NEW YORK -- Derek Stepan scored one goal in 20 games during last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. It bothered him, and he knew coming into the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Washington Capitals that he had to be better, be a difference-maker, because that's what he's supposed to be for the New York Rangers.
Stepan was at Madison Square Garden this week. His resiliency is part of the reason the Rangers are going back to Washington with the best-of-7 series locked up 2-2.
Stepan scored the winning goal in Game 4 Wednesday to again lift the Rangers to a 4-3 victory against the Capitals. They won by the same margin in Game 3 Monday, when Stepan scored the winning goal in the third period.
The Rangers scored eight goals in Games 3 and 4 after managing one goal over 128 minutes in Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center, where Game 5 will be played Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS2).
"It's always been there," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of Stepan's resiliency. "That is what has fast-tracked him into a guy that plays 23 minutes a game in all situations. It's because of the intangible that he has. He has given us some really big minutes here for us to crawl into the series with these two games."
Stepan's goal came 6:02 into the third period. It gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead, but Capitals forward Mathieu Perreault sliced into that 89 seconds after Stepan scored with his second goal of the night.
Washington continued to surge for the equalizer and got nine more shots on goal, but Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist kept the puck out to preserve Stepan's goal as the game-winner. Lundqvist finished with 27 saves; Washington's Braden Holtby had 30.
"I've maybe struggled a bit in playoffs in years past, but I've just gotta continue to work at this type of game, my own game," Stepan said.
The Rangers worked on their game this week at MSG and it was good enough to edge the Capitals twice. The home team applied pressure, worked a perfect penalty kill (5-for-5), scored a pair of power-play goals (one in each game), withstood Washington's inevitable surges, and managed to hold Alex Ovechkin to zero points and three shots on goal over the two games.
The Capitals scored six goals during Games 3 and 4, but two came from their group of top-six forwards (Nicklas Backstrom early in Game 3, Troy Brouwer in Game 4). Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat were held off the score sheet and combined for 10 shots on goal.
Erat left Game 4 late in the first period with an upper-body injury and never returned. His status will be re-evaluated Thursday.
"Our line has to play better," Ovechkin said. "When we have a chance to play in their zone, we have to use it. [Wednesday night] we didn't do it."
The Rangers were able to play in the Capitals' defensive zone and capitalize on their chances Wednesday night.
They took a 1-0 lead when Brad Richards scored his first of the series 16:25 into the first period. The Rangers capitalized on a giveaway by Holtby, who tried to pass the puck through the middle of the ice but had it knocked down by Taylor Pyatt in the high slot.
The puck went from Pyatt's stick to Carl Hagelin, whose slap shot was blocked by Capitals defenseman John Carlson. However, Holtby couldn't stop himself as he attempted to return to the crease so he slid right through, leaving the net open for Richards to score off the rebound.
Hagelin had a goal and two assists, and Derick Brassard had two primary assists, his second coming on Dan Girardi's go-ahead power-play goal 59 seconds into the third period. Brassard, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the NHL Trade Deadline, has five points on a goal and four primary assists in the past two games.
Brassard made a tape-to-tape pass to set up Hagelin for his goal midway through the second period that put the Rangers up 2-0. A backhanded pass to Girardi at the left circle opened room for the Rangers defenseman to fire a one-timer that beat Holtby.
"He's grabbed a hold of it here and makes just a great play on Danny's goal," Tortorella said of Brassard. "He's stepped in here to try and make a difference and he's made some big plays for us. I'm not afraid to put him a lot of different positions in a lot of different situations."
Another reason the Rangers have been able to turn the series around is their pressure and ability to keep pucks in the offensive zone. There were moments in Games 3 and 4 when the Capitals had the Rangers pinned in their defensive zone for long periods of time, but for the most part in Game 4 the 5-on-5 play swung in New York's favor.
An example was Stepan's winning goal. Ryan Callahan kept the puck in the zone with a deep forecheck and he eventually was able to get it to Stepan in front of the net. Stepan and Hagelin made a couple of quick passes back and forth, opening up Holtby so he left the entire net vacant for Stepan to score from the slot.
"We've been more consistent on the forecheck," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We've gotten pinned in our zone at stretches, but when we do get out of our zone clean we're coming through with a lot more speed. We're trying to create and make plays so we can hold on to it in the offensive zone. You see the fourth goal is a forechecking goal, a turnover. We just need to keep it simple and use our speed."
Capitals coach Adam Oates said his team missed a few chances to get the puck out of the zone before Stepan scored.
"We gave them too many chances to keep it in," Oates said. "You have to give them some credit. We have to do a better job of clearing the puck out."
The Capitals will get a chance to improve on that and more in Game 5, when as the home team will be able to get the matchups it wants, meaning Oates likely will attempt to get Ovechkin away from McDonagh and Girardi. The Rangers' top two defensemen were pinned on Ovechkin's in Games 3 and 4 and didn't let the Capitals captain have any space to operate.
"Right now we go home and go and play against them with our fans and our building," Ovechkin said. "It's going to be, I hope, much better for us."