STEPAN UP, AT THE RIGHT TIME

Stepan and Nash are finding a groove as the playoffs approach (Getty)

Stepan and Nash are finding a groove as the playoffs approach (Getty)

The timing couldn’t be better for the New York Rangers, as Derek Stepan is heating up for the playoffs. Since linemate Chris Kreider went out with a hand injury – Stepan has recorded 6 points (2G, 4A), is a +4 and more importantly has made just about each shift count they way a #1 centerman should.  Is it any wonder the Rangers have gone 4-2-1 over that same period?

If the Rangers are to go anywhere this post season, they need Stepan to continue his hot playmaking ways with Rick Nash and – at least until Kreider comes back – an assortment of other wingers.  The Rangers will go only as far as their top line and Henrik Lundqvist will take them.  Stepan has improved year after year with his regular season & playoff performances.  With his improved play down the stretch run this season, there is little to suspect that this won’t continue through however long the Rangers are in the playoffs.

There were some who wondered why Stepan was a member of the US Olympic team in Sochi.  It wasn’t a “sexy” pick. He is not someone who lights up the scoreboard nightly like Crosby or Malkin.  Stepan had a distinct role for that team which was slightly different than what it is for the Rangers.  He was selected for his steady two-way play, his speed & play making ability & his improving faceoff skills.  He wasn’t going to be relied upon to be an offensive force.  His role was to be defensively responsible and if he could add some offense when given the chance, it would be a bonus.  Even though he saw very limited action in the Olympics, it was still a chance to learn and team with some of the best players in the world. You can see the confidence he gained in his play since he has returned from Sochi.

Stepan has slowly but steadily become the Rangers #1 play making center that they expected he would be when he was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2008 NHL draft. He has increased his point production every year since his rookie season with career highs so far in assists (38 through April 8) and points (56). He also has a very respectable +11 rating which is significant since the Rangers play far too numerous tight games.

What’s more important however is that he has built a solid chemistry with Nash, who is finally starting to produce like the sniper the Rangers thought they were getting when they acquired him from the Blue Jackets.  Throw in the speed, feistiness and goal scoring ability of Kreider & the Rangers have a complete #1 line for years to come.

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