By Sean Hartnett
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Heading into Sunday night’s tilt with the Devils, goals had been hard to come for Rangers center Derek Stepan.
The Blueshirts’ 26-year-old alternate captain had just one in his previous 11 contests.
Stepan is rarely the quickest forward on the ice. He has never been the most productive or the most highly skilled player at his position. But what he is counts for a lot. More than anything else, the seventh-year center tends to be effective on both ends of the rink and has a flair for scoring clutch goals.
He provided a trademark timely goal in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout victory. With goaltender Henrik Lundqvist pulled for an extra skater and the Rangers down a goal, Stepan scored with 1:13 left. After winning the offensive zone faceoff, he found a seam in the defense and got his stick in the right place to redirect captain Ryan McDonagh’s feed past New Jersey goalie Cory Schneider.
Stepan’s shooting percentage is atypically lean this season. After a finishing last season at 11.5, his shooting percentage through 34 games stands at a career-low 7.8 percent. Though that number appears concerning, expect Stepan’s accuracy to rise closer to his 10.9 career average as the season presses on. The key thing to remember is that he gets into the right places for tips and redirects.
Sometimes, you’ve got the hot stick and other times the net appears to be shrinking. Hockey tends to be a game of streaks. Maybe Sunday’s goal can get Stepan into a groove.
“It’s funny how it works,” Stepan said. “I thought tonight was probably not my best, and I find a way to get it into the back of the net. You go in these little things here and there and you’ve got to find ways to stay even keeled, stay positive, and focused working with your linemates. I think it’s a big goal for me. It relieves a little pressure and allows me to continue to play.”
Stepan had gone the previous seven games without lighting the lamp. Six goals through 34 games isn’t the kind of end product you would expect from a center pulling in $6.5 million per year, but it’s important to focus on the positives he supplies for the Rangers on a nightly basis. He constantly plays with a two-way sense that few centers in the league can match and is a gifted playmaker. When he regains his scoring touch, the Rangers will possess a complete center.
“We know his ability obviously as a passer and a playmaker,” McDonagh said of Stepan. “But he certainly knows how to score goals and find the back of the net. It’s great to see him get rewarded tonight with a big goal. It’s a great credit to him. He does a lot of work for us on the defensive side, penalty kill and power play. He does a lot of things as a two-way center that might not necessarily end up on the scoresheet. He makes big plays defensively and he’s always going to play high percentage and not turn over the puck too much. That’s what you like to see from your centerman.”
It’s not like the points aren’t there. Stepan and J.T. Miller rank second on the Blueshirts with 22. Stepan has recorded eight points, including six assists, over his last 10 games. Additionally, he has been playing an integral role on the league’s fourth-best penalty kill, skating for an average of 1:28 per game for a Rangers’ PK that is clicking at 86.8 percent.
When his game has been at full efficiency, so have the Rangers as a team. If you’re looking for Stepan to match pace with Connor McDavid and Tyler Seguin production-wise, you’re looking at the wrong guy. His 0.92 points per game during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season was an outlier in Stepan’s career. A seasonal average of 0.7 to 0.8 points per game is more in Stepan’s typical range — and that’s pretty solid production in its own right.
If you add up everything Stepan contributes, there are few centers that can equal what he accomplishes for the Rangers on a game-by-game basis. That’s why he’s worth his lofty salary.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey