Derek Stepan had the kind of NHL debut every player dreams of.
The 20-year-old became the first player in the 85-year history of the Rangers and the fourth in the NHL since 1927 to score three goals in his first NHL game, powering New York to a season-opening 6-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
"Not a chance could I have dreamed this," Stepan said after becoming the first Ranger in 55 years to get a hat trick on opening night. "You dream about playing in the NHL, and then you go out and play like that, I mean the hockey gods must have been looking down on me. It was a fun night overall, that's for sure."
Stepan, the captain of the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the World Junior Championship in January, turned pro this summer after leading the University of Wisconsin to the NCAA championship game -- and impressed the Rangers enough to earn a roster spot. He joined Montreal's Alex Smart in 1943, Quebec's Real Cloutier in 1979 and Dallas' Fabian Brunnstrom two years ago as the only players to score three times in their first game.
"We're really happy for him," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "Hopefully, he can keep doing what he's doing because he was really good in camp and tonight, I mean, Wow!"
Brandon Dubinsky had two goals, including an empty-netter, and Eric Christensen also scored for the Rangers. Jordan Leopold had two goals and Derek Roy also scored for the Sabres, who lost their home opener one night after beginning their season with a 2-1 victory at Ottawa.
Stepan became the first Ranger since Jarkko Immonen on April 6, 2006, to score a goal in his NHL debut when Dan Girardi's shot from the right point hit his leg, caromed off Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers and slid into the net at 10:53 of the opening period.
"I wanted it to be where it bounced off the other team because that's the way everyone, I think, scores their first goal," Stepan said. "Off the elbow pad, off the shin pad, off someone else. That's part of the process."
Myers was involved in the Rangers' second goal as well. He slipped behind the net and turned over the puck to Artem Anisimov. The second-year center came out to the left of Ryan Miller and slid a pass to an onrushing Dubinsky, who slammed it past Miller at 16:42 for a two-goal lead.
"That might have been one of our poorest first periods as far as skating and puck movement," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "There were a lot of bad decisions, and it cost us dearly."
The Rangers held onto their two-goal lead until midway through the second period, when Paul Gaustad won a draw back to Leopold at center point. Leopold's blast went through traffic and past Lundqvist.
But Stepan then put the game away by scoring twice in a span of 3:12.
Mark Staal kept the puck in at the left point and took a shot that was stopped by Miller, but Stepan slid home the rebound at 15:08. Sean Avery then whipped a blind backhand pass from behind the net to Stepan, who one-timed it behind Miller to complete the first opening-night hat trick by a Ranger since Ron Murphy in 1955. He also became the first Ranger to score three goals in Buffalo since Petr Nedved on Feb. 25, 2000.
"He's such a great talent and it was just awesome what he did tonight," Dubinsky said. "He's a big part of the team and he's really going to help us this year. The best thing about him is that he is confident, but he stays with that even keel."
Christensen finished off a pass from Marian Gaborik at 1:08 of the third period to put the Rangers ahead by four. Leopold got his second when his long power-play shot slithered through Lundqvist's pads at 5:40, and Roy got his third goal in two nights when he backhanded Tyler Ennis' passout past Lundqvist at 14:23. But Dubinsky hit the empty net with 1:25 left and the Rangers killing a penalty -- after Stepan hit the post with his empty-net bid, which would have made him the first player ever to score four goals in his first game.
"I can't believe I missed it," he said. "I don't know what happened. I just missed."
The Sabres get another tough test on Monday when the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks come to HSBC Arena.
Ruff knows his team will have to be a lot better.
"We weren't good," Ruff said. "We had a period of maybe 10 minutes in the second period where we put the work boots on. I'm pretty disappointed with our work ethic. We had pucks we didn't want to go get. We had some retrievals where we had lack of communication. We had some changes where our defense had no support. There was a lot of bad stuff from that game."
Material from team media was used in this report
Deflected shot -