Below I will outline some of the things that I notice Stepan doing better during this stretch.
Better Puck Movement
Stepan’s game really started to take off in Game 5 against the Washington Capitals. In the contest Stepan logged a whopping 25:01 on the ice and added two helpers. When Stepan is at his best, he can draw defenders to him and open up lanes, and what he did in the Overtime of Game 5 is a perfect example.
Notice above that Stepan doesn’t just run to the net to look for a rebound, instead he puts himself in position to set up a play. Sure enough the puck comes to him; the key here is that he sells the shot, and makes Curtis Glencross (number 22 in white) come sliding across to try to block Stepan’s shooting lane. Now that Stepan has gotten Glencorss to commit, he slides a pass to Ryan McDonagh who now has a lane to shoot through for the winner.
Stepan has done a better job of finding holes in the coverage. It’s the reason he was able to score three goals in his last 3 games. He’s putting himself in the right spots, to give himself an extra second to look at whats in front of him, rather than just snapping the puck as soon as he gets it.
Take a look at the video above, Stepan lingers off to the outside of the crease, so if the puck does make it to him (which it does), he has room to shoot. If he gets closer he will just have to jam the puck into Bishop and hope it squeaks through.
On this play, notice Stepan off to the outside again, this time he snaps the shot off, and Bishop makes the save, but after that, he takes the rebound behind the net and looks at what’s in front of him, rather than rush into a mass of humanity in the crease. He see’s Bishop out of the net, and Brayden Coburn sprawled out in the crease, so he wisely banks the puck off of Coburn and in.
Stepan spoke about how goals are going in after Game 1 “It’s just how the goals are scored in the playoffs. You don’t see too many tic-tac-toe plays. You kind of have to get the ugly ones and that’s where they’re going to be scored is around the net.”
New Line Mates
Since having Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast moved to his line, Stepan has been better, and his production doesn’t lie. Stepan credited the team around him for allowing him to score and focus on his job after Game 1 “Chris (Kreider) uses his speed, and Jesper (Fast) is tenacious in the corners. We’ve found some good chemistry together and we were able to just manage the game with good speed and not have too many bad turnovers. When we make a mistake, our two “D” men help us out, and our goaltender makes saves for us.”
There’s no doubt that Kreider and Fast bring tremendous physical gifts to the line, but Stepan is who makes it click. Stepan has the ability to find his wingers wherever they are, he can shoot the puck to up open space, and he can make moves through the defense when he’s one on one.
The fact of the matter is that the Rangers will need Stepan to continue to be an offensive force. At the moment the Rangers other offensive weapons like Rick Nash, and Martin St.Louis aren’t producing. So for the Rangers to be able to get through the Lightning they will need the 24-year-old American to continue to spark his line mates and find the back of the net when he has good looks.
In Stepan’s first 9 post season contests he had only 4 points, while in the last 5 games he has 6.
What He Was Doing
Ok, so have a look below, this play is similar to plays we saw him score on. Watch him slowly drift away from the net and eventually take a bad angle shot. You will see at 11 seconds that he has some space to move around, but instead elects to just get the puck to the net resulting in Penguins possession. This isn’t a horrible play as his line mates are changing, but if Stepan takes his ice and kills some time, he can wait for reinforcements to join the play late and perhaps generate an opportunity. I just want to point out how he doesn’t take that second to look up and survey the situation.
Over the past few weeks Derek Stepan has returned to being a reliable two-way center and if he continues to play his game, he can be a difference maker on offense for the Rangers. He currently leads the team in points in the post-season with 10 through 14 games.