By Sean Hartnett
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When the Rangers aren’t on top of their game, Derek Stepan digs deeper.
The 26-year-old alternate captain provides determination, vocal leadership and the kind of ceaseless work effort that tends to spark all of his teammates. Those traits were there for all to see during the Blueshirts’ 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
“I want to lead by example each night and I want to make sure I’m doing the right things with and without the puck,” Stepan told WFAN.com following the win. “We have a young group here. We have a group of guys who haven’t played a whole lot of games. To show them the way is something that’s important.”
After the Rangers entered the first intermission down 3-1, Stepan responded by chipping in two second-period goals before defenseman Nick Holden notched the game-winner in the third. Lately, Stepan has had the hot stick, contributing 17 points, including 10 assists, over the last 19 games. The 6-foot center, who finished the night with a team-leading four shots on goal in 21:36 of ice time, leads the Blueshirts with 28 points.
Stepan embraced the challenge of firing up his cohorts by delivering no-nonsense messages.
“I really like the way Derek stepped up on the bench and in between the periods,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “We needed a push back. At some point, your leaders have to take command. We didn’t start the game the way we wanted, but nobody was going to feel sorry for us. We had to step up and put our big boy pants on and go out and battle. That’s what the guys did.”
“When (Stepan) steps up, everyone listens and grabs on,” defenseman Brady Skjei added. “I was on the bench and he’s one of our leaders. We were kind of tensed up, not moving our feet and not making the plays we know how to make. He said that and got us a win.”
Stepan desires to emulate the impressive two-way play of alternate captain Rick Nash. With the 32-year-old winger missing from the lineup due to a groin injury, Stepan has taken it upon himself to be the lead dog amongst the forwards.
“He’s a big piece of our leadership,” Stepan said of Nash. “He’s a guy that I look up to and a guy I really want to model my game after. Rick does so many good things. He’s a great person, a great leader and one heck of a hockey player.”
Stepan, who hails from Hastings, Minnesota, has had a hand in six of the Rangers’ last nine goals. His line, which also features Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, has recorded 13 points over the last two games. Though Stepan tends to be generally soft spoken and deeply considers his responses to the media, that shouldn’t be confused with unassertiveness. He’s not afraid to say what needs to be said on the bench, on the ice and in the dressing room.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about the last two games,” Stepan said. “It’s so important to have good chatter on the bench and we had none of it — no emotion. I know our coaching staff really expects our leadership group to step up at times and in that moment I felt that was a good time for me to step up and try to light a fire on somebody and try to turn things around and get people thinking the right way.”
With offense-generating stars like Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich absent from the lineup, Stepan has stepped up as an offensive powerhouse and a fiery leader.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey