GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Rangers coach John Tortorella wasn't sending a message to center Derek Stepan. Coaches don't send messages in the playoffs.
"It's about putting people on the ice that you think are going to help you win that particular game," Tortorella said Sunday.
Stepan's play in Games 1 and 2 against Ottawa wasn't bad enough to warrant a complete benching, but it wasn't good enough to convince Tortorella to keep him in the top-six. Tortorella demoted Stepan to the fourth line in both Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"I wasn't performing and there were other guys playing better," Stepan told NHL.com.
Even if it wasn't a message, Stepan took note of where he was in the lineup, and where he was headed if he continued to underperform. The next step was the press box, or worse, the offseason.
Stepan wasn't about to be embarrassed by either. He responded, and over the past four games Stepan has arguably been the Rangers best forward, even with the emergence of college sensation Chris Kreider.
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He has five points in his last three playoff games after having zero in his first 10 dating back to last season.
"He's a smart enough player to know that he just simply wasn't getting it done," Tortorella said. "I think it's a mindset of not overthinking it, but just willing it. It's a mental toughness that he has; 'I'm going to make something happen here. I may make a mistake being overaggressive, but I need to make something happen here.' Then I think things fall into place. Right now he's playing pretty well."
In fact, Stepan deserves some of the credit for Kreider's emergence. He's the guy that set-up the rookie from Boston College for both of his game-winning goals (Game 6 against Ottawa, Game 1 against Washington).
Stepan, who played with Kreider at the 2010 World Junior Championships and 2011 World Championships, humbly gave all the credit to his Team USA teammate. However, Kreider noted he wouldn't have scored the winner in Game 6 had Stepan not thread a pass out of the far corner through Sergei Gonchar's legs, right onto his stick in the left circle.
"I almost screwed it up," Kreider told NHL.com. "That was all Derek."
Kreider also said it was Stepan's play on the right-wing wall and then his perfect pass up the ice that enabled him to score the winner seven minutes into the third period Saturday.
"A lot of guys wouldn't make that pass or think to make that pass," Kreider said. "That was all Derek again.
"Derek is an extremely special player," he added later. "I've seen him play with a lot of different linemates and they all have success. He's got unbelievable vision and he's very cerebral. Regardless if you know him, you're going to mesh with him because he's a cerebral player."
Tortorella said Stepan willed himself to be better. It started with a strong performance against the Senators in Game 5, when he had seven shots on goal.
Stepan finally got hot in Game 6, when he had three points to help the Rangers save their season and push the series back to New York for Game 7. He rose to the occasion again when he set-up Marc Staal for the Rangers first goal in a 2-1 series-clinching victory.
Game 1 against Washington was no different. Stepan sent Kreider in for his game-winning goal in the 3-1 victory.
"I found my game because I decided to just let myself play," Stepan said. "I just let myself play a little bit, let my game go and that was the biggest thing. That's what got me back to it."
It was one thing for Stepan to struggle in the first round against Washington last season, when he had no points and was a minus-5 in five games. He was a rookie; it was forgivable.
It wasn't this time around, not after putting up 51 points in the regular season and playing a consistently strong two-way game.
"This year was a little bit more difficult," Stepan said. "I had a tough time at the end of the season, I was in a scoring slump so I was gripping my stick, too."
That's not a problem anymore. He's let himself go, let himself just play, and the Rangers are winning because of it.
"I really, really wanted to help out, do whatever I can to contribute," Stepan said. "Game 5 was the start of it, and the way I played then was going to help me to be able to contribute. I need to continue to play that way."
Message received, sort of.
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