NEW YORK -- During the regular season, it was Derek Stepan who was the primary facilitator when Rick Nash found the back of the net for the New York Rangers, assisting on 13 of Nash's team-leading 26 goals.
But in a sudden role reversal, Nash has become the passer and Stepan the scorer on a top line that has led New York to a 2-1 lead in its Eastern Conference First Round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Nash leads the Rangers with four assists and Stepan is tied for the team lead with two goals entering Game 4 against the Flyers on Friday at Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN, RDS, MSG, CSN-PH). That unlikely shift has allowed each player to move on from their respective disappointments in the postseason last year.
"It's just kind of worked out that way, I think," Stepan said. "With the way our line has played as a group, I think we've worked hard and done a good job of trying to make sure that we're playing on the right side of the puck, and then let our offense come from there."
Nash and Stepan spent much of the season skating with wing Chris Kreider, but Martin St. Louis joined the line when the Rangers rookie was sidelined with a hand injury last month. The rebuilt trio has enjoyed success on the power play and at 5-on-5, with St. Louis and Stepan tying for the team lead with two playoff goals apiece.
Stepan gradually started to shoot more as the regular season wound down, but the revelation may be Nash. Known his entire career as a shoot-first scorer, Nash has looked to pass more and even earned minutes killing penalties after he won gold with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"He's an elite player. Elite players find ways to help teams win games. Rick has done that for us," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "He has the most game-winning goals on our team, for the last couple of months of the season I've been using him to kill penalties. He's been a good player for us. He needs to continue to be a good player for us."
Nash and Stepan both earned assists on St. Louis' opening goal in Game 2 on Sunday, setting up a picture-perfect 3-on-2 rush. New York lost the game after getting off to an early 2-0 lead, but that group appears to have found chemistry as Nash and Stepan have added versatility to their games.
With a combined seven points in three games, Nash and Stepan are enjoying a nice turnaround following a frustrating 2013 postseason in which the Boston Bruins eliminated the Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In 12 playoff games last year, they combined for 10 points, including one goal for Nash and one assist for Stepan.
Looking to move past the Flyers, they have put that difficult playoff run behind them.
"You learn from it, you gather what you felt you did in the last postseason and you move on. Everything that I've done in the postseason I've learned from. Then you forget about it and you start learning from this one," Stepan said. "If you had a dominant postseason last year, it doesn’t carry over to this postseason. It's a brand new one."
Any suggestions that Nash and Stepan alternate their on-ice roles didn't come from Vigneault, who insisted at no point has he asked Nash to shoot less. But the Rangers coach did not rule out the possibility of that conversation taking place between Stepan, St. Louis and Nash, who now has two goals in 19 career playoff games.
The goals haven't come yet for Nash, but his current three-game playoff point streak matches the career-high he established last year. Stepan is reaping the benefits of Nash's passing and is happy to dispel the myth the five-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist can only score goals.
"I certainly don't think that [Nash] is not a passer. He's an elite player and he makes great plays," Stepan said. "Don't let yourself get fooled by his stats this season. He makes a lot of good plays. Fortunately I've been on the other end of a couple of them."
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