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Derek Stepan finally breaks through

Rangers center scores for first time since Jan. 17 in win against Red Wings

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- Twenty-three games. Sixty-one shots. No goals for New York Rangers center Derek Stepan.

And then on the power play late in the third period of a game the Rangers were leading by two, forward Mats Zuccarello won a battle in the right-wing corner. Forward Chris Kreider passed the puck from the right circle across the slot. The puck skipped and wobbled.

"Garbage pass," Kreider said.

Stepan didn't blast a one-timer from the left circle.

"I toed it," Stepan said.

But the puck fluttered into the top right corner of the net as Detroit Red Wings goaltender Petr Mrazek did the splits sliding across, and that's all that mattered. The drought was over.

Stepan bent over at the waist, clenched his fists and let out a primal scream. He curled into the left-wing corner and got a bear hug from Kreider. He received pats on the head and fist-bumps and, of course, ribbing.

"Oh, you really got all of that one," someone told him.

It was an ugly goal at the end of a 4-1 win at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday, but man, to Stepan, to the Rangers, it was beautiful.

Stepan had never endured a drought like that in his previous six NHL seasons. Not even close. He said the longest he had experienced before was 15 games.

He scored 22 goals in 72 games last season. He had 12 goals through his first 45 games this season, on pace for 21 goals over 82 games.

He scored twice against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 17, giving him three goals in two games. And then he didn't score for a few games. And then he didn't score for a few more games. And then he didn't score for a few more games.

A blip became a slump, and slump became a drought, and he couldn't help but wonder what the heck was going on.

"It was tough," Stepan said. "It's not an easy thing to go through. Guys do it. You go through it in your career. You've just got to find a way to keep that mindset of, 'This is just the way it is right now. Keep playing the right way.'"

He talked to coaches. He talked to teammates. Before the Rangers left to play the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 6, he called former teammate Martin St. Louis.

Video: NYR@DET: Stepan roofs Kreider's feed with a one-timer

After the Lightning traded St. Louis to the Rangers on March 5, 2014, St. Louis went 14 games without a goal. This was a guy who had won the Hart Trophy as most valuable player once and the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion twice.

"He said it felt like a year," Stepan said.

Stepan played with St. Louis the rest of that season and the following season. They talked hockey all the time.

"We were hockey nerds," Stepan said.

St. Louis now lives in Connecticut and often watches the Rangers, so when Stepan called, he wasn't surprised. First, he let Stepan vent his frustration. Then, he told him what he thought. They talked about the process.

"He gave me some good advice," Stepan said. "He's a guy that I'm going to continue to lean on. He's got a lot of experience, and he can relate to me pretty strongly."

Stepan had five shots against the Lightning. No goals. He had one shot against the Florida Panthers on March 7. No goals. He had 10 shots against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 9. Ten shots. Still no goals.

He said it almost got to the point where he was numb. He stopped thinking this might be the shot, or this might be the shot, or this might be the shot.

"He's a good guy about it," Kreider said. "He doesn't pout. He plays the game the right way. He's a consummate leader, even when he's not scoring goals."

Kreider paused.

"It's not the easiest thing on his linemates either," he added. "When your centerman isn't scoring, obviously a little bit of the onus is on you too, right?"

Finally, on his fourth shot against the Red Wings, when he toed a garbage pass on a late power play, the puck fluttered in.

"I knew it was going to be not such a pretty goal," Stepan said. "It felt good."

That's hockey. Sometimes you play well and can't catch a break. Sometimes you play poorly, the puck deflects into the net off a shin pad and everyone thinks you're great when you're not. Stepan said he didn't like four or five games out of the 23 in which he failed to score; the rest were fine.

"Hopefully it just releases a little bit," Stepan said, "maybe get some bounces to go my way."

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