Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider chemistry driving Rangers

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TAMPA, Fla. — Maybe they are not Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Perhaps not Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, either.

But in Rangerstown, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad are starring in the longest running Buddy movie around.

The chemistry they have developed on the ice over their six shared years in New York has been one of the Blueshirts’ driving forces in their run to the conference final that continued here with Tuesday’s Game 4, each having a share of the team goal-scoring lead at 10.

But it is the connection the club’s two senior players have forged off the ice that seems even more special. You see it every time they are together, sitting side-by-side in a postgame media availability.

You see how protective Kreider is of his friend and linemate, with whom the winger has shared 73-percent of his five-on-five ice time over the last three years including the 2020 bubble and this tournament.

The latest example came following Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to the Lightning in which Zibanejad, Kreider and linemate Frank Vatrano were on the ice for Ondrej Palat’s winning goal just 42 seconds away from overtime.

A question about the goal was directed to Zibanejad, who’d been with Palat when the Tampa Bay winger — who previously had tormented the Rangers in the 2015 conference final — accepted a gorgeous feed from Nikita Kucherov before beating Igor Shesterkin from low in the right circle.

But even as the question had not been quite completed, Kreider extended his hand to Zibanejad and indicated he would respond. When he did, No. 20 took full responsibility for the goal, outlining the decisions he had made against the ones he should have made.

Zibanejad remained mum.

“I didn’t know Chris said it was his fault,” head coach Gerard Gallant said hours before Game 4. “I don’t think it was his fault, they made a hell of a play. They made two great passes and a great play to score the goal.

“But Chris is a leader on our team, he’s a character guy, he wants to battle hard and win. He’s played really well in the playoffs for us. I just think he wants to step up and say, ‘It’s my fault,’ whether it was or not.”

This is the Zen Kreider who has evolved over his decade in New York. This is the Kreider who has soaked up life-skills wisdom imparted by Martin St. Louis, among others. And this was hardly the first time the winger had spoken up for his teammate.

Rangers forward Chris Kreider celebrates with Mika Zibanejad after he scored a goal in the second period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final on Sunday, June 5, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Rangers forward Chris Kreider celebrates with Mika Zibanejad after he scored a goal in the second period of Game 3.
Corey Sipkin/New York Post

He did it through last season, when Zibanejad was rendered unrecognizable much of the way after the Swede had been infected with a case of COVID-19 just prior to training camp. Kreider at one point launched into a passionate, unsolicited defense of his center via a Zoom conference call. He has continued to campaign for his center throughout this season.

There was, of course, the scenario in Game 6 of the Pittsburgh series when Zibanejad hit the post on a breakaway and checked the iPad upon returning to the bench only to have it snatched out of his hands by Kreider, who threw it to the floor. When asked about it after the match, Kreider took the question and basically said he didn’t want Zibanejad second-guessing himself.

Of course, it was Kreider who relentlessly beat himself up throughout his career. He wants none of that for Zibanejad. This is more than a representation of being a leader or a good teammate.

This is a representation of empathy.

“Those two guys, definitely, they have a strong relationship. Definitely,” Gallant said. “They like each other a lot, they play together a lot, obviously.

“I think there’s a great bond there.”

There has been a Line 1A/1B format with the Rangers for the longest time, back to the last generation of deep runs that featured co-equal centers in Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard. That continues to apply with Kreider and Zibanejad on one unit while Artemi Panarin skates on another.

But Zibanejad and Kreider — with Adam Fox at the back — are the club’s offensive engine. When they struggle, as they have on the road at five-on-five when matched by checking lines in Carolina and here in this series, their team struggles.

That is the shared burden the two friends share, as well, throughout this run in which Zibanejad’s 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) are three shy of the single playoff season best by a Swedish-born player that is shared by Henrik Zetterberg, Peter Forsberg and Pelle Eklund; and Kreider has both tied Adam Graves’ club record for most combined goals in a season at 62 and tied Rod Gilbert’s franchise record for career playoff goals at 34.

After every victory, Zibanejad and Kreider are the last two Rangers to leave the ice. They do so after embracing. Maybe they’re not Brady and Gronk. Maybe they’re not Durant and Irving. But they are starring in the longest running Buddy movie around.

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