If the evidence shows that the best lines in the playoffs have to heat up going in, Derek Stepan’s line might be Exhibit A.
The center and his wingers collected six points in a 4-3 defeat of the Flyers on Sunday, and have been on a little roll.
On Sunday, Mats Zuccarello produced three assists, Stepan two and Chris Kreider scored his career-high 28th goal and 52nd point. The pinpoint passing gave Zuccarello 44 assists, also a career high, and the most for a Ranger since Marian Gaborik in 2009-10.
“I’ve said it from Day 1, he’s one of the most elite passers in the game. He could have had four assists if I had hit the empty net,” said Stepan, with a point in five of the last six games and 10 in 12. “I think that if you look at our line, we try to find ice that’s available and get the puck into 36’s [Zauccarello’s] hands. And the horse has to be the horse; Kreids has to get up and go and get on those pucks.’’
In the playoffs, which begin the week of April 10, that trio — which has more collective playoff experience than any of the Blueshirt lines — needs to continue to score, as well as defend; they often will be matched up against an opponent’s main line game after game.
“That line tonight [Sunday] was dominating,” coach Alain Vig neault said. “For part of the night, we also matched them up against their top line [Travis Konecny-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek] and they still had a tremendous amount of zone time and some great looks. All three of those guys played extremely well, except for the play at the end of the third period,” a brain-lock that allowed a Flyers goal.
It wasn’t so long ago that Stepan went 23 games without a goal, which ate him up, even seeking advice from former Ranger Marty St. Louis, before he shook the monkey off his back in Detroit on March 12.
But Stepan refuses to look back, just ahead.
“When we defend the right way, we create so much off that,” he said. “In the playoffs, you have to be able to defend. It’s not been an easy situation, when you have a little cushion, it’s easy to get off the gas pedal. Maybe we learned from last year: It doesn’t matter if you’re the eighth seed or the one seed, it’s all about playing your best hockey at the right time.”