Derek Stepan steps up in return

MONTREAL -- Though the New York Rangers will likely want to discard Game 5, and purge that mistake-riddled, goal-glutted defeat from memory completely, there was at least one bright spot.

Derek Stepan, just four days removed from undergoing surgery to repair his broken jaw, returned to the lineup, hulking facial protector and all, and delivered a superb performance despite the team’s otherwise sloppy and uncharacteristically unstructured play.

Cleared just hours before Tuesday’s game, Stepan was back without any signs of discomfort or reluctance. Sporting a bright yellow facial protector affixed to his helmet, Stepan lined up for the opening faceoff and never looked like a guy who has been eating his meals through a straw the past few days, since sustaining the injury on a hit from ex-teammate Brandon Prust.

On his first goal, Stepan’s shot was an innocuous one, fired from the high slot, but it beat Montreal Canadiens netminder Dustin Tokarski and knotted the game at 1 at 10:44 of the first period. His second goal of the night helped lead the team’s charge in erasing a 4-1 deficit during the middle frame.

“If there was a positive, the fact that he was able to, under those conditions, play such a strong game,” Vigneault said. “That whole line was good tonight, and we need to get the rest of our group to play the same way.”

With Stepan back centering his regular linemates, the Rangers’ top trio was its most effective. Chris Kreider finished with a team-high four points (one goal and three assists). Rick Nash finished with a goal and an assist.

The production of those three players will be vital to the Rangers in their attempt to close out this series against the Canadiens. They’ll get their second crack at it Thursday night (8 ET), when they host the Habs for Game 6 at home at Madison Square Garden.

Stepan was not available to the media after the game, but his teammates recognized both his toughness and his skill in making an impact in his comeback Tuesday night.

“It says a lot about his character and his willingness to want to come out and help the team,” defenseman Dan Girardi said. “He played a great game tonight and it’s just unfortunate we couldn’t get the win with him in the lineup."