If one were to judge rookie Derek Stepan's NHL debut, plenty of adjectives come to mind. Scintillating. Sensational. Historic. That's how special the 20 year-old former 2008 second round pick was in leading the Rangers past the Sabres 6-3- making history by becoming the first ever Ranger to record a hat trick in his rookie debut.
"I was just kind of getting my feet wet in my first NHL game. And it was a fun process,” a diplomatic Stepan said of his remarkable feat. “I guess for me, it’s just one of those things where you kind of go, ‘I guess I got lucky.'"Doing it in front of a proud Mom and excited sister, the former Badger standout started his memorable night by redirecting a Dan Girardi right point shot off Tyler Myers and past Ryan Miller for the center's first career NHL goal 10:53 into the contest. In a hostile place that hasn't treated them too kindly recently, the Rangers acquitted themselves well against a team playing its second game in two nights. With the top line of Alexander Frolov, Erik Christensen and Marian Gaborik held mostly in check aside from the Big Ticket's nice setup for Christy's first 68 seconds into the third, it was the freshman Stepan who led the team to victory with one of the best starts to what hopefully will be a great career. While he scored three of the game's first five putting the Blueshirts in front by three after 40 minutes, he got help from Brandon Dubinsky (2 goals) and Artem Anisimov (assist).
Now officially a left wing, Dubinsky cashed in his first when Anisimov took advantage of a Myers slip behind the net, quickly dishing across for the third-year Alaskan for 2-zip. After a rough first following their road win over Ottawa, Buffalo responded with a strong middle stanza in which they dictated throughout, outshooting the guests 19-9. A shaky Henrik Lundqvist kept them off the board until a clean Paul Gaustad faceoff win allowed Ranger killer Patrick Kaleta to setup Jordan Leopold's first as a Sabre. A quick one-timer from the point that went through the Ranger netminder despite no traffic. Indeed, King Henrik wasn't sharp despite making 33 saves- leaking rebounds while fighting the puck. But on this night, it was enough thanks to the super performance from Stepan, who responded 4:01 later with his second- slamming a Marc Staal rebound home.
Before the period was done, the historic moment came when linemate Sean Avery made a perfect blind pass to the vacated bright eyed kid who deposited his first career hat trick with ease, sending Mom and sis to their feet in astonishment. A night the Stepan family won't ever forget. It was a smart Girardi dump that got the play started. Then, Avery recovered the puck and whipped it in front for a Stepan one-timer within 10 feet, which left Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti singing his praises. At least it was justified unlike Micheletti's lousy excuse for a dreadful Leopold power play goal that eluded Lundqvist later.
“I don’t think we expect him to score three every night,” Lundqvist noted. “But if he does, we’ll take it.”When Gaborik drew two Sabre defenders including Myers who had a miserable night, the crafty Slovak fed Christensen for his first making it 5-1 with 18:52 remaining. Frolov drew a secondary assist. That's about all he did in a much quieter Ranger debut that included an unnecessary offensive zone penalty after trying to do too much. No doubt the club will need better from the former King starting this Monday in a Columbus Day showdown with the chief rival Islanders, who fell 5-4 to Dallas in a shootout despite losing John Tavares to a concussion late in the first. A game they fought back in thanks to Matt Moulson's tying PPG late in regulation before Mike Ribeiro undressed Rick DiPietro.
Stepan nearly made it four when he got behind the D for a clean breakaway but his forehand deke try sailed over Miller. “I couldn’t believe I missed,” he remarked while chuckling. “I just choked under pressure, I guess.”
John Tortorella was pleased with what he saw even if the second was all too emblematic of what we saw last year. This is a young team and there will be some growing pains. Cue the music, Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold. You just don't expect mistakes to come from vets like Steve Eminger, who did little to justify being in the lineup over Matt Gilroy. Forget the plus-one. The journeyman who once was a Caps' No.1 pick took two penalties and didn't distinguish himself while partner Mike Sauer had no such issues in just his fourth NHL game. With the Ranger power play taking the collar in three chances, it'll be interesting to see if Tort plays Gilroy over Eminger on Long Island.
For now, the club is one-for-one despite Leopold's second and Derek Roy's third in two nights, which made things interesting with 5:37 left. A lazy Staal delay of game minor didn't make things anymore comfortable with 92 seconds left. But the late Sabre rally was for naught when Ryan Callahan made a strong defensive play off a draw, pushing the puck ahead for Dubinsky who shot it into the empty net for a shorthanded goal that concluded the scoring.
They get to do it again versus their No.1 rival in what should be a chaotic atmosphere at The Coliseum in two days. Don't blink.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Jordan Leopold, Buf (1st 2 goals as a Sabre, 2-1-3, 4 SOG, +1 in 22:51)
2nd Star-Sean Avery, NYR (2 assists, 2 SOG, 0 PIM, +2 in 14:20)
1st Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (1st career hat trick in 1st NHL game, GW, 3 SOG, +3 in 16:50)