NEW YORK -- Derek Stepan still can’t even eat solid food. He won’t be indulging in anything of the sort for at least another six weeks. He’s still not sure if he’ll be able to eat the meal at his own wedding this summer. He’s learned to get acquainted with the blender, and he’s willing to get creative.
Broken jaw and all, he’s headed to the Stanley Cup finals.
The 23-year-old center has become another one of hockey’s prime examples of toughness personified, as he returned to the New York Rangers lineup in Game 5, just four days after undergoing surgery to have a plate inserted into his jaw, and played a critical role in helping the club advance to its first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1994.
All the pain and discomfort since he sustained the suspension-earning hit from Brandon Prust all seemed worth it to Stepan, who still couldn’t help but smile when recounting the final moments of the team’s 1-0 win in Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens.
"That's a cool feeling,” he said. “I've been here four years and I've never had a feeling quite like that. That's something I won't forget for sure."
Stepan, who notched two goals in his first game back from injury in game 5 on Tuesday, lauded the team’s medical staff for helping him get back into the series. He said that he had to adjust to the hulking, bright green facial protector attached to his helmet, but got used to it after a few days.
As of now, he’s feeling all right. About as good as anyone else in the playoffs, it seems.
“Yeah, not too bad,” he said.
The euphoria of victory was enough to leave Stepan in a forgiving mood at least. After the game, he seemed to harbor no ill will towards his former teammate Prust, who was slapped with a two-game ban for the hit that broke Stepan’s jaw.
“I’m not going to hold it against him,” Stepan said, “He feels bad about it, he knows it was late. We’ll just move on.”
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Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said he didn’t know what to do when the Prince of Wales trophy was awarded at center-ice after the Rangers’ Eastern Conference final victory. He deferred to the team’s elder statesman, and de facto captain, Brad Richards.
Richards told him not to touch it.
Back in 2004, when the 33-year-old veteran won a Stanley Cup Championship with Tampa Bay along with teammate Martin St. Louis, he was instructed not to touch it, as per hockey superstition.
Since it worked out so well for them 10 years ago, he continued to heed the ritual.
"Well, I just -- Marty and I have been there, [Daniel] Carcillo, unfortunately, just wasn't dressed, so we didn't put his opinion in, but no one else was dressed that's been there. We won it without touching it, and it was instructed that way when we won,” Richards explained. “If half the team was there, maybe we would have had more debate on the ice, but it wasn't much debate. We're not doing it, and that's where we went with it."