Derek Stepan showed Thursday that not only is he ready to skate in the NHL, but he can do so with the top guns of the New York Rangers.
The 20-year-old center found himself centering the first line, between right wing Marian Gaborik and left wing Alexander Frolov, during the Rangers' 4-3 preseason victory against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden.
Stepan looked calm, sharp and comfortable with the talent around him while picking up an assist on Gaborik's first-period power-play goal.
Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko, which allowed center Erik Christensen time with Gaborik and Frolov. But Stepan's performance as the Rangers' first-line center during the first two periods proved he can handle the pressure.
"I don't think he gets too uptight about who he's playing with and I thought he did a pretty good job," said Rangers coach John Tortorella. "That's what I like about him. I think he's able to handle these situations and not really get blown away by it."
"I knew that was going to happen," Stepan said of the line switch. "I said from Day 1 I'm just going to control what I can control and just play the game."
Stepan made the most of his first NHL preseason game right away. With the Rangers on a power play, Stepan found himself with the puck on the left wing near the half-boards. He darted to the middle and drew Devils defenders to him before sliding the puck down to Frolov in the left corner. Frolov whipped a pass across the crease to Gaborik at the far post, who slammed it home to give Stepan his first NHL point, albeit a preseason point.
"It was good. It was a special feeling with a power-play opportunity," Stepan said. "I just handed it off to Frolov and he did the rest. He finds Gabby back door. I'll take that all day. It was a good atmosphere and I had a lot of help from my linemates."
"For his first year in camp, he's showed a lot," Gaborik said. "He still has a ways to go, but he had a very good first game."
Stepan, a native of Hastings, Minn., captained the U.S. team that shocked Canada at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He had 4 goals and 10 assists in seven games during the tournament, including a third-period goal in the gold-medal game against Canada. Stepan, taken in the second round of the 2008 Entry Draft by the Rangers, signed his first professional contract in July.
"It's much faster, for sure -- bigger, stronger guys," said Stepan, who was comparing his World Junior experience to his first preseason contest. "You just got to learn what you can and can't get away with and play your game."
The Rangers appear to have two locks at center right now -- Christensen and Artem Anisimov. That leaves Stepan battling with Brian Boyle, who had a goal and played a terrific overall game Thursday, Todd White and Tim Kennedy for the final two spots. White is just getting back from offseason shoulder surgery, while Boyle's game is more suited for fourth-line minutes. Kennedy has played primarily on the wing during his career.
Rangers captain Chris Drury will miss four weeks with a broken hand, which could give Stepan time early in the regular season to show he belongs. If Stepan plays well, Tortorella could move Drury to the wing, a position he's capable of playing.
The door is open for Stepan, who has five more preseason games to show he can walk through it. He just wants to see himself improve in one area that's pretty important for an NHL center.
"Faceoff circle. I have to get better at that," said Stepan, who was 5-of-10 on draws Thursday. "I think it's just the first-game jitters. It's something I have to work on."
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