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Derek Stepan critical of his play for Rangers in playoffs

Center one of multiple forwards who needs to improve against Senators in second round

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

OTTAWA -- The question posed to New York Rangers center Derek Stepan was about the need for more offense from forwards Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, who have come under criticism for lack of production during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Stepan instead made the answer about himself. He was right to do so.

"I've stunk since the playoffs started," Stepan said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Rangers vs. Senators series coverage]

 

It's a harsh but fair self-assessment for a player in the Rangers' top-six forward group who has two points, including an empty-net goal, through seven games.

Stepan has double the amount of points that Kreider, Hayes and Miller each has, but he can't point fingers at anyone else before turning them on himself.

"I've been not very good with the puck," Stepan said. "I've worked extremely hard to try to defend the right way and get myself in the right positions. But when that puck is on my stick, I have not been all that sharp with it. I don't know why."

He better figure it out. Same for the other three.

The Rangers are down 1-0 to the Ottawa Senators in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series with Game 2 at Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports 2). They won't go much further in this postseason if four of their top offensive players can't find their offense.

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"I'm all over the map," Stepan said. "It stinks. It's not fun not playing well. You want to be a part of it. You want to help. But like I said, I just have not been good."

It's actually somewhat surprising and quite telling for how good goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh have been that the Rangers have gotten this far with a combined five points in seven games from Miller, Stepan, Kreider and Hayes, their second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-leading scorers during the regular season, respectively.

For comparison's sake, forward Tanner Glass, who has been scratched the past four games, has one even-strength goal, the same number as Stepan, Miller, Kreider and Hayes combined. Stepan's came into an empty net in the final seconds of Game 6 of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens; Glass scored in the first period of Game 1 against Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.

Defenseman Kevin Klein, who has played in one postseason game, has one assist, the same as Stepan, Miller, Kreider and Hayes, who have played in all seven playoff games.

"I think there are a lot of players in our group right now after [Thursday] that have to be better," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "If our intentions are to win, then you've got to play better than we did [Thursday]."

Stepan said he can rediscover his game if he starts making the simple plays that he's been known to make.

"I haven't been doing it in the playoffs," he said. "I'm beating myself up for it."

It's worse that he couldn't find a way to do it consistently in Game 1 against the Senators, who send one forechecker and set up three players at center ice in an attempt to force the attacking team to turn over the puck or dump it in and try to go get it. The Rangers were able to get through the neutral zone at a rate that pleased them, but they couldn't generate much in the way of Grade A scoring chances when they did.

"That's what that style sets up for, is to limit plays made for the other team," Stepan said. "You have to keep it really simple, and when you have an opportunity and it's a simple play, you have to make it. You can't overthink it. You have to be instinctive."

He hasn't been, but neither has Hayes or Miller, who each look caught between wanting to play a physical game and a skill game. Striking a balance is important, but each has to find a way to generate offense regardless.

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Hayes and Miller each has 11 shots on goal in seven games, tied for ninth on New York. By comparison, defenseman Nick Holden has 15 shots on goal in six games.

"That's a big part of going forward in this series, some guys finding the offensive side of their game," Stepan said.

Kreider has progressed from nonfactor to at least a noticeable player as the playoffs have gone on.

He had the assist on forward Mika Zibanejad's overtime goal in Game 5 against the Canadiens. His screen in front of Craig Anderson allowed McDonagh's wrist shot from the point to get past the Ottawa goalie Thursday.

But still, Kreider, whose 28 goals led the Rangers in the regular season, has none on 15 shots during the playoffs.

"I don't care if I don't score a single goal if we win every game," Kreider said.

Well, that's not happening. The Rangers are 4-3 in the playoffs and are trailing in the second round. A loss Saturday and they'll be a .500 playoff team facing the need to be an .800 team to advance, which means winning four out of five games.

"You've got to play with that swagger and that confidence and for whatever reason it's hard to come by right now," Stepan said. "The great thing about a playoff series is you get more games, you get to play tomorrow and you start each day with a new opportunity to be better.

"Offensively, [Miller, Kreider and Hayes] and myself, we have to look at it as a great opportunity to carry that load."

So far they've looked weighed down by it.

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