NEW YORK – Before the game Derek Stepan took praise, and a promotion from his head coach.
During the game Stepan scored a man advantage goal after being inserted onto the top power play line, and added an even strength assist to lead the Rangers (7-3-3) to a 3-0 win over Winnipeg (5-7-2) at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening.
“He’s a good player,” coach John Tortorella said before the game. “He’s beginning to find his game.”
“I’ve kind of bounced around the power play units,” Stepan said. “I definitely felt comfortable tonight and I felt like our power play, in general, did a better job coming into the zone, making plays, hanging onto pucks and getting pucks through.”
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” said Marian Gaborik of his linemate. “He’s moving the puck well, he’s patient with the puck, he’s making plays on the power play. Hopefully he can keep it up.”
Stepan started the game’s scoring at 10:01 of the second period when he converted a great cross-ice pass from Michael Del Zotto on the power play.
“I think Stepan, he ends up scoring the goal, but he settles [the power play] down,” Tortorella said after the game. “You can see the patience he has with it before he even scored the goal to settle things down.”
“Our power play’s been a click off, and I feel that tonight we really connected all the dots,” Stepan said after his second straight multi-point night netted him the Broadway Hat. “It’s a great play to get it set up, puck kinds of sneaks over and I have a full net. You don’t get too many of those, but you’re happy and you take them.”
The second-year Ranger out of Hastings, Minnesota, is becoming one of the Rangers top playmaking forwards. He has emerged, after a 45-point season last year, into a dependable second line center, where he’s exploded for six points (2-4-6) in the Rangers’ last five games.
“He sees the ice. The game is clearer to him, you can tell,” Tortorella said of Stepan. “As far as some of the plays he’s making. It’s important for us — we’ve finally gotten into a routine after our start and the travel and all that, and the opening of the building. I think the routine has helped our players. Step is allowing himself to play, I think he sees the ice better, and he just feels more confident with the puck.”
His assist was a thing of beauty. After Artem Anisimov shoved the puck towards neutral, Stepan took it and calmly skated into the offensive zone on a two-on-one with Gaborik. Stepan made a perfect cross-ice feed to the Slovakian winger, helping Gaborik score his sixth goal of the season.
“Some guys, their game, you can see it’s coming,” Tortorella said. “You look at Step, his game is really stepping out – no pun intended.”
“I guess it’s just an instinct to find the shooter on the line, and Gabby is quite a shooter,” Stepan said. “I was thinking pass from probably the red line, so I wasn’t really thinking shoot.”
“Step, again tonight, he’s on that two-on-one, I think he knew he was passing,” said Marty Biron, who made 23 saves for his first shutout as a Ranger. “I knew he knew he was passing it to Gabby, because that’s what you gotta do. But he’s waiting for the opportunity and puts it right on [Gaborik’s] stick. He knew crossing the red line that’s what he wanted to do. That goal, everybody’s yelling shoot, it’s like a madhouse in here. They knew exactly how to open the seam and get it to [Gaborik] for the goal. I like how he thinks the game.”
New York finished its’ six-game homestand 4-1-1. It’s their best start at home through six games since 1992-’93, when they were 5-0-1 through six home games.
Gaborik scored his second goal of the game into an empty net with 1.1 seconds left to give the Rangers their final 3-0 cushion. He finished the six-game homestand with nine points (3-6-9), and leads the team with seven goals and 13 points this season.