Derek Stepan may not be a household name up here in Canada, but there’s no question he’s a key part of what the New York Rangers try to do every night.
Only Marty St. Louis plays more minutes a game up front, with Stepan logging five minutes a game on special teams (including 3:37 on the power play) and playing with winger Rick Nash on a line that gets most of the team’s heavy lifting.
Whether or not Stepan is able to play in Game 5, however, remains up in the air.
After missing Game 4 on the weekend with a broken jaw suffered in Game 3, he skated Tuesday morning at the Bell Centre with a jaw protector added to his helmet, prompting most in the building to speculate he’ll play despite his recent surgery to affix plates onto the jawbone.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault didn’t sound nearly as certain.
“There are a lot of things that have to happen for him to play tonight,” Vigneault said. “We are going to talk to him this afternoon and see how he reacted to the practice. Nutrition, obviously, is an issue at this time, so later on today we’ll talk to our doctors and we’ll talk to him and we’ll see how it works out.”
Stepan wasn’t made available to the media after his short skate, so it fell to his teammates to answer Stepan-related questions.
How did he look? How did he feel?
Can he eat? Can he talk? Can he dance?
(The last one may or may not have happened.)
Defenceman Ryan McDonagh must have faced two dozen of them before being rescued by the PR staff, in the latest example of how crazy the coverage of this series has become with 250-plus media on hand.
“He’s just taking each day as a new one,” McDonagh said of Stepan’s approach. “I think he’s feeling a bit better.
“I don’t know about [eating] normal food. I know he’s using a straw a lot more though.
“I don’t know how he felt after this morning. He’s already gone. But I think it’s a great sign that he’s able to join the rest of the group here in the skate.
“It would be huge [if he can play]… We’d be pretty excited to have him.”
You get the idea.
The Rangers are an interesting case in that they roll four lines more than probably any other team in the league, with every forward playing between 10 and 14 minutes at even strength (generally speaking) and some of them very accustomed to playing together.
Stepan between Rick Nash and Chris Kreider was New York’s most frequently used line during the season, and Derick Brassard with Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello has had that designation during the playoffs.
Having both Stepan and Brassard – who returned from a suspected shoulder injury to great effect in Game 4, where he scored a key goal – healthy would allow Vigneault to finally get back to the combinations everyone’s accustomed to, potentially a significant boost as they try to eliminate Montreal.
The question, however, is whether it’s worth risking Stepan’s health to play considering the Rangers are up two games in the series.
They played well enough without him last game that the smart move is likely to keep him out at least until Game 6, giving him more time to heal and eat.
Teams this deep in the postseason don’t always make the smart move with injuries, but my sense here is they just might.
“He’s a good, young player that is a big part of our team,” Vigneault said. “He plays huge minutes, plays 5-on-5, power play, penalty killing. He’s the only right-handed faceoff guy...
“The only way he’s going to play tonight is if he gets full medical clearance. That’s not going to be up to him. It’s going to be up to our medical staff to make sure that they feel he can play.”