st birthday.
And yet the Stanley Cup playoffs are anything but overwhelming for the newest New York Rangers forward who has quickly become a hit on Broadway.
Kreider scored the go-ahead goal and then set up Brad Richards' insurance tally 90 seconds later in the third period to lift New York to a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday in the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Kreider, who earlier this month helped Boston College win the NCAA championship, scored the second goal of his NHL career — and these playoffs — and he did it at the perfect time to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead 7:00 into the third.
Both Kreider's goals have been playoff game-winners. He also had the deciding marker in New York's Game 6 victory at Ottawa when the Rangers played the first of two potential elimination games in the first round.
"I'm kind of at a loss for words," Kreider said. "I'm just trying to keep my head down and work hard. Whether or not the puck goes in, I'm just trying to play the same role I play every night and be consistent and be defensively reliable."
Kreider got into the Rangers lineup only because fellow rookie Carl Hagelin was suspended for three games when he elbowed Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson in Game 2. Kreider's play kept him on the ice even after Hagelin returned, and he is just one goal off the team lead through eight games of the playoffs.
Despite not yet playing a regular-season game, Kreider is already hearing his name celebrated at Madison Square Garden. He is the first player to win an NCAA title and make his NHL debut in that year's playoffs since John Byce did it with Boston in 1990.
"It's a surreal experience," said Kreider, whose birthday is on Monday — the same day as Game 2. "I got goose bumps, obviously. I was really tired after the goal, but I didn't feel so tired when they started chanting."
Richards made it a two-goal lead off a feed from Kreider, and gave a two-fisted punch into the glass behind goalie Braden Holtby to celebrate his third goal of the playoffs. It marked the first time that Washington trailed by two goals in the playoffs.
Henrik Lundqvist earned the win, and needed to make only 17 saves to do it. The Rangers mustered just 14 shots on Holtby, but scored on two in a row to put the game away.
Artem Anisimov scored in the second period for the Rangers, who played without injured forwards Brian Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky. Boyle missed his third straight game because of a concussion sustained in Game 5 of the first-round series against Ottawa. Dubinsky was hurt in the third period Thursday night when New York edged the Senators 2-1 to win Game 7.
Defenseman Steve Eminger returned from injury to fill in, and saw limited action as a forward.
Jason Chimera scored the lone goal for the Capitals to tie it 1-1 in the closing seconds of the second period. Washington was coming off a seven-game victory over Boston in the first round.
The Rangers are trying to exact a measure of revenge against the Capitals, who eliminated New York from the playoffs last year and in 2009. The seventh-seeded Capitals have won four of the six previous postseason meetings, and they split four regular-season games this season against the East's top-seeded team.
Capitals star Alex Ovechkin felt the brunt of the venom from the fans, who booed him and sent derisive chants in his direction several times during the game.
"Two mistakes cost us in goals," Ovechkin said. "We talk about how we have to play much better and we have to step up. It's only one game. (Monday) it's going to be a new day, and we have to stay tight."
Derek Stepan made a crisp pass out of his end to Kreider. Capitals defenseman Mike Green aborted a trip to the bench and raced to get back into position, but Kreider ripped a drive past Holtby before Green could stop him.
"We need to be more aggressive," Green said. "We were a little bit on our heels."
Kreider changed his game plan because he was at the end of an exhausting shift.
"There was an opening, so I thought I'd hit it, and Stepan made a nice pass," he said. "The minute I got it, I would usually try to take that to the net, but I had to pull up since I was so tired. I was just trying to get it on net."
Holtby said he was fooled by Kreider's release on the shot.
Then Kreider foiled the Capitals with a pass.
Richards dived to keep the puck in the Washington end at the left point and then took a feed from Kreider from along the side boards. Richards made a shifty move in front of Holtby and put a shot past him to make it 3-1.
Washington nearly got that one back, but Green's long drive was deflected by teammate Nicklas Backstrom off the post soon after.
The Capitals had grabbed momentum with only 5.1 seconds left in the second period and silenced the rocking crowd when Chimera took a cross-crease pass from Brooks Laich and deftly sneaked the puck between Lundqvist's pads.
Chimera has quieted the Garden crowd before. He netted the winning goal in double overtime of last year's Game 4 that gave the Capitals a 3-1 series lead en route to a victory in five games. His latest goal knocked out the remaining buzz created by Anisimov's series-opening tally with 7:22 remaining in the second.
"That could have hurt us big time, but we came in here, regrouped, talked about staying patient and just let the game come to us," Lundqvist said. "Coming from that Game 7, such an emotional and big win, it was important for us to regroup and start all over. This team doesn't give up much so we have to be smart with pucks. They kind of wait for mistakes, so the key for us is not to make too many."
Anisimov's goal was reminiscent of the one scored by Stephane Matteau that ended the 1994 Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey, the last time the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. Matteau was in attendance Saturday and was shown on the center ice video board — flashing his championship ring — just moments before Anisimov made it 1-0.
NOTES: New York has won Game 1 in five of its past eight series. The Rangers are 31-11 when winning the opener, including six of the past seven. ... The Rangers managed only eight shots through two periods, compared to 13 for Washington, and just three were recorded by forwards. ... Eminger, who logged 4:25 of ice time in four shifts, missed the previous 19 games because of an injury sustained on March 15 against Pittsburgh. ... Washington won three road games in its first-round series against Boston. All seven games of that series were decided by one goal.