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Stepan set for first trip back to Madison Square Garden against Rangers

Coyotes center preparing for emotional night at former home

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan has it mapped out in his own mind how his first game as a visitor at Madison Square Garden is going to go.

He plans to stay focused on what he has to do to help the Coyotes end their season-opening nine-game losing streak (0-8-1) against his former team, the New York Rangers, for whom he played 515 games across seven seasons, on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-A, NHL.TV).

He says he's going to block out the potential distractions, that he won't worry about what kind of ovation he's going to get, if he's going to get one at all, or if there will be any tribute video.

"Block it all out and just focus on the game," Stepan said. "I don't know if it's possible."

He's pretty sure it's not.

Video: Stepan on Returning to New York

Stepan, traded from the Rangers to the Coyotes on June 23, said after practicing at the Garden on Wednesday that nothing about his upcoming gameday is going to feel normal.

He's going take the team bus from the Coyotes' downtown hotel to the Garden instead of driving there himself like he used to from his former suburban home.

He's going to walk up the Garden's ramp, from street level to the fifth floor, ice level, instead of riding the elevator that the Rangers players take. He'll go to the visitors dressing room, where he said he was for the first time Wednesday.

His friends and former teammates will be on the opposite side.

Video: DAL@ARI: Stepan tips home his first goal with Coyotes

"I'm an emotional guy," Stepan said. "I spent seven years here. It's going to be a rough day, I think. Players always talk about once the puck drops you kind of get into the game, so I'm hoping that happens. It's going to be an interesting day for me."

It'll be different than any other road gameday he's experienced, but Stepan will be fine dealing with it all if he treats the day and the game how he has treated his first few months with the Coyotes.

"We're getting our roots in Arizona," Stepan said, referring to his wife, Stephanie, and their two children. "It's home to us already."

On the ice and in the dressing room, Stepan has embraced his role with the Coyotes.

Whereas in New York he was relied on to do his job as the No. 1 center so the Rangers could maintain their status as a Stanley Cup Playoff team, Stepan's role in Arizona is to do his job as the No. 1 center but also be a teacher and mentor to its young forwards.

Stepan is centering the top line with 19-year-old Clayton Keller on his right wing and 22-year-old Max Domi on his left. He's as much of a coach on that line as he is a player.

"I'll be honest with you, I didn't expect how much work really needed to be done," Stepan said. "I have to do more. I kind of like it. It's a good challenge. It's an opportunity. I think we have really good young pieces. There's a lot to learn about what it takes to win."

The Coyotes have lost their first nine games, but Stepan, Keller and Domi are their top three scorers and have combined for 24 points.

Domi said he has never talked about the nuances of the game, systems, where to go, when and why as much with a teammate as he has with Stepan. Keller said Stepan is always talking to him about treating his body right, getting the right nutrients, eating properly before and after games.

Video: DAL@ARI: Stepan finishes rebound for his second goal

"The way he handles himself in every situation is very professional," Domi said. "For instance, [Wednesday], obviously it could be very easy to show up at the rink and be sour, kind of mopey on the ice, but he was the loudest guy out there and was sharp on every drill. That, to me, is what makes a leader. The younger guy sees that and then he wants to do that and it makes the whole practice better."

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said he routinely hears Stepan giving Domi and Keller pointers when they come back to the bench after a shift.

"He's like an extension of the coaching staff," Tocchet said.

Stepan wants Domi and Keller and the Coyotes' other young forwards to be sponges around him. It reminds him of when he was a rookie in 2010-11 and was learning from Chris Drury, Vinny Prospal, Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Henrik Lundqvist and many more.

"That's a huge part," Tocchet said. "That was something that I took a lot of pride in [as a player]. You want to be involved in Clayton Keller's development or Max Domi's development. Later on, when Keller is done, he can say, 'Oh man, that Derek Stepan helped me become the player that I was.' I think that's maybe not as great as the Stanley Cup, but it's pretty [darn] close."

Stepan got close to winning the Stanley Cup in New York. He called the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 the most fun he's had playing hockey. He'll think about it Thursday.

He'll also think about the overtime winner he scored against the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Second Round, the teammates he had, the friends he made, the fans he adored.

It's not realistic to expect someone as sentimental as Stepan to be able to block it all out.

But as Stepan said, once the puck drops it will be business as usual in his new role, the Coyotes' No. 1 center, teacher, mentor and leader who is trying to help turn an inexperienced team into a winner, trying to create same kind of memories in Arizona that he carries with him into the Garden.

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