The injury bug has been all around the Eastern Conference Finals, and the latest victim is New York Rangers center Derek Stepan. He was skating through the neutral zone when he was blindsided by Brandon Prust with a hit to the head. Stepan returned to the game after the hit but is now going to be sidelined with a broken jaw.
There are many things that come out of this. For one, it certainly intensifies the series and we can expect extremely physical play now that each side has lost key players. The Montreal Canadiens lost starting goalie Carey Price in Game 1.
The biggest factor that comes out of Stepan’s injury is the Rangers are suddenly very thin at the center ice position. New York’s third-line center Derick Brassard suffered an injury in the opening minutes of Game 1 and has not played since. Stepan’s injury puts extra pressure on Brassard to return as fast as possible.
At full strength the Rangers usually have five centers in their lineup, with Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore both playing the fourth line. Brassard’s injury caused Moore to be the third-line center and have Boyle center the fourth line. Now it appears coach Alain Vigneault has some more line shuffling to do.
Aside from having enough bodies to fill the lineup, Stepan’s loss is huge and he’ll be difficult to replace. Stepan is tied for second on the team in scoring during the playoffs with 11 points in 17 games. He developed into a leadership role on the team during the regular season and posted a career-high 57 points.
Stepan is one of the best passers on the Rangers and is usually the setup man for his two talented line-mates, Chris Kreider and Rick Nash. Kreider and Nash provide the speed and skill while Stepan makes great passes to set them up. The Rangers will have to juggle their lines to make it work, especially if Brassard doesn’t return for Game 4.
Stepan is also a valuable asset in the faceoff circle, which is very important in the playoffs. The Rangers need Brassard to return for Game 4, but it still won’t make up for Stepan’s absence. Prust will have a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety and may be suspended considering his hit resulted in an injured player.
If Prust does get suspended, it won’t matter much. The only thing that matters is New York’s first-line center is out. For how long no one knows, but the Rangers need to survive without him and concentrate on regaining the momentum in this series.