When Derek Stepan was drilled by a late hit from former teammate and Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, it was a flashpoint moment in the series. Stepan's jaw was broken, Prust ended up getting suspended two games, Habs players questioned the severity of the injury and the great debate about high hits raged on. It was a point of discussion throughout the series, and rightfully so.
Stepan missed Game 4 while recovering from surgery, but returned for Game 5 with significant facial protection. Game 5 also included a similar hit with the roles reversed between the two teams as Dale Weise was on the wrong end of a late, high hit from John Moore, who was suspended two games himself. That fired up another round of debate and solidified this previously mostly unemotional series into the intense battle we've come to expect in the playoffs, with more than enough drama to make for compelling hockey games.
So after all that, when the Rangers closed out the series 1-0, and as the back-and-forth sniping through the media and overtly physical play on the ice subsided, so too did tensions.
The handshake line has become one of the great traditions in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It is often a place where the intensity of a series fades as players from each team set aside their differences (unless it's Milan Lucic) in the name of sportsmanship. So there was a lot of attention being paid to what would happen when Stepan and Prust met at center ice in the line.
After Prust's hit, the Habs forward said he considered Stepan a friend and felt bad that he had been injured. He probably intimated something similar in that handshake line, as he gave Stepan a few pats on the head and the duo shared a few words and a brief embrace as cameras focused in on them.
After all of that ended, Stepan explained that he had forgiven Prust for the hit.
"I'm not going to hold it against [Prust]. He finished his check," Stepan said after the series-clinching win. "He feels bad about it. He knows it was late. We move on from there."
It's probably a bit easier to forgive Prust now that the Rangers are going the Stanley Cup Final and the fact that the two had known each other previously. It would have been interesting to see how Stepan felt had he been knocked out, but luckily for him and the Rangers, we'll never know.
Stepan will be on a soft diet for the next six weeks as his jaw heals. He'll have to continue wearing the protective jaw shield he has worn since his return in Game 5 throughout the Stanley Cup Final.
It seems every year the road to the Stanley Cup is going to include a few casualties along the way, but Stepan's performance in two games since returning from surgery suggests he's more than happy to play hurt. It's just another in a long line of players going to great lengths to be available to their team and have a shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup.
It could be bravery, it could be stupidity, but whatever it is, it's worth it to the player if the team gets the right result. Stepan and the Rangers are now four wins away from that.