From a team standpoint, Derek Stepan's two-goal performance Monday night against the Winnipeg Jets couldn't have come at a better time. He scored the game-winner and helped provide a big two points for a New York Rangers team that had been shut out in its previous two games.
From a more personal standpoint, the breakout game helped take some of the sting off a difficult week for Stepan's alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.
The first blow for the Badgers came March 22, when Wisconsin's men's basketball team was upset by Mississippi in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Despite being ranked fifth in the West Region, Wisconsin dropped a 57-46 decision to 12th-seeded Ole Miss after finishing second to Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference tournament.
"I don't know which loss was worse, the basketball one or the hockey one," Stepan told NHL.com following the Rangers' 4-2 win Monday night. "I was so excited for the basketball team this year."
One week after the basketball loss, Wisconsin's men's hockey team -- for whom Stepan played from 2008-2010 -- suffered a similar fate in the NCAA tournament, bowing out in the first round after losing 6-1 to UMass-Lowell. Though the score wasn't pretty, the Badgers played tough early against a team ranked third in the nation. After a closely contested opening period that saw Wisconsin fall behind 1-0, Lowell scored three goals late in the third to put the game away.
"I watched the game, it wasn't a 6-1 game. It was 4-1 with a couple of ticks left and they give up one in an empty net and then another," Stepan said. "They had their chances in the first. It just didn't seem to work."
Despite the loss, Stepan was proud of a Wisconsin team that had to win the WCHA tournament outright to qualify for the national tourney. The Badgers accomplished that feat by beating Colorado College 3-2 in the WCHA championship game March 23.
Stepan wasn't the only Rangers player reveling in Wisconsin's WCHA run. His teammate, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, played there from 2007-2010.
"The hockey team played well down the stretch. I think Coach [Mike] Eaves is really happy with the way the team responded. Having to win to get into the playoffs and they do it," Stepan said. "It's a great school. It all comes down to the coaching there. Coaches seem to understand how to teach the kids. You look around and it's pretty easy to see."
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