Smith, Ekman-Larsson, Stepan comprise Monday's Three Stars
Mike Smith saved 39 shots in the Coyotes' 4-0 shutout of the Blackhawks
Oliver Ekman-Larsson saved his best for the finale of the first-round series
Derek Stepan snapped out of a 10-game scoring funk to help force Game 7
1. Mike Smith, Coyotes. "I told our guys we were pretty good after we got it to 4-0," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "Before that, it was all Mike Smith."
There have been some exceptional goaltending performances in the first round, but this was the best yet, a 39-save shutout that featured at least half a dozen jaw-dropping stops. While the Coyotes struggled in vain against an aggressive Chicago forecheck, Smith dropped anchor and refused to give an inch. He was at his best while weathering a first-period assault that saw Chicago pen Phoenix in its own zone while outshooting the visitors 16-2.
2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes. Look, I understand that the Coyotes aren't exactly must-see TV during the regular season, and so maybe the evolution of the 20-year-old sophomore into an impact player has slipped under the radar of most fans. After this series against the Blackhawks, he can't be considered a secret any longer. Ekman-Larsson saved his best for the finale of the six-game set, playing nearly 27 minutes and scoring the series-clinching goal. You could tell he was overtaxed at times while Rusty Klesla sought medical attention and David Schlemko got his feet wet, but he impressed with his ability to recover when mistakes were made by, or around, him.
3. Derek Stepan, Rangers. With their season on the line, and Ottawa stopper Craig Anderson on top of his game in the early going, the Rangers were looking for a hero. Stepan, mired in a 10-game scoring funk that saw him dropped to the fourth line, was happy to answer the call. His power-play goal at 8:55 of the second snapped Anderson's 145-minute shutout streak and drew the Rangers even at 1-1.
"I got a little bit of a monkey off my back, which is good," Stepan told NHL.com. "When you're gripping the stick and having a tough time scoring, it's definitely a relief when you can find the back of the net. Not only is that, but our power play gets a lift from it, too. It's two pretty important things right there."
He later helped break open the game with assists on goals by Brad Richards and Chris Kreider, ensuring that the Rangers would return home for a decisive Game 7 clash on Thursday.