New York Rangers centre Derek Stepan (21) lies on the ice after taking a hit from Canadiens forward Brandon Prust during the first period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals in New York. Stepan has a broken jaw and is undergoing surgery.
Photograph by: Kathy Willens, AP
NEW YORK — Canadiens Hall of Famer Elmer Lach famously relates a story from the 1940s of his not telling Dick Irvin, his coach, that he had a fractured jaw for fear he’d be kept out of the lineup.
Old-time hockey players were funny that way, knowing that one game on the sidelines in a six-team National Hockey League — with plenty of big-league-worthy talent just one step down in the well-stocked minors — might spell the end of a career.
So fast-forward seven decades to Thursday night at Madison Square Garden and Game 3 in the suddenly very angry, very bitter Canadiens-New York Rangers Eastern Conference final:
It was 2:48 into the game when Rangers centre Derek Stepan was hit with a high, late, neutral-zone check by Canadiens winger Brandon Prust. Stepan remained face-down on the ice until the play was whistled dead seven seconds after the impact, the injured Ranger eventually skating off with help from his training staff.
Stepan was examined by team doctors and X-rayed, the diagnostic showing no fracture, and he was cleared to return to action. He next appeared on the official scoresheet 6:10 later, at 8:58 elapsed time, then three seconds later delivered a thunderous end-boards bodycheck of Canadiens defenceman Alexei Emelin.
Stepan would play a total of 24 shifts for 17:46 in total ice time, 22 shifts and 16:52 of that time presumably played with a broken jaw. He was hit on his second shift of the game and played four more in the first period, nine in the second, eight more in the third and one in overtime, earning the second assist on Chris Kreider’s tying goal with 29 seconds left in regulation time.
Stepan took the opening faceoff of overtime, losing it to Montreal’s David Desharnais, then left at the first whistle at 23 seconds.
Friday noon, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault listened to a question about series intensity put to him by colleague Pat Hickey, and in his reply he matter-of-factly broke the news about Stepan having suffered a broken jaw the night before.
The Rangers centre complained of pain Friday morning and a CT scan done then showed the fracture. When asked to clarify, Vigneault said that it was indeed Prust’s check, and not any other event in the game, that produced the break.
Stepan was to have surgery on Friday night, a few hours after Prust’s 4 p.m. call with the league to give his side of the story. The subsequently announced two-game suspension will sideline Prust from Games 4 and 5.
So we’re even at one victim apiece in this series, with at least two more games to be played. A matchup that began with no apparent bad blood now has a river of it.
And since this is the playoffs, Stepan was only the second player — about whom we know, that is — who continued to play, or finished a game, with a serious injury.
In Game 1, Canadiens goalie Carey Price was crashed by a sliding Kreider 3:15 into the second, yet he never left his net and finished the period before yielding the net to Peter Budaj for the third.
Price is out for the balance of this series, at least, thrusting rookie phenom Dustin Tokarski into the spotlight.
Kreider was back in a Canadiens crease in Game 3, bumping Tokarski though he clearly tried to avoid him. As luck/fate would have it, Kreider was one of three Rangers trotted out to the media Friday on a non-practice day.
“Guys weren’t happy that there wasn’t a penalty on the play,” Kreider said of Prust’s hit. “The sentiment today is the same as it was yesterday: that it wasn’t a clean hit and hopefully the league deals with it thusly.”
There’s no doubt that Vigneault had his thoughts in order when he replied to Hickey’s question about the intensity of this series.
(Curiously, the injury was announced in almost a roundabout way; even if playoff injuries are shrouded by psychobabble and cryptic code, something of this gravity is normally declared up front.)
Prust having said after Game 1 that Kreider’s contact with Price was “accidentally on purpose” especially rankled Vigneault, who was perhaps even more forceful in French:
“I will honestly tell you, I wouldn’t want my players to do what Prust did, which is to say, injure an opposing player,” Vigneault said.
“It was Prust who openly spoke about what Kreider did (to Price). Apart from a few fanatical fans, 95 per cent of hockey people know very well that Kreider didn’t want to hurt Price. But what Prust did, with a late hit toward the head … we’ll leave it at that.”
Of course, the Prust hit and the fact that no penalty was called on it spawned the predictable stupidity on the ice three minutes after the fact. Rangers loose cannon Daniel Carcillo took a run at Prust, not quite driving him from directly behind into the end boards, which then touched off a fight between Prust and Derek Dorsett.
Carcillo earned a minor for charging and a game misconduct when he elbowed peace-seeking linesman Derek Driscoll, which on Friday earned the Ranger an automatic suspension of 10 games for violation of NHL Rule 40, i.e., physical abuse of officials.
“What Dan did is inexcusable and he’s going to pay a big price for it,” Vigneault said. “But if the call is made on the ice, he’s not put in that position.”
A coach protecting his player is a time-honoured, noble thing. But Carcillo doesn’t need the help of a non-call by referees to be an idiot — in 435 career regular-season games for five NHL teams, he has now been suspended on seven separate occasions for 29 games total, with 1,276 penalty minutes keeping his 106 points company.
Both teams return to practice ice Saturday, with Game 4 set for Madison Square Garden Sunday at 8 p.m.
The Canadiens will return home for a guaranteed Game 5 on Tuesday with the best-of-seven either tied 2-2 or the Rangers up 3-1 and with two chances to send the Habs packing.
This series might not have the advantage of nearly nine decades of Canadiens-Bruins bad history to fuel its fire. But we’ve had an eventful start, equal parts belligerent and mean-spirited and perhaps even vindictive.
What most of us expected, after the Bruins, was a smooth series of fast, skilled, even classic hockey between Montreal and New York.
But who were we kidding? This is the playoffs. What we’ve got now is an old wood saw that was forgotten on the floor of the damp tool shed, its teeth rusty and jagged and beautiful in their own ugly way.
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