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'Let's Do This, Arizona'

In My Words: Derek Stepan

by Derek Stepan / Special to ArizonaCoyotes.com

Arizona, this will be for you.

First and foremost, I owe you all Coyotes fans a big "Thank you." You stuck with us through some tough times. I came here in 2017, when we matched a dubious NHL record by losing our first 11 games. I knew then that the road ahead was going to be difficult.

I have faced no greater adversity in my NHL career than what I faced at the start of my time, here. That makes this playoff opportunity that much sweeter. We did it together. 

Every year, every game, every home game, I feel the atmosphere at Gila River Arena growing a bit stronger. Thank you for that support, the continued, invaluable support. You deserve some meaningful hockey. If it weren't for COVID-19, I'd give every single one of you a big hug.

Now, let's talk playoffs!

We're where we want to be.

The work starts on Monday -- and we're going to be ready.

I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Postseason hockey. How to explain it? I'm at a loss for words, to be honest. It's almost indescribable. (But I'll try, anyway.)

It's the best time of the year, there's no other way to say it.

This team is built for the challenge. We have the best one-two tandem in net with Darcy and Antti. Our defense? Rock. Solid. Our offense? Potentially dangerous. We've got proven Cup winners, guys with playoff experience, and a fierce crop of young players chomping at the bit.

What will I say to those young guys? Well, there's just no way to really explain the intensity or walk someone through it until you actually experience it. That's what John Tortorella told me my rookie year. And it rings true.

I played my first playoff game in 2011, as a member of the New York Rangers. I had 82 NHL games under my belt, but I still had butterflies and I still was nervous, but it was just different. I had some experience playing in big boy games. But this was something else.

We were in Washington. We were the eighth seed and they were the one seed. The Verizon Center was absolutely buzzing; the building was extremely loud. We had played Washington pretty good throughout the year. It was loud, it was fun, it was exciting, and it's something you don't forget.

We were eliminated in five games. I wasn't happy with my performance. The next year, 2012, we advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. But we lost, again. To be honest, I really struggled through those playoffs, too. My third year, 2013, I was able to find some success, although we lost again, this time to the Bruins in the second round. All of those series were big for me.

If there's a major lesson I've learned, it's that the playoffs will bring growing pains. And some of that pain is more physical than mental.

In Game Six of the 2013 Boston series, I took a slapper off the face. I cut my chin open pretty good. Then, after being eliminated, the team plane was broken. So, we had to bus from Boston back to New York. I had a huge cut on my face and I was swelling up badly.

Pain. That's the price we often pay.

Mine wasn't over.

In Game 3 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals. Brandon Prust. Late hit. High hit. Dirty hit. I got off the ice and was x-rayed. It came up negative. I went back and played the game, 17 more minutes of ice time, actually. After the game I couldn't talk. I was mumbling, I couldn't move my mouth, my jaw. The next day I was diagnosed with a broken jaw.

Brandon Prust Hit on Derek Stepan Suspension 2 games

That next morning, I visited an oral surgeon. He sat me down and took a picture of my jaw. The x-ray thing went around my face. I could see the computer screen, it was maybe two feet to my left. I saw the picture pop up. It was as clear as day: you could see that there was a space between my jaw all the way through.

The doctor looked at me and was like: 'We can get you in this afternoon, get your jaw all fixed up, and we can go from there.'

The doctor told me that there were two options, but he didn't know which might work until he operated on my jaw. He said if I wake up and I'm wired shut, my season was over. The second option was better, though still not pretty -- a metal plate and two bolts. But also more playoff hockey.

I missed Game 4, but I was back for Game 5. I scored two goals. As the games continued, I was lacking my normal energy. I was on a diet of painkillers and soft food. Anybody who's ever been on a soft diet understands how difficult it is to eat. First of all, it takes forever and, second of all, you have limited options. That was the hardest part. I think I lost about 20-25 pounds in a couple of weeks. I was skin and bones. 

We advanced to the Stanley Cup Final after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in six games, metal plate and bolts still in place.

I got to play in the Stanley Cup Final!

We were so close. I was still playing through the broken jaw. I had to dig down real deep into myself and find another level just to get myself going each night.

What an experience. Two really good teams going at it, two really good goaltenders, two solid defensive corps, and forward groups that matched up really well. We lost in five, but we were up in Games One and Two, and we lost three of the games in overtime. They could've gone either way, any of those games. It was a great series. It stings, playing all the way into June and not being able to win your last game is the hardest thing as a player.

(Are you getting as fired-up, as I am?)

In 2015 I scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis. In. Overtime.

Stepan wins Game 7 in overtime for Rangers

That was a hard-fought series and we were down three games to one, and to be able to crawl back into it and win in Game Seven, that made it even more special for me. I remember after Game Four, we were down three games to one going back home and Henrik Lundqvist sat down and was like, "We deserve better than to be down 3 to 1, just keep playing and we'll crawl back into this thing." And we did.

Now, here we go, Arizona. No more tales of the past. Now, it's our time.

There have been a lot of bumps and nicks throughout the road. But we've brought in people who want to build a winning organization, and it takes a lot of time and commitment. I feel like our group is getting close to being consistent winners. In order to do that, we have to continue to work. There were some dark days at the beginning, but I think we all kind of knew what we were in for, but we stuck together. 

I think all of it happened for a reason. I think we were able to build some character through all of it.

And, now it's our time. So, let's do this!

Lead Photo Credit: Christian Petersen - Getty Images // Second Photo Credit: Norm Hall - NHLI via Getty Images // Third Photo Credit: Christian Petersen - Getty Images // Fourth Photo Credit: Greg Fiume - Getty Images // Fifth Photo Credit: Francois Laplante - FreestylePhoto via Getty Images // Sixth Photo Credit: Paul Bereswill - Getty Images // Footer Photo Credit: Tyler Rittenhouse - Arizona Coyotes

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