By Sean Hartnett
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Back in late July, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton inked key center Derek Stepan to a six-year, $39 million contract. The bump in pay placed Stepan as the third highest-paid Ranger in terms of annual-average value. All-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and star winger Rick Nash are the only Blueshirts being paid an annual salary higher than Stepan’s.

The 25-year-old alternate captain justified his $6.5 million cap hit by becoming the first Rangers center since Wayne Gretzky to post three straight 50-point seasons, and he set a new career high this season with 22 goals. Stepan finished the 2015-16 regular season in scintillating form. From Feb. 10 to the final day of the regular season, the Hastings, Minnesota, native ranked fourth in the NHL in points.

Stepan is the whole package. He is a savvy forward at both ends of the ice, constantly getting into the right positions and making efficient plays across 200 feet of ice.

“He’s a complete center,” Nash said last May. “I think he’s one of the best two-way centers in the league. He’s a fun guy to play with. His game is so mature for his age. He wears a letter on his shirt, and he’s definitely one of the leaders on the team.”

In addition to his on-ice value, head coach Alain Vigneault will seek out Stepan because of his handle on locker room matters and his high hockey IQ.

“He is definitely one of the players in our dressing room that I ask his opinion on a number of things,” Vigneault said during last year’s Eastern Conference final. “Very bright, very articulate, good person; knows what it takes to be successful and wants to be successful. He’s got a great read in our room on who needs help and who he can touch in a positive way. So, he’s definitely a guy that I lean on.”

Stepan has a knack for rising to the occasion this time of year, especially against the rival Penguins. He has collected seven points (four goals, three assists) in his last nine playoff games against Pittsburgh. In Game 1, Stepan scored two third-period goals and recorded a game-high seven shots on goal. He followed that up with a team-high four SOG in Game 2, but was held scoreless.

The 25-year-old has helped cultivate an atmosphere of accountability inside the Rangers’ dressing room by imparting his knowledge and making sure younger teammates get on board.

“One of our strengths as a team is how much we all care about this game, how much we all want to have success and how we understand what it takes to have success,” Stepan told WFAN.com in January. “The older guys help the younger guys, and it becomes contagious.”

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Back when Stepan penned his six-year deal, he looked toward a future of continued deep playoff runs as a key member of the Blueshirts.

“I’m grateful,” Stepan said. “I came into the league and I was given an opportunity to be part of an Original Six team, an organization that has treated me extremely well, and now I get to go into my next six years with them. I think we have an exciting group of guys, and we have a group of guys that want to take that next step, and that was our main goal right from the beginning. To be able to be a part of this for the next six years and try to find a way to take that next step in our team’s goals and (getting over) that extra hump, it’s really cool, and it’s a special feeling to be a part of it.”

Late in the third period of Game 2, there was a scare when Stepan was boarded by Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Though no penalty was called on the play, Stepan went head-first into the boards and did not return to the Rangers’ bench until 2:45 left in regulation after undergoing concussion protocol.

Healthy and able to suit up for Tuesday’s Game 3, Stepan will have the opportunity to continue his fine start to the playoffs and be the difference maker fans expect him to be with the series knotted at 1-1.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey