Prior to Monday's Game 6 in Ottawa, Rangers forward Derek Stepan had zero points in five playoff games this season. His decision making was off, he struggled when passing the puck and he had very little confidence to shoot, especially on the powerplay. Quickly he saw a decrease in ice time from head coach John Tortorella, which is obviously going to be the consequence when you do not perform in the playoffs. It was an all around struggle for the 21-year-old out of Minnesota, and it only looked to get worse each game.
For the Rangers, this was a meaningful loss because now one of their top five scorers suddenly became irrelevant, along with some of the other top guys such as Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky. Remember, Stepan finished fourth on the team in scoring during the regular season, registering 54 points just behind Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards and Gaborik. To not have him maintain such productivity in the playoffs hurt the Blueshirts and threw off the secondary scoring for sure.
On Monday night, however, we did not see the postseason-timid player that showed up for games one through five. Instead we saw the Derek Stepan of old, who excelled in all areas of the ice earlier this year to climb up the scoring chart for the Rangers. By no coincidence, the Blueshirts scored three goals in their 3-2 win over the Senators, and Stepan registered a point on each of them, including one that he actually scored. He was, in my opinion, the club's top performer in Game 6.
The first goal of the game for New York, which tied things at one at the time, came on the powerplay. This was the play that Brad Richards orchestrated from the boards, but it was Stepan, who was at the point at the time, that made a perfect read to cut to the net and deflect Richards' pass behind Crag Anderson to get his club back in the tilt in a do-or-die game.
On the second goal, again on the powerplay, Stepan and Del Zotto combined to make a play to get the puck to Richards all alone at the circle. Richards would then blast home the tally that put the Rangers up, 2-1. Once again, Stepan playing a big part with the man advantage, which is why John Tortorella places him at the point in the first place. His playmaking abilities, when top-notch, are incomparable.
Lastly, for Step's nicest point on the night, he made an unbelievable feed through traffic in the slot to rookie Chris Kreider, who sniped his firs NHL goal for what turned out to be the game-winner. That pass right there is why Stepan is such a dangerous player for this hockey team. There are only two other players on this team that can made a feed like that, and those are Richards and Del Zotto (maybe). That was an unreal pass.
Stepan and Kreider definitely had some chemistry brewing in that game as well, along with winger Ryan Callahan. Those two played together on the United States U18 team in the 2010 World Juniors, remember, and they went on to win a Gold Medal. So there is certainly some familiarity between the two and it showed on Monday night. That could be a potential threatening duo for New York if they continue to grow as a pair from here.
But now you can see the difference Derek has in the lineup when performing. It may not always seem like it, but Stepan is a top guy on this team, both offensively and defensively. I truly believe he will need to be key for the Rangers if they have the desire to go anywhere in these playoffs, especially now that he's skating on the second line.
Hopefully 21 racks up another three points in the most important game of his young career on Thursday.