It takes a lot to drag New York Rangers center Derek Stepan out of the lineup. Prior to this season, Stepan had suited up for 294 of 294 possible regular season games.
The Hastings, MN native’s toughness was on display for all to see during the 2014 playoffs. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, Stepan received a high, late hit from Montreal Canadiens winger Brandon Prust. After sitting out Game 4 and undergoing surgery on a broken jaw, Stepan incredibly returned for Game 5 sporting a protective shield that made him resemble Batman villain Bane.
Stepan became a villain in the eyes of Habs fans and the toast of Broadway, as he scored two goals in his return. He continued to log heavy minutes for the remainder of the playoffs, despite being on a soft diet. Stepan emptied his tank every night while having to rely on smoothies for meals. Impressively, Stepan was able to handle the demands of two double-overtime games during the 2014 Stanley Cup Final – skating for 27:07 in Game 2 and 31:40 in the deciding Game 5.
“It’s probably been the toughest year so far me,” Stepan said on break-up day on July 16. “We lost in the Eastern Conference Finals one year, and it was not easy. To lose in the finals was even harder. Each year you play, your drive gets bigger and bigger.”
After the heartbreak of falling short of lifting the Stanley Cup, Stepan ran into some tough luck during offseason conditioning drills. On September 24, Stepan suffered a fractured left fibula. The injury forced the 24-year-old center to miss the first 12 games of the new season.
The Rangers had been counting on Stepan to play a key role and serve as a dressing room leader. Stepan was named one of New York’s four alternate captains on October 6.
“Step obviously is a big part of our team,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said earlier this season. “He’s a good young player who is assuming more leadership in our dressing room.”
Having returned to the Rangers’ lineup on November 8, Stepan has recorded three points in three games. He collected two assists in Tuesday night’s 5-0 victory over the Penguins, reaching his 200th career point on a shorthanded assist to Rick Nash.
Despite his strong production, Stepan feels that he can raise his game to another level.
“It’s gonna take a while to get it all the way back,” Stepan said. “Game by game here, I feel better each night.”
For Stepan, it’s about the small details. The 24-year-old is concentrating on getting the most out practices and ironing out the kinks in his game.
“My first few years, practices have been important,” Stepan said. “Really right now, there’s a lot of emphasis on them. I really need to focus on using the practices to get myself ready for Thursday’s game. I’ve got to continue to find my game.”
This kind of commitment and attention to detail is a big reason why Stepan was given an ‘A’ by the Rangers. Stepan has always handled himself with maturity and responsibility.
He believes that the wholehearted, full-team effort demonstrated by the Rangers on Tuesday night has set the bar for the effort that must be carried into every game.
“It’s how we want to play every single night,” Stepan said.
Although the Rangers have contended with a significant amount of injuries, they must improve on a disappointing 7-6-2 record. Stepan has shown that he’s willing to do what it takes to inspire a charge up the Metropolitan Division standings.