Derek Stepan had 19 points in 14 games last month. Even he was surprised.
"A little bit, yes," the New York Rangers center told NHL.com Tuesday. "I'm really happy with the way it went, but now it's a new season, a new start."
Stepan will have to continue his surge into May if the Rangers want to match offensive wits with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals starting in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
There's no reason to think Stepan can't -- or that he won't. He's 22 years old and he has hit the next level of his career, so much so that outside of Henrik Lundqvist, a case can be made for Stepan being the Rangers' most important player going into the playoffs.
"He's getting rewarded for playing the way he has," left wing Carl Hagelin said. "He's definitely set the tone."
He did in April, when the Rangers went 10-3-1 to make the playoffs. Stepan scored the first goal in four of those wins and had three game-winners. He finished with eight goals and 11 assists.
"He's a 22-year-old guy that I used in every freaking situation," said coach John Tortorella, who was effusive in his praise of Stepan on Tuesday.
Tortorella always figured Stepan would be able to turn the corner quickly in his NHL career. He noticed his hockey I.Q. and his ability three years ago, when as a rookie Stepan played through the ups and downs to register 45 points in 82 games.
"Some of the other kids don't get it," Tortorella said. "They will eventually. I think they'll be taught, but [Stepan] had that right away and you could see that right away when he first came to us. I think that progresses players quicker."
Tortorella wanted to see growth from Stepan last season. Instead he saw more of the same from his rookie year. It wasn't enough. There had to be more. Tortorella was sure of it.
He was right.
"He's a guy I was worried about being our No. 2 center going into the year," Tortorella said, "so he has proven to all of us that he has taken huge step this year."
"He's prepared," Tortorella said. "That's an intangible that he has that some players don't, as far as being prepared for all situations. I think that has helped him in his confidence and it keeps on growing."
It catapulted him to star status last month, but it wasn't a fluke, not when you consider Stepan had 15 points in March, the most productive month of his career until he did better in April.
"I definitely had a good month [in April]," Stepan said in front of a large group of reporters Tuesday. "I felt good going into games. I was playing with a good confidence level. I seemed to, whoever I was playing with, build chemistry quickly and those guys seemed to help me quite a bit, whoever I was playing with. When you build chemistry like that it definitely helps your game."
Stepan scored one goal in 20 playoff games last season. He's given every indication that won't happen again this year.
"It was a bit of a struggle [last postseason]," Stepan told NHL.com, "but I've learned from it."
Liles looking for redemption in playoffs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman John-Michael Liles may never have a better opportunity to make a second impression matter than in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A strong showing could erase two seasons of underwhelming play resulting from injuries and inconsistency and make Toronto fans feel the Maple Leafs are getting a solid return on the four-year, $15.5 million investment they made in Liles 15 months ago.
"Has it been storybook so far? No, it's been tough," Liles told NHL.com in a phone interview. "There have been some injuries and adversity, but that's the nature of the game. It's a business and it doesn't always go perfectly, but I'll continue to work hard and just make sure I'm prepared and ready to play."
Liles' biggest problem last season was the concussion that kept him out of 16 games from Dec. 23-Jan. 31. He had 21 points in his first 34 games, putting him on pace to set a career-high for points in a season and good enough for the Maple Leafs to reward him with the four-year contract extension.
He had six points in 32 games after coming back from the concussion.
"The concussion was tough last year just because you just know there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel," Liles said. "Even after you get cleared and you're playing you still don't feel like yourself and it takes a while. It takes quite a long time to really start to feel like yourself again to feel like you're a complete player like you were beforehand."
Liles wanted to be that guy again this season, but he couldn't do it. His inconsistent play and inability to adapt to Randy Carlyle's defensive system led to the coach making him a healthy scratch for 12 straight games from Feb. 18-March 12.
Liles finished with 11 points in 32 games, which means going back to last season he has 17 points in the past 64 games he's played. He used to average 40 points per season.
"It is a second season," Liles said of his opportunity in the playoffs. "For me, as cliché as it sounds, I'm just trying to help the team however I can. My focus is to make sure I'm ready for each and every game and that will continue to be my focus."
Osgood can appreciate Anaheim's two-goalie system
As a goalie consultant for the Detroit Red Wings, Chris Osgood obviously wants to see Jimmy Howard outplay whoever is in net for the Anaheim Ducks throughout the Western Conference Quarterfinals. But as a former goalie who won the Stanley Cup in 2008 after playing the entire season in platoon system with Dominik Hasek, Osgood respects what the Ducks have done this season with Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth.
He said more coaches should and will eventually start utilizing their goalies like Bruce Boudreau has done in Anaheim and Joel Quenneville did with Corey Crawford and Ray Emery with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.
"I do think the days of going with just one guy will become less and less," Osgood told NHL.com during a phone interview conducted before the matchup for the Stanley Cup Playoffs were set. "Not that that is not going to be the first choice, but I think more coaches will start going with two guys more than you've seen before in the future. It may take a long time for it to die, but I think it may. I don't see why it wouldn't work to have both guys going. Teams have won with it. I think it gives a team an edge."
Osgood said his situation with Hasek in 2007-08, when he appeared in 43 regular-season games and Hasek played in 41, helped make him hungrier and more prepared at playoff time. Hasek was the No. 1 going into the playoffs, but he was removed by Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals and Osgood took the Red Wings the rest of the way to the Stanley Cup.
He could do it because he prepared like a No. 1, like he was going to play because he never knew when coach Mike Babcock was going to call his name as the starter.
"When Dom was playing in Nashville, I'd be out there for a half-an-hour after practicing doing drills with [goalie coach] Jim Bedard just in case I got the chance," Osgood said. "I didn't want to go in there and not be up to the standards of Dominik Hasek. I wanted to make sure I was ready. I wanted to make sure there was no decline, that I'd be able to push the team forward."
Sutter sees his childhood in Iginla
Brandon Sutter was 7 years old when Jarome Iginla's NHL career kicked off with the Calgary Flames. For the next dozen years, Sutter, while living in Red Deer, Alberta, watched Iginla lead the Flames and take them to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.
Now he gets to watch Iginla from the bench and sometimes from the ice as teammates with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sutter still gets goose bumps talking about it.
"When I was a kid, no, I never would have thought this could happen," Sutter told NHL.com. "Definitely not."
At first Sutter tried to play it off, saying the thought of Iginla being his teammate is "settling in a bit," but when pressed he talked about how unique it is.
"It was pretty cool watching him when I was a kid, especially the year they went to the Final," Sutter said. "To be playing with him now, that's pretty awesome. He's a presence."
Backstrom credits his new demeanor for turnaround
"If I'm going to be honest with you, usually I get really [angry] when I'm not helping the team enough, like I should," Backstrom told NHL.com.
About a quarter of the way through this season, Backstrom realized he should do the opposite. It worked.
After starting the season with two points in five games and 11 through 15, Backstrom teamed with Alex Ovechkin to close the season with 24 points over the final 19 games to keep his status as a point-per-game player in the NHL.
Backstrom had 48 points, including 40 assists, in 48 games. He has 415 points in 413 career NHL games.
"I just tried to stay positive this time and tried to work hard and knew eventually it was going to come," Backstrom said. "Especially after a couple of years you learn. You learn that you have to keep going, put the bad games behind you. I would have probably still battled through it, but this time it was easier, I think."
Odds and ends
Expect to see the Dallas Stars continue to send their top prospects to the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. New Stars general manager Jim Nill was a big proponent of the tournament during his time as Red Wings assistant general manager. The Stars are among the eight teams expected to participate this year. The tournament runs from Sept. 5-8 at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City, Mich.
"Yes, a must," Nill told NHL.com when asked if he wants Dallas to continue going to Traverse City. "My first order of business."
Of the 17 staff members (nine NHL.com writers and eight NHL Network analysts) who revealed their playoff predictions on NHL.com Tuesday, eight had the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup and six had the Blackhawks winning it. Fifteen had Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, including 10 who also had Chicago as the Penguins opponent. Seven of the eight NHL Network analysts had Pittsburgh and Chicago in the Final.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
* SIDEBAR BOX
"I don't think anything you say or any way you describe it can live up to exactly how intense it is. That's the biggest thing I realized my rookie year, guys telling me, 'Hey it's another level,' and then you get done with that first game and you sit there and go, 'Wow, that was pretty amazing.' Playoffs are a whole other animal and that's the best thing I have been able to say to guys so far, just give them that description and say, 'If you think you know what it's about, you really don't.' "
New York Rangers coach John Tortorella on why not having any playoff experience can also be a good thing for a young player:
"They just don't understand some of the things that go on, the momentum things, the different types of pressures, pressures of an individual point in a game. That's not in their head. I think it works both ways. I think experience is a really good thing -- but for certain situations and certain people, not having a clue what's going on is good."
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