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Top line leads way for Rangers prospects

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Rangers vs. Columbus In-Game Reporting

Complete Traverse City Coverage

By Dan David,

At the past summer's 2010 Rangers Development Camp for Rangers prospects, the Blueshirts coaches and scouting staff had a vision for what had the potential to emerge as a great forward line.

The idea was to put center Derek Stepan, who had just left the University of Wisconsin to turn pro, between fellow 2008 draftee Evgeny Grachev on right wing and 2009 pick Ryan Bourque on the left side. The trio seemed to click immediately during the week-long camp, as the U.S. World Junior teammates Stepan and Bourque developed an obvious chemistry with the big Russian Grachev.

"They looked like they were a pretty good fit," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "Stepan controls the puck in the middle of the ice, and Grachev is a guy whose time to touch the puck is when he's ready to shoot it. And that's what Stepan can do for him and Bourque, who jells so well with the other two because he's quick and he can get to the loose pucks."

Rangers prospect Ryan Bourque fights for a loose puck against Columbus defenseman Dalton Prout on Saturday. Bourque had a goal and an assist in the Rangers' 5-4 win in the tournament opener.
On Saturday afternoon at the annual Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., the Bourque-Stepan-Grachev line showed how lethal it could be in a thrilling 5-4 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Huntington Rink. The trio dominated the game, and it was only appropriate that they combined for the winning goal with 6.1 seconds remaining in the third period after Stepan won a crucial faceoff in the Columbus zone.

"We had a set play there," said Grachev. "The coaches told Stepan to get the puck to me at the top of the circle. If I had time, I could shoot it, and if I didn't, I could just keep it going to the d-man behind me, and he would take the shot. Bourque was there in the hashmarks to screen the goalie and disrupt the d-men for Columbus. I got the puck right away and felt I had time to shoot it, so I shot it."

Grachev's game-winner from the top of the left faceoff circle sailed over the shoulder of Blue Jackets goalie Jason Missiaen, a former Montreal fourth-round pick invited to play for the Columbus prospects team. Missiaen, who finished the game with 21 saves, never saw the shot that gave the Rangers an important tournament-opening victory.

Missiaen's counterpart, Rangers goalie Scott Stajcjer, finished with 20 saves and was particularly sharp in the third period, stopping all six Columbus shots. Stajcer, a 2009 fifth-round draft pick, is making his second appearance at Traverse City and has won each of his last two starts as there in helping the Rangers build an overall four-game tournament winning streak -- the most consecutive victories since they won the championship by going 4-0-0 in 2007.

Last year, the Blueshirts prospects lost their Traverse City opener to Carolina, and it cost them another title even though they won the next three games to place third overall. This time around, the Rangers weren't going to let that happen, outshooting Columbus 26-24 and outscoring the Jackets 4-2 over the last 40 minutes after a somewhat shaky opening period had left them trailing 2-1.

"Most guys were nervous at first because you want to impress the coaches and scouts," said Christian Thomas, a 2009 second-round pick whose goal 63 seconds into the middle period tied the score at 2-2. "We started here a little slow, but we eventually got to know who we were playing with and developed some chemistry."

There was no better chemistry than what evolved among the top line of Bourque, Stepan, and Grachev. The threesome combined for eight points on the afternoon, as Stepan led the way with a remarkable goal and three assists. Grachev picked up the last two goals -- tying the game 4-4 at 10:22 of the third and then winning it at 19:54 -- and Bourque added an assist and a power-play goal that gave the Rangers a short-lived 3-2 lead in the second period.

"That line was obviously pretty nice to watch, and it won the game for us tonight," said  Clark.

Each of the line's scoring plays had its a unique flavor. With the Rangers trailing 1-0 on the first of two goals by Columbus' Tomas Kubalik, Stepan got the Rangers on the board at 10:27 of the first period in a play that symbolized the line's comfort level. After Missiaen made a big stop against Grachev, Bourque got to the rebound and pushed it back to defenseman Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers prospects' captain who was Stepan's teammate last season at Wisconsin. McDonagh found a wide-open Stepan in the slot, and Stepan patiently deked Missiaen to the goaltender's left before sliding the puck into a wide open net for the 1-1 tie.

The line's second goal -- Bourque's power-play tally -- came at 2:35 of the second period, just under two minutes after Thomas had tied the game. This time Stepan worked the puck behind the net and found Bourque crashing the crease with a perfect pass for a slam-dunk goal and a 3-2 lead.

"Bourque's main thing that he talks about is that he just wants to get the puck to Stepan because he knows he's going to make a play with it. And Bourque got rewarded himself by going to the net," said Clark.

Over the six minutes after Bourque's goal, however, Columbus had tied the score and then taken lead on goals from Chris Francis and former Notre Dame star Teddy Ruth. But the Rangers' top line was hardly fazed, and they eventually made it a 4-4 game less than two minutes after Ruth's goal.

Grachev's first goal, at 10:22 of the second period, capped off a pretty 2-on-1 with Stepan, who showed great poise in threading a perfect pass from the left circle to Grachev in the slot. Stepan's alert play made Grachev's goal that much easier.

"It was the first kind of game like this for him (Stepan), but he didn't hesitate at all or push any panic buttons. He was just playing his game, managing the puck well, and bringing a lot of offense in making chances." said Grachev. "He is a good centerman to play with."

Stepan's final contribution came in winning the late faceoff that set up Grachev for the winner. It was a well-scripted ending to a tremendous game by the 20-year-old from Hastings, Minn., who was ranked as the world's 16th-best NHL prospect in The Hockey News' annual Future Watch edition.

"Bourque, Grachev and Stepan were phenomenal for us and scored goals at key times," said defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers' 2010 first-round pick, who made his Traverse City debut in the win. "It just goes to show the high level of talent we have on this team."

Those who have watched Stepan develop his game over the past two years might not have been surprised by his virtuoso showing against Columbus. Four-point nights are nothing new to him, as he was a high-scoring center for both Wisconsin and the 2010 U.S. World Junior team that won gold in Saskatchewan. Stepan, in fact, led the entire World Junior tournament in scoring with four goals and 10 assists in seven games, becoming the first Rangers prospect to win the scoring crown since Doug Weight in 1991.

"It was fun. It was really good to get back into a game," said the gregarious Stepan, an alternate captain along with Grachev on Saturday. "I have been chomping at the bit all summer to get back and play a normal hockey game. Summer hockey is good for a little bit, but then you want to get back into regular-season play and get back to competing against guys and going head-to-head with guys."

Stepan credited his linemates for his great personal success on Saturday, although they were just as quick to credit him.

"Me and Evgeny have always had chemistry, and Bourque is just one of those little pit bulls that goes and gets pucks, so he fit in like a glove," said Stepan. "We have a great chemistry and a good group of guys here."

Coming out of college hockey, Stepan might not known what to expect in his first Traverse City game, but his ability to adapt to any situation was evident and could go a long way toward helping him earn an NHL roster spot this fall.

"It's different, because there is more puck possession here than in college," said Stepan. "You've got guys that have a little more poise with the puck. You've got to be smarter and you can't just run around. So it's a little bit different, but it's not super-different. It's a good change. It was similar to World Junior. There's a little more hitting here, but it was similar to that style of play to that."

Two other players making a big impression on Saturday were Thomas, whose rush up ice for a goal was a classic crowd-pleaser, and McIlrath, who competed hard and was a defensive force as the Rangers shut down the Blue Jackets in the third period.

"He has not played anything close to this pace at all, because even the development camp isn't like this," Clark said of McIlrath. "But by the third period you could tell that he finally felt like he belonged. He settled down and made a lot of great defensive plays with the puck and in breaking up plays, so you could tell that his confidence came up there."

McIlrath felt he had to make a real adjustment to the Traverse City level of play.

"It's definitely a faster pace for me. Coming here from the Moose Jaw camp, I didn't know what to expect, but it was definitely a faster pace," he said. "I got used to the game as it went on."

Thomas, a 40-goal scorer with the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals last season, scored one of the game's most important goals because it came so early in the second period and got the Rangers back into a tie.

"I saw a step going toward my side of the ice along their blue line, so I got the puck and went through. I got the left side and just shot it far side," he said.

Clark said the Rangers scouts were particularly pleased with what they saw on that scoring play.

"Christian Thomas scored the type of goal that we had seen him score before," said Clark. "You have to be careful wherever that guy is if you're a goaltender, because he can score from every spot on the ice."

The Rangers will skate on the facility's other ice surface, David's Rink, when they face the Carolina Hurricanes at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. Carolina fell to Minnesota 2-1 in Saturday's other afternoon game, putting the Rangers in a tie with the Wild for first place in the Gretzky Division.

In other games, played in the Howe Division on Saturday night, St. Louis beat Tampa Bay 4-2, and tournament host Detroit routed Dallas 6-1.

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Ryan Bourque Derek Stepan Evgeny Grachev
Jason Wilson Roman Horak Christian Thomas
Ethan Werek Brendan Shinnimin Randy McNaught
Andrew Yogan Jason Bast Chris McKelvie
Left Defense Right Defense
Ryan McDonagh Dylan McIlrath
Jyri Niemi Tomas Kundratek
Sam Klassen Dan Maggio
Goaltenders: Scott Stacjer, Cam Talbot

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