LOS ANGELES – Derek Stepan cannot chew. He has not been able to chew for three weeks now, since he took a nasty hit, suffered a broken jaw and had surgery. While his teammates can eat steak, he can eat only soft foods – stuff like scrambled eggs, applesauce, orzo pasta, chicken cut up like baby food. He pounds protein and juice drinks. He lost some weight after surgery and has been trying to put it back, but he won’t give details because, you know, he’s playing hockey.
Late in Wednesday night’s game, he helped save the season for the New York Rangers. After the puck stopped in the snow at the edge of the goal line, he dropped down desperately, used his glove to push it underneath goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and buried his head as the Los Angeles Kings crashed the net.
The Rangers won, 2-1. They avoided a sweep in the Stanley Cup Final. They earned the right to fly across the country, practice at Staples Center on Thursday and try to stay alive again on Friday. As Stepan sat at his stall, holding a dark concoction in a plastic cup, it did not sound trite when he said: “You’re in the Stanley Cup finals. If you can’t get yourself up, ready to play Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, that’s a problem.”
They say the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports. Well, maybe it’s the hardest trophy to lose, too.
There is nothing like the grind of the NHL playoffs, and when you face a 3-0 or 3-1 series deficit in June, the motivation to keep going against the odds comes from ambition and belief and money and pride and pressure. It also comes from the physical, mental and emotional investment you’ve made over the past two months, not to mention the seven before that. You don’t want it to go for naught. When you’ve come this far, when you’re this close, it would hurt that much more to come up short.
“When you think about it and collect your thoughts and go through everything we’ve gone through this year – it started a long time ago – it’s nice to still get another chance,” said Brad Richards, the Rangers’ acting captain. “It’s all we wanted to do last night. It wasn’t the prettiest game. But we’re still here today, and if you go this long, you just keep fighting somehow and some way. You figure it out as a group to just fight another day.”
The Kings are about to play their 26th game of the playoffs, tying the NHL record. They were the first team in league history to win three seven-game series to make the final. The Rangers are right behind them. They are about to play their 25th game of the playoffs. They won two seven-gamers and a six-gamer to get here. So this will be their 107th game including the 82-game regular season, and some guys traveled and played even more because of the Olympics.
The Rangers had a hard 2013-14. They brought in a new coach. They spent much of the preseason far from home. They played their first nine regular-season games on the road, all over the map. They got off to a 2-6-0 start and had to climb back into the playoff race. They traded their captain, Ryan Callahan, at the deadline.
You’d think these guys would be worn out. In some ways, they are. Virtually everyone has something wrong with his body, and virtually everyone has made other sacrifices – major and minor. Martin St. Louis played in these playoffs after the sudden death of his mother. Brian Boyle has not focused on his wedding, which is only a week and a half away. Anton Stralman has not spent much time with his four kids, ages 1 ½ to 7. Go down the list.
“We have a couple guys on the team who had kids this year, and they’re young,” Boyle said. “The team takes over. It’s 25 players and the coaches. The families benefit in the long run, at the end of it. But right now we’re all being selfish with our personal lives to be unselfish for the team.”
If you’re going to play for nine months, if you’re going to play through a broken jaw, if you’re going to play through goodness knows what else, if you’re going to play after your mother passes, if you’re going to spend time away from your family, if you’re going to come all this way, you aren’t going to roll over – even if only four teams in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. And now that you’ve reached this point, at least you can see the finish line.
“It definitely takes its toll, obviously,” Stralman said. “But I guess the regular season is tougher in one way, because it’s a longer stretch. You get into the playoffs, everything is exciting. It’s kind of new. Every series is a new start. It’s easy to keep your energy up.”
“As soon as you come in about three, four hours, whatever before the game, it goes away, the pain, and your focus starts to settle in,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “You get in that game-day routine. All the bumps and everything you’re feeling are kind of gone away because you’re excited to play and you know you’ve got to be prepared.”
The Rangers are 11-2 in their past 13 games when facing elimination, including 5-0 in these playoffs. Lundqvist has started all 13 of those games and posted a 1.30 goals-against average, .959 save percentage and two shutouts. As he sat on a podium, wearing a scruffy beard and a sharp blue suit after practice, it did not sound trite when he said: “It comes down to how much you want to battle, how much you want it." When you put so much into it, you don’t want to come up empty.
“Obviously we’d like to be in a better position right now,” he continued. “We’re down, 3-1. But at the same time, it’s a lot of fun to be out playing in these types of games. They’re intense, and you’re pretty tired afterwards – physically and mentally – but as you should be.”