If you score a hat trick in your first career NHL game, it is fair to say that everyone is always going to look at you and ask "What's next?"
The event in question occurred back in 2010, and there have been high expectations placed on the New York Rangers' first-line center ever since.
Derek Stepan had a career year during the 2012-13 NHL lockout-shortened season, and expectations were considerably high for the 23-year-old entering the 2013-14 tilt. Early on Stepan played well, but he went through some struggles heading into the Olympic break.
Stepan's struggles didn't cost him a spot on Team USA's roster for the Sochi Games, and it appears that the experience lit a fire deep inside him.
The Rangers are in the midst of a tight playoff race in the Metropolitan Division, and they need their top players to step up. Stepan entered the season as the No. 1 center, and he is finally playing like the first-line center that he is capable of being.
Although this writer feels that Stepan is an ideal second-line center, his play as of late has been exemplary. The Blueshirts have played 12 games since the NHL returned from the Olympic break, and Stepan has been the team's best offensive player during that span.
Since returning from Sochi, Stepan has scored four goals and he has tallied nine assists for 13 points in 12 games. These numbers are amazing when you consider that he went five games without a point heading into the Olympic break.
Overall, Stepan has scored 14 goals and 34 assists for 48 points in 71 games. He is on pace to finish with 15 goals and 40 assists for 55 points, and that could be looked at as a win for Stepan or the Rangers. The above projection averages out to a 0.67 point-per-game average, and that is a solid number for a player like Stepan.
While it is true that he tallied a 0.92 point-per-game average in 2012-13, it is important to realize that a shortened season isn't a fair comparison. Last season there were more back-to-back games, and Stepan was able to be successful by harnessing momentum.
This year the schedule has been normal—sans the break for the Olympics—so Stepan has had to adjust to the ebb and flow of a normal season. For a better explanation and some context, here is a chart based on his production throughout his career.
|12-13 (48 Games)||18||26||44||0.92||20:55|
The Hockey News
As you can see, he is on pace to surpass his previous high in points for an 82-game season, so it is fair to say that his 2013-14 season has been very productive. Stepan has had a very successful career to date, and his recent play is reinforcing that he could potentially be a bona fide first-line center.
During the Rangers contest on Friday versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Blueshirts found themselves in a tough spot. A defensive lapse allowed Blue Jacket forward Nick Foligno to score the first goal of the game, and it looked like the Rangers were going to be in trouble.
Instead of panicking, the Rangers responded quickly, and it only took Stepan 40 seconds to answer. His goal gave the Rangers life, and the rest of the game was tilted in the Blueshirts' favor. This was just one example of his ability to be a leader, something he has done throughout his career.
For those who don't know, Stepan captained the United States to a World Junior Championship back in 2010, and he also was a captain at the University of Wisconsin.
The Rangers won Friday against the Blue Jackets, and they improved their record to 38-29-4 with 80 points. With the win, the Rangers are now in third place in the Metropolitan Division, and they are one point behind the second-place Philadelphia Flyers, two points ahead of the fourth-place Blue Jackets.
With 11 games and 22 points still up for grabs, the Rangers are going to be in a stressful spot for the next few weeks. The Rangers are going to need an all-hands-on-deck effort for the rest of the way, and Stepan is certainly getting hot at the right time for his hockey team.