After spending 10 minutes speaking with the media during his exit interviews, Rangers star center Mika Zibanejad snuck in behind his teammate Chris Kreider, who was about to take the podium.
“I’m here for emotional support,” Zibanejad joked.
Except it wasn’t a joke, as Kreider — the man who scored 52 goals during the regular season and created a fearsome dynamic duo on Zibanejad’s wing — had to hold back tears when talking about his linemate and friend.
“I couldn’t be more proud his response,” Kreider said of Zibanejad’s performance in the playoffs, where he was a priority of every opposing team’s defense.
And then he needed a moment to compose himself, his voice shaky yet prideful — a change in pace after refusing to say that he was proud of how far his team came against all the expectations this season.
“It’s very contagious when your leader,” he began, “your best player on the team, the guy who does everything for you, rises to the challenge.”
It had been less than 48 hours since the Rangers had been eliminated in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final by the two-time defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning, where the two were just as emotional in the moments after the game
“It kind of comes in waves,” Zibanejad said moments earlier. “Hard time thinking about it without getting emotional again… I have to take whatever time to get over this and be able to use this as motivation going into next year. But I really haven’t dealt with it yet.”
While goaltender Igor Shesterkin has gotten most of the deserved credit for the Rangers’ run, the team doesn’t go nearly as far as they did without Kreider and Zibanejad providing the foundation of the first line.
Zibanejad scored the most points in a single postseason (24) in Rangers franchise history since Brian Leetch and Mark Messier accrued 34 and 30 respectively in 1994. He and Kreider are also just the second set of teammates in team history to each record 10 goals or more in a single postseason — the first being Leetch, Messier, and Adam Graves in that Cup-winning ’94 campaign.
Their performance was a proper carry-over from the regular season where Kreider scored the second-most goals in franchise history in one season while Zibanejad posted a career-high 81 points. It was also yet another indication that the two continue to thrive together both on and off the ice.
Such a bond was none more obvious after Game 3 when Zibanejad was asked about the shift that ultimately led to Ondrej Palat’s game-winner for the Lightning with just 41.6 seconds left in regulation. Kreider immediately put his hand on his teammate’s arm and took the question, putting the blame on his shoulders and deflecting any attention on Zibanejad.
“He was the only guy who was here when I got traded here. Having that relationship puts things into perspective,” Zibanejad said. “I feel like we can give each other the same advice. Like I could give him the same advice he’s going to give me a week later. Just having that relationship allows you to demand more from each other on the ice…
“I feel like that’s been a big part of our group and as a team.”
It’s also bringing innocence and joy to the Blueshirts — one that isn’t seen too often at the NHL level.
“It felt like you were 12 years old just playing sports to try and win,” Kreider said. “You’re not getting caught up on a bad shift or bad game. You have an opportunity to win the game. That’s all that mattered. As long as we continue to concentrate on that, we’ll continue to have success.”