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Rangers' Stepan aims to find rhythm vs. hot Penguins

by Dan Rosen

PENGUINS (10-2-1) at RANGERS (6-6-2)


NEW YORK -- New York Rangers center Derek Stepan is learning the inevitable lesson that coming back from an extended absence because of an injury is hard work and requires as much mental stamina as it does physical stamina.

Stepan will play his third game of the season Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden.

He returned last Saturday at the Toronto Maple Leafs, and played again Sunday against the Edmonton Oilers. He had an assist in New York's 5-4 loss to Toronto, but his missed defensive assignment on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins resulted in Edmonton's first goal in the Oilers' 3-1 win.

"I wish I could tell you right now, 'Hey, we had back-to-back and now I can start going,'" Stepan said. "I wish I could say that I got my two games in and now I'm ready to go, but ideally I need to find ways to play 60 minutes, closer to what I did in Toronto, and just slowly start getting my game back."

Stepan missed the first 11 games of the season after fracturing his right leg in training camp. He previously had not missed a regular-season game in his career, a span of 294 games.

"It's the first time in my career where I'm coming back from an injury and it's a difficult thing to find your game," Stepan said. "You have to be able to get yourself involved as fast as you can mentally into the game. Against Edmonton I make that mistake and mentally it's a tough rebound. It was a difficult game, but it was a good one for me. I'm trying to learn how to get the ball rolling and find my game. I feel it at times and then I also feel I'm behind at times."

Stepan said the toughest adjustment for him has been making quick decisions, particularly when he has the puck.

"There was one in Toronto where Marty [St. Louis] laid it out to me and it's on my stick, but it's a spinning puck and those plays are ones you can do in practice," Stepan said. "You can't simulate a spinning puck. It just happens. So you have to find a way to chip away at it and [Tuesday] is a good test. I'm really just trying to simplify my game to get myself ready to go."

The Rangers will try to do the same thing after losing back-to-back games in regulation to the Maple Leafs and Oilers last weekend. Pittsburgh, though, poses an obvious threat.

The Penguins carry a seven-game winning streak into Madison Square Garden.

During the streak they have outscored the opposition 32-8, including 13-0 in special teams. They have scored three or more goals in all seven games, including four or more in five and five or more in three. Their power play is 13-for-34 (38.2 percent) and their PK is 25-for-25.

Pittsburgh has the League's No. 1 power play at 37.5 percent.

"I think staying out of the box tonight would be part of the plan," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.

The Penguins have also killed 37 consecutive penalties in the past 10 games, which is a team record for consecutive games without allowing a power-play goal. They allowed six power play goals on 15 chances in their first three games.

"We had our first three games, we made some mistakes, but I think it was more at that time just learning the details of how we were going to kill," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "I think it has responded well. The first three games we were looking like we didn't know what we were doing at times, but now it's starting to go. It's also your goaltending. [Marc-Andre] Fleury and [Thomas] Greiss have been great in shorthanded situations, so they're real key ingredients in the penalty kill."

The Penguins aren't expected to make any changes to the lineup they have used in the past three games since Robert Bortuzzo replaced Olli Maatta (neck surgery to remove tumor) on defense. Pittsburgh recalled forward Beau Bennett from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League on Tuesday. He hasn't played for Pittsburgh this season because of a lower-body injury he sustained in the preseason. It's doubtful that he plays Tuesday.

Defenseman John Moore will return to the Rangers lineup after serving his five-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on Minnesota Wild center Erik Haula. In addition, forward Jesper Fast, who was recalled Monday, will replace rookie Anthony Duclair.

Fleury will start against Henrik Lundqvist.

Here are the projected lineups:


Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist

Pascal Dupuis - Evgeni Malkin - Blake Comeau

Nick Spaling - Brandon Sutter - Steve Downie

Zach Sill - Marcel Goc - Craig Adams

Paul Martin - Kris Letang

Christian Ehrhoff - Robert Bortuzzo

Rob Scuderi - Simon Despres

Marc-Andre Fleury

Thomas Greiss

Scratched: Beau Bennett

Injured Olli Maatta (neck)


Rick Nash - Derick Brassard - Martin St. Louis

Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello

Carl Hagelin - Kevin Hayes - Lee Stempniak

Tanner Glass - Dominic Moore - Jesper Fast

Matt Hunwick - Dan Girardi

Marc Staal - Kevin Klein

John Moore - Michael Kostka

Henrik Lundqvist

Cam Talbot

Scratched: Anthony Duclair

Injured: Dan Boyle (hand), Ryan McDonagh (shoulder)

Status report: Maatta was back on the ice Tuesday, seven days since his surgery to remove a tumor in his neck. He did not skate with the team. … Pittsburgh doesn't have any extra bodies available in New York. Defenseman Scott Harrington was sent down Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League on Sunday. Bennett had four assists in a game Sunday against the Syracuse Crunch. … Vigneault said Boyle might be able to return to the lineup later this week. The Rangers play Thursday at home against the Colorado Avalanche and Saturday at Pittsburgh. Boyle said he still has pain in his wrist, but he's hoping to participate in contact drills in practice Wednesday.

Who's hot: Who isn't for the Penguins? Crosby has 15 points on three goals and 12 assists in the past seven games. He had five assists in Pittsburgh's 6-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. Letang had four points on two goals and two assists against Buffalo, and has eight points in the past seven games. Kunitz and Hornqvist each have 10 points on five goals and five assists in the past seven games.


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