MONTREAL – Not even a broken jaw could slow down Derek Stepan.
With his face covered in a plexiglass shield, New York’s Stepan scored twice in his return from injury in a wild 7-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final on Tuesday. The Rangers still lead the best-of-seven series 3-2.
Montreal’s Brandon Prust, who was suspended two games by the league for the incident, broke Stepan’s jaw in Game 3 of the series when he served a late hit to the Ranger forward in open ice. Stepan remained in the game, but had surgery the following day. He was absent for Game 4 on Sunday.
The New York centreman had recorded three goals and eight assists in the playoffs prior to the injury. He added another two goals on Tuesday, despite the cumbersome face protector.
Stepan scored New York’s first of the night, tying the game 1-1 midway through the first period on a floater from the blue-line that banked off rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski’s post and in.
With the Canadiens leading 4-2 in the second, Stepan benefited from a goal-mouth scramble in front of Tokarski to cash in his second of the night. The goal was the second of three scored by the Rangers within 4:24 in the heart of the second period.
“He’s had a tough stretch,” said teammate Rick Nash of Stepan’s week. “I thought he played a great game. He was solid. Whatever he’s been through in the last couple of days, it’s pretty impressive that he was right back at it.”
“It says a lot about his character and about his willingness to want to come out and help the team,” added defenceman Dan Girardi. “He played a great game tonight for us and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t get the win with him in the lineup.”
Montreal’s win means the series returns to New York for Game 6 on Thursday, where the Rangers will again attempt to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994—when they last hoisted the Cup. The Rangers are 12-1 in the playoffs when leading three games to one.
The Canadiens foiled their plan early, scoring within the game’s first two minutes to take the lead. With the Habs up 4-1 in the second, New York stormed back with three straight goals before Rene Bourque, who scored a hat trick on the night, beat Cam Talbot for the game-winner at 15:10 of the middle frame.
“It was a bizarre game,” said Brad Richards. “It seemed whoever got the last shot in that second period was going to be up by a goal. Strange period.”
Talbot came into the game eight minutes into the second after Bourque’s first of the night and sixth of the playoffs gave the Canadiens the 4-1 lead and chased Lundqvist from the game. The Swedish goaltender gave up four goals on 14 shots before getting the hook—his worst performance of the series.
Lundqvist entered the game leading all NHL netminders in the playoffs in goals-against-average (1.98) and save percentage (.931).
After Tuesday’s thrashing, his goals-against-average jumped to 2.05, and his save percentage dropped to .925.
“I was just not good enough,” said Lundqvist. “It’s hard to analyze it this quickly. It’s a combination of a couple of things. Bottom line: all of us have to be better, starting with me.
“I was just trying to be patient and be in a good position, but the battle level has to be better. I have to be quicker. I was a little slow. As a group, we have to come back with a better performance. There’s a lot of focus on me, but we all have to step up.”
Tokarksi fared slightly better. Tokarksi made 23 saves on 27 shots for his second playoff victory. The rookie goaltender has otherwise been solid since Carey Price’s knee injury, posting a .917 save percentage in three starts before Tuesday’s contest.
The high-scoring affair was soured by a late hit by the Rangers’ John Moore on Dale Weise, not entirely dissimilar from the hit that broke Stepan’s jaw. Moore was given a five-minute major penalty on the ice, and a match penalty.
After the game, Lundqvist was quickly ready to put the whole thing behind him.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “They had more desperation. It’s going to hurt for a couple of hours, and then you start preparing for the next one. Back to New York and try to come back with a better performance.
“We’re a good team. And when we play at our best, we’re a really good team. We just have to go back to New York and work on a few things. It’s going to be exciting and a great challenge for us.”
Notes: Price skated in full gear on Tuesday an hour before the Canadiens’ practice.…Prust served the second of his two-game suspension. Defenceman Alexei Emelin was out due to an unspecified injury.…Martin St. Louis’ six-game point streak was snapped.…Montreal has come back from a 3-1 series deficit twice in its history (2004 and 2010).…The Habs have not advanced to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993.…Montreal is now 5-3 at the Bell Centre in the post-season.