New York Rangers’ center Derek Stepan is on his way to a career year.
Not coincidentally, his individual success has carried over as the Rangers are among the hottest teams in the National Hockey League, ending the first half of the season on a run that has vaulted them into the thick of the Metropolitan Division race.
“I think, first off, as a group, we’re playing really well,” said Stepan, a member of the 2014 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team that competed in Sochi, Russia. Stepan also represented his country on a men’s national team (2011) and at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship where he won a gold medal.
“Individually, that makes it really easy to play.”
Stepan, who never missed a regular-season game before this season, proved his toughness during last year’s playoff run. He suffered a broken jaw in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals only to return two games later and play through the remainder of the playoffs. Stepan logged more than 30 minutes with a broken jaw in the deciding double-overtime defeat against Los Angeles and played above 20 minutes in two more games.
“I think you learn from it, but that’s last year,” Stepan said.
Another learning experience came in February when Stepan represented Team USA during the Olympic Winter Games.
“I was around some of the best players in the world, and it was a really cool experience,” Stepan said. “I was just so honored to be there and be part of it. I was pretty blessed to be able to be around those guys.”
The standout moment came when the Hastings, Minn. native logged 4:59 of ice time and six shifts in the Americans’ final preliminary-round game against Slovenia.
“I played in one game, so that’s something I can say and something that’s really cool for me,” Stepan said.
One year later, he’s on his way to a career season, and a key piece to the Rangers’ success.
Stepan and the Rangers have made it look easy, and that’s even after he suffered a fractured fibula during training camp, costing him the first 12 games of the season.
Stepan ended the first half with eight goals and 32 points in just 31 games. The 24-year-old, with at least 17 goals in each of his four NHL campaigns, is only 25 points from the career best 57-point mark set last season.
He serves an invaluable role for the Rangers, a different team with Stepan in the lineup as he logs key minutes on the power play and penalty kill. Stepan, among the league leaders with 1.03 points per game, tops all Rangers’ forwards in average time on ice (18:12), is tied for the league lead in short-handed points and ranks third on the team in power-play points.
Stepan’s rapid ascent has translated to on-ice success for the Rangers.
The Rangers ended the first half of the season with 16 wins in their last 19 games. They won 13 of 14 during a near-month-long stretch that spanned Dec. 8 to Jan. 10, ranking as the NHL’s best defensive unit and third-best offensively.
“As a group, we’ve done some really good things,” Stepan said. “Going forward, we need to continue to do that because the points are so important.”
The Rangers won 21 of 27 games with Stepan in the lineup, turning a 6-6-2 start into a 27-13-4 mark by the All-Star break.
“It’s good to be playing the way we are,” Stepan said. “We just have to keep doing the things we’re doing. Just simplify our game, always improve and come to the rink ready to compete.”
The first half carried over from a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. The Rangers outlasted Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in seven games before topping Montreal and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, where they fell in five games to the Los Angeles Kings.
“It was a good learning experience, but this is a new year,” Stepan said.
But they still have a long way to go, and this year, an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final won’t be good enough.
“Two points are so important the rest of the year,” Stepan said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against. The East is so tight, you have to put on a good 60 minutes every single night you go out.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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