The New York Rangers' smooth ride to the Stanley Cup finals has suddenly become much rougher.
Not only did the Broadway Blueshirts let the Montreal Canadiens back into the Eastern Conference finals with a 3-2 overtime victory Thursday at Madison Square Garden, they might have to play without top forward Derek Stepan, whose broken jaw required surgery Friday.
The Rangers will carry a 2-1 series lead into Sunday's Game 4, but finishing off the Canadiens could be more difficult if Stepan is sidelined long term.
The center was injured 2:48 in when he was struck by a hard, blindside hit from Montreal's Brandon Prust, who wasn't penalized for the shot that left Stepan sprawled on the ice for several moments. Prust was scheduled for a disciplinary hearing with the NHL on Friday, and Stepan's injury will play a big role in Prust's expected punishment.
Stepan got up after the hit, had X-rays taken that were negative, and returned to the game. But pain later Thursday night and again on Friday prompted the Rangers to send him to a specialist. Further tests and scans revealed the fracture.
His playing status is unclear, but Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said more would be known Saturday. With a two-day break before Game 4, both teams stayed off the ice Friday.
Vigneault had already proclaimed Thursday that the on-ice officials failed in not penalizing Prust. He hammered the point home Friday and took issue with Prust, who was critical of New York forward Chris Kreider's collision with Carey Price in Game 1 that knocked the Canadiens' No. 1 goalie out of the series.
"Four referees missed the call. Stepan is injured," Vigneault said. "The same player that called the hit on Price 'accidental but on purpose.'
"Late hit, everything that you want to get out of the game, that was his hit on Stepan. What saddens me about that hit is, if the call is made on the ice, we're on a five-minute power play."
Prust, a fan favorite when he previously played for the Rangers, was hit from behind at 5:51 of the first period by New York enforcer Daniel Carcillo, who was penalized for charging. That immediately led to Prust fighting Derek Dorsett. During that altercation, Carcillo twice elbowed linesman Steve Driscoll, who was trying to keep him out of the fray, and was ejected from the game.
Carcillo was given an automatic 10-game suspension by the NHL on Friday for physical abuse on an official without intent to injure.
"What Dan did was inexcusable, and he's going to pay a big price for it," Vigneault said, "but if the call is made on the ice, he's not put in that situation."
The 23-year-old Stepan, who has three playoff goals and is second on the team with 11 points, was out of action for about six minutes before returning to play. He had an assist on Kreider's tying goal with 28.1 seconds left in regulation — extending his point and assist streak to five games — and registered two shots in 17 minutes, 46 seconds of ice time.
New York is already missing forward Derick Brassard, who has sat out two games after hurting his shoulder in the opener. Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller could rejoin the lineup for Game 4.
The Canadiens, still reeling from the series-ending injury to Price in the opener, were fired up by Prust's hit. Montreal rallied from a 1-0 deficit, took a 2-1 lead on Danny Briere's goal with 3:02 left in regulation, and shook off Kreider's tying tally to win it when 20-year-old center Alex Galchenyuk netted the overtime winner at 1:12.
"Prusty was trying to set the tone," Canadiens center David Desharnais said Friday. "I thought it was a good hit. You never want to injure somebody, but it set the tone for the game."
Price was shut down because of a suspected knee injury after Kreider barreled into him while driving to the net Saturday. The Canadiens went from saying the hit was probably accidental to that it could have been avoided, to coach Michel Therrien calling it "reckless."
Therrien defended Prust on Friday.
"Brandon Prust's intention was not to hurt Derek Stepan. It was to finish his check," he said. "It was a hockey hit, and obviously Stepan got hurt."