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Around the East: Rangers' Stepan getting smarter

by Dan Rosen /
Derek Stepan needed to get about 30 games in before he started to understand how to maintain consistency through the NHL grind. The Rangers' 20-year-old center is hoping to spend the second half of his rookie season proving he can do it for the long haul.

"I think that at this point my body is in good shape, I'm not too banged up and I'm playing with a good amount of confidence," Stepan told Monday. "I'm still learning, still a rookie and I'm still going to make mistakes, but I feel good."

He should. Stepan has been earning his steady ice time.

Stepan closed the 2010 calendar year with 18 points (8 goals, 10 assists) over the final 22 games of the year. He went pointless in his first four games of 2011, but he said they were some of his best games of the season. He finally was rewarded last Saturday with a goal in a 2-1 win at St. Louis.

The kid who started his career with a hat trick in his first NHL game now has 12 goals and 12 assists through 43 games. He had just 5 points, all assists, in the 18 games following his starring debut.

"My whole entire game has gotten more consistent," Stepan said. "When I went into my first slump, it's safe to say I wasn't playing good enough hockey or hard enough hockey to play at this level. I had to get talked to, get set straight, and now I'm playing better. I went four games without a point, but I think those were some of my better games. Hockey works like that."

Stepan has played with Rangers leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky on his left side for the last five games. He credits Dubinsky for a lot of his consistency.

"It's exactly what I need to develop," Stepan said. "Dubi is a guy that I look to for advice. When things aren't going the right way, he'll be the first guy to come up to me and talk to me. He's a hard-working guy, strong on the puck and he can score goals."

So can Stepan, but now he has to prove he can do it for another three, four or perhaps even five months.

He played only 81 games over two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. The Rangers are counting on plenty more from him this season.

"I never get worried," Stepan said. "I'm a 20-year-old kid and I can't worry about too much."

It's time to take a walk around the Eastern Conference, going from first to last.

 Philadelphia Flyers (26-10-5, 57 points)

The Flyers have won three in a row with Brian Boucher stopping 77 of 82 shots. Peter Laviolette said last week that he's now come to expect Boucher to deliver great performances and the net will be his as long as he's on a hot streak. Boucher has won nine of his last 11 starts and is 10-4-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .921 save percentage for the season. On Tuesday, the Flyers start a four-game road swing in Buffalo. They'll also play in Boston, Atlanta and at the New York Rangers.

 Tampa Bay Lightning (25-13-5, 55 points)

The Lightning have been hot and cold over the last four games and it all boils down to their defense and goaltending on the back end of a back-to-back. Dwayne Roloson blanked Washington last Tuesday, but combined with Dan Ellis to give up eight goals the next night in Pittsburgh. Roloson returned Saturday and beat Ottawa, 2-1, but Ellis was in net for a 6-3 loss in New Jersey on Sunday. They're off until the Capitals come to town Wednesday. That starts a stretch of eight games in 14 days.

 Boston Bruins (22-12-7, 51 points)

Down 2-0 in Pittsburgh after two periods usually is not a good position to be in. However, the Bruins didn't seem to mind one bit Monday. They rallied for four goals in the final 3:23 of the third period to beat the Penguins, 4-2. Zdeno Chara started the stunning comeback with a power-play goal. Brad Marchand scored the equalizer just 12 seconds later. Mark Recchi scored a power-play goal with 50 seconds left and it proved to be the winner. Gregory Campbell capped the frantic finish with an empty-net goal. Boston is back at it Tuesday at home against Ottawa.

 Pittsburgh Penguins (26-14-4, 56 points)

The Penguins were 3 1/2 minutes away from taking first place in the Eastern Conference, but they couldn't hold off the surging Bruins and their improbable rally Monday. Pittsburgh has played the last three games without Sidney Crosby (mild concussion), and is 0-2-1, though they probably should have found a way to win Monday. "Obviously we want him back in the lineup, but it's not a reason we blew a 2-0 lead," All-Star defenseman Kris Letang said Monday.

 Washington Capitals (24-12-6, 54 points)

If the Capitals score three goals in a game they seem to be in great shape. Anything less and they're in deep. That's been the trend for Washington all season. They are a remarkable 22-0-2 in games when they score at least three goals (not including shootouts), but just 2-12-4 when they score two or less. The Caps are 6-0-2 since their last regulation loss on Dec. 18. Alexander Semin, who hasn't scored in a month and a half, didn't make the trip to Florida for this week's games.

 New York Rangers (25-15-3, 53 points)

Coach John Tortorella talked about the grind game after the Rangers' 2-1 win in St. Louis on Saturday. He mentioned that's how the team has to play in order to win, and he couldn't be happier that they're buying in. The Rangers have scored a combined six goals in the last three games, but they've won them all. Their penalty kill has been superb, going 12 for 13 during the win streak and 85 for 97 in the last 31 games (87.6 percent). The Rangers are 19-10-2 during that stretch.

 Atlanta Thrashers (22-16-7, 51 points)

They're only four points out of first place in the Southeast Division, but the Thrashers are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and they've yielded 13 goals in the last two. Of course, that includes the 9-3 debacle against Toronto on Saturday night, but it also includes a 4-3 overtime loss to Carolina on Sunday. Atlanta has scored the most goals of any Eastern Conference team (138), but has also let up the most (136). They are 7-15-6 when they give up three or more goals. They're 15-1-1 in the other games.

 Montreal Canadiens (23-16-3, 49 points)

The Habs have played into overtime in four straight games and are 3-0-1. They're in Manhattan to take on the Rangers on Tuesday before going back home for three in a row at Bell Centre. They just came off three straight home games, where they took five of a possible six points against Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Boston. Montreal has won only twice in regulation in the last month, but appears to have righted the ship after a 2-8-0 run from Dec. 10-30.

 Carolina Hurricanes (20-15-6, 46 points)

The Hurricanes have climbed back into contention with a 5-0-2 record in their last seven games. Tuomo Ruutu had 5 points this past weekend, including 3 assists against Florida on Friday and a goal and an assist against on Sunday Atlanta. Erik Cole scored twice against Florida and scored the overtime winner against the Thrashers. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen played Sunday after missing five straight games with an upper-body injury. Cam Ward missed the last two games, but should be in net Tuesday against Calgary.

 Buffalo Sabres (18-18-5, 41 points)

Lindy Ruff joined the 500-win club last week and the Sabres are making him feel good about it, going 4-0-1 in their last five games. The last two were particularly gratifying. Ruff got win No. 500 with a 3-0 victory in San Jose. He picked up win No. 501 in a 2-1 overtime win in Phoenix. Buffalo has scored a power-play goal in four straight games. The Sabres have eight games left before the All-Star break, including three against the Islanders.

 Florida Panthers (18-20-2, 38 points)

Washington comes to town Tuesday as the Panthers open a six-game homestand. They have to use their home-ice advantage to pick up some ground because they lost a lot in the past week, with three straight regulation losses. According to the Miami Herald, GM Dale Tallon could be looking to make some trades by the deadline, which is still more than a month and a half away. The Panthers have to win some games between now and then to give Tallon a good reason not to purge his roster.

 Toronto Maple Leafs (17-20-4, 38 points)

Just when you think the Leafs are totally done, they reel off three straight wins, four in their last five games, and four in a row on the road. Monday's 3-2 win in Los Angeles was a big step. Toronto built a 2-1 lead early in the second only to throw it away, but the Leafs came right back with a strong third period. Nikolai Kulemin scored early and James Reimer backstopped a stingy defense to preserve the one-goal victory. The Leafs have five more road games before the All-Star break, including Tuesday in San Jose.

 Ottawa Senators (16-20-6, 38 points)

The Senators are hoping to catch a couple of road wins this week to stop their freefall. They're winless in five straight (0-3-2), and head to Boston to begin a stretch of four games in six nights. Three of them are on the road, including games at the Islanders and Capitals. Ottawa has scored just four goals in the last three games and seven in its past five. Daniel Alfredsson leads the team with 26 points. Only Nashville (Shea Weber, 24 points) has a leading scorer with fewer points.

 New York Islanders (13-21-6, 32 points)

There's barely any rest for the weary here. The Islanders just completed a five-game road trip that included three in four nights in Edmonton, Colorado and Chicago, but they're back at it Tuesday when they start a five-game homestand against Vancouver. After a 4-3 overtime win in Denver on Saturday, the tired Isles ran into a road block with a 5-0 loss in Chicago on Sunday. They still have points in nine of their last 12 games (8-3-1).

 New Jersey Devils (11-29-2, 24 points)

The Devils are 25 points out of a playoff spot, so perhaps it's time to talk about the race for the No. 1 pick. That race they lead by eight points against the Islanders. Now, of course, the Devils aren't going to play to win that No. 1 pick, so you have to wonder if Sunday's 6-3 victory against Tampa Bay, including a five-goal third period, was a sign the team could be picking up some confidence. They don't play again until Friday, so we won't know until then.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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