Although Derek Stepan’s goal-line save happened in a frantic blur, the New York Rangers center had a few chances to marvel at the replay in the ensuing 24 hours.
”And I was looking right into the camera when they took it,” he said Thursday, laughing about the inside-the-net camera that captured him knocking the puck underneath Henrik Lundqvist. ”So it was good timing.”
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Everything about Stepan’s heady play was perfectly timed, but he politely declined credit for saving the Rangers’ season in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals. He’s just glad he helped to prevent a possible sweep by the Los Angeles Kings, who could have tied the game and likely forced overtime with the goal.
The Rangers survived for another trip to Staples Center and Game 5 on Friday night with major help from two fantastic plays by Stepan and defenseman Anton Stralman, who knocked another puck off the line in the first period of Game 4.
Stepan came through with 1:11 left while the Kings pressed desperately for an equalizer. After the puck trickled underneath Lundqvist and came to rest on the goal line, Stepan dived to his knees, knocking it away and then underneath his goalie.
”Most of it is just reaction,” Stepan said. ”You don’t have much time to think in a situation like that. It’s just instinct and reaction.”
Stepan even had the wherewithal to use the side of his glove so he wouldn’t close his hand on the puck in the crease, which would have resulted in a penalty shot.
Although he recognized the importance of the play, Stepan didn’t let it go to his head.
”It was a fortunate bounce for us,” Stepan said. ”I got very lucky pushing it under the goaltender. A lot of times, you push it into the back of your goalie, or you push it to one of their guys.”
Dan Girardi also deserved credit for knocking Anze Kopitar out of the play and preventing the Kings’ leading scorer from getting a rebound opportunity. The Kings actually weren’t near the motionless puck until Jeff Carter took a belated hack at it, but Stepan took care of it.
Stralman made an equally astonishing play in the first period, sweeping a stopped puck off the goal line with his stick while simultaneously preventing Carter from jabbing it home.
Lundqvist made 40 saves in Game 4, but relied on his teammates for two more. After three games of bad bounces and late-game struggles, the Rangers got most of the breaks.
”A couple of times last night, we had that luck that you need in a tight game,” Lundqvist said. ”Sometimes you say it (and) maybe not mean it 100 percent, but that factor of luck in a series against a good team, you’re going to need it to win games. You can’t rely on it all the time, but there are moments in games where the difference is so small, that little extra push might help you to get the win.”
A few optimistic Rangers fans jumped onto Twitter after Game 4 and compared Stepan’s play to Dave Roberts’ steal of third base for the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, catalyzing their comeback from an 0-3 series deficit to the New York Yankees.
Stepan knows such optimism is a week premature. The Rangers would have to win four straight games to become the fourth team in NHL history to rally from an 0-3 deficit – just the second in the finals.
But thanks to Stepan’s play, the Rangers have a shot to make it to Game 7 – which just happens to be scheduled for Stepan’s 24th birthday on June 18.
”As a group, you gain some confidence, but there’s no momentum in a series like this,” Stepan said. ”You just keep working for the bounces.”