MONTREAL — Before anyone questions Derek Stepan’s toughness, they should remember the last time the Rangers faced the Canadiens in the playoffs.
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final three years ago, former Ranger Brandon Prust leveled Stepan with a high hit near the blue line early in the first period.
In pain from what turned out to be a broken jaw — initial X-rays were negative — Stepan returned to the game, which the Canadiens won, 3-2, in overtime at Madison Square Garden.
“It doesn’t matter who it was, it was a bad hit,” Stepan said. “It may have been his shoulder, but he made contact with my face.”
Incredibly, some Habs players questioned the severity of his jaw injury, but a specialist later discovered the fracture. Stepan missed Game 4 while recovering from surgery and Prust was suspended for two games.
Wearing a protective jaw shield, Stepan returned for Games 5 and 6 and the Rangers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. The Minnesota native drank a lot of liquids and ate pasta and soft food for six weeks.
Prust is no longer with the Canadiens, but Stepan, who skated in his 86th playoff game for the Rangers last night, was prepared for another series that will leave players battered and bruised.
“We’ve been talking about it for the last few weeks,” Stepan said. “Playoffs are always physical; you get to this time of year, there’s no space. Even our smaller guys are going to play bigger. We’ve got to step up our physicality. I feel like every year, no matter who you’ve been playing the last few weeks, it’s all elevated in Game 1.”
The 26-year-old center, in his sixth season with the Rangers, doesn’t shy away from the Canadiens. In three games this season, he had a goal and two assists. In 22 career games against Montreal, he is 3-11-14.
Last night Stepan played 19:36, with four shot attempts and had two of the team’s 24 blocked shots. He also won 8 of 11 faceoffs.
During the season, Stepan, an alternate captain, played 81 games, scored 17 goals and collected 55 points. A playmaker at heart, he led the team in primary assists, shots on goal and power-play points.
Like many, he expected a series that may very well be decided by the duel in the creases between Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.
Price, who posted a 2.27 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in the Canadiens’ three wins against the Rangers this season, “is an elite goaltender,” Stepan said. “It’s going to be a goaltending matchup, with two of the best in the world. As the series goes on, we’re going to have to find ways to get pucks past him. If he sees it, he’s going to save it, and sometimes even when he can’t see it, he saves it. So, we’re going to have to be real sharp with the puck and find ways to get bounces by him.”