Rookie Kevin Hayes proves his worth in playoffs

NEW YORK -- The Rangers’ Chris Kreider remembers what it’s like to be a rookie forward trying to prove himself, and it gives him an appreciation for the skills rookie Kevin Hayes has shown in his first playoff series.

Kreider recalled his first NHL playoff game vividly. It was almost exactly three years ago, in the spring of 2012, when he got the call.

New York forward Carl Hagelin had been suspended. Kreider was going into the lineup, a little more than a week removed from winning the NCAA championship with Boston College, without so much as a single game of NHL experience.

There was little to prepare him for what followed. The media crush surrounded him in Ottawa as cameras jostled for position and reporters hammered him with questions about his debut. He stared down in amazement at the New York Rangers jersey when he put it on before the game. His linemates were Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, veteran players who had already established themselves as premier goal scorers in the league.

And then there was the pace, the intensity and the physical toll of the game itself, which literally made him sick.

“I remember skating as hard as I possibly [could] every single shift, just gassed after the first period, physically nauseous in between periods because I was working so hard,” Kreider said. “I thought that was what playoff hockey was about. It is, to a certain extent, but you have to pick your spots.”

Although Hayes was not thrown right into the fire of playoff hockey like Kreider was, Hayes has proved he can hang with the top players. As a centerman, that’s even more impressive, Kreider noted, especially considering the quality of pivots on the opposing bench.

“He’s driving possession. He’s driving play. He kills penalties. He’s been great on the [faceoff] dot. And he’s playing against Sidney Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and [Brandon] Sutterup the middle,” Kreider said. “Kev’s done a great job playing against them.”

Hayes enters this postseason after a phenomenal rookie campaign in which he recorded 17 goals and finished with 45 points for the Rangers. But that’s rendered pretty meaningless unless you can produce in the playoffs, as well.

So when Hayes notched the overtime game winner in Game 4 on Wednesday night, allowing the Rangers to take a 3-1 stranglehold in their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was a pretty firm statement by the 22-year-old forward. The two teams go at it Friday night for Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers leading the series 3-1.

“I think it’s huge for our team. He’s been a big part of our success this year,” center Derick Brassard said. “I didn’t really know about him before the season. He came here and opened a lot of eyes. For him to get that goal, I think that’s going to be a big confidence booster for him for the rest of the playoffs.”

Hayes’ success must feel like winning with house money for the Rangers, who signed him as a free agent after he chose to part ways with the Chicago Blackhawks, the organization that drafted him 24th overall in 2010. It was regarded as an organizational home run for the Rangers, and it also helped ease some of the pain of parting with a pair of first-round draft picks the past two trade deadlines.

Hayes felt like he’d get more of an opportunity to play with a Rangers team that needed depth down the middle, and he has made good on a prime opportunity to prove he belongs.

He has thrived recently on a line with Martin St. Louis and Hagelin, and he was a factor in the Rangers dominance during the regular season, during which they clinched the Presidents' Trophy as the league’s top points finisher.

“High-end skill and high hockey IQ,” said one Western Conference scout of Hayes’ play. “Just scratching the surface.”

St. Louis, the well-respected veteran whose name is already engraved on the Stanley Cup, has taken the youngster under his wing and given him plenty of feedback along the way. But St. Louis didn’t want to bog Hayes down with too much advice once the playoffs began.

“You don’t want to overwhelm him,” St. Louis told ESPN.com. “You almost want to downplay it a little bit. You adjust as the series goes. It’s a learning process for him to get his feet wet, to get his reps in the trenches. He’s doing fine.”

The first two games were not Hayes’ best, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault pointed out following Thursday’s practice, but he has improved steadily as the series progressed.

That’s what you want to see in the progression of a young player performing under such circumstances, and so the Rangers are pleased with what they have seen in how he has responded.

“Kevin, throughout the series, has been getting better,” Vigneault said. “The Kevin that we saw the first couple of games was not as crisp and sharp as he had been in the regular season. I thought that [Wednesday] as the game went on, he got better and, obviously, he was able to score us that very important goal in [Game 4].

“It’s not easy for a player. There’s a lot of scrutiny. As a coach, you’ve got to give that guys a little bit of rope to learn. At this time, in these moments, you’re walking that fine line.”

Hayes said he wasn’t surprised by what the playoffs brought in terms of a different level of pressure and intensity. He expected as much.

“It’s a lot different,” Hayes said. “There’s a lot less room; you just have to adjust to it. I thought last night was one of my better games of the series, and hopefully it just keeps getting better.”

Hayes expects to have a family rooting section for Game 5 for some extra encouragement. His older brother Jimmy, who plays for the Florida Panthers, attended Games 1 and 2 at Madison Square Garden.

“He thought it was awesome,” Hayes said. “He’s probably the biggest Rangers fan right now.”