Derek Stepan has stepped up his game since his return from Sochi

Derek Stepan celebrates his assist as Chris Kreider

Derek Stepan celebrates his assist as Chris Kreider scores in the third period of a game against the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 2014. (Credit: Getty Images / Elsa)

RALEIGH, N.C. - In Sochi, Derek Stepan played less than four minutes for Team USA. As a spare center, he was a healthy scratch for all but one game.

But since his return, Stepan has made the most of his minutes. He was riding a five-game pointless streak before leaving for Russia but now has at least a point in six straight, with a goal and eight assists, and is second on the Rangers with 33 assists. (Martin St. Louis, acquired last Wednesday, has 34 assists, but 33 were with Tampa.)

Against the Red Wings on Sunday, the 23-year-old center was at his creative best, assisting on Chris Kreider's two third-period goals, and was named third star in the Rangers' 3-0 win. On the second, his well-timed pass on a two-on-one break reached Kreider in stride and provided a can't-miss target from the left side.

In Friday's 4-2 victory here, Stepan scored the game-winner on the power play.

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Stepan's fourth NHL season began with a roadblock. A contract stalemate forced him to sit out training camp and he missed the preseason. If anything, it taught him patience, and he signed just before opening night.

Rick Nash and Kreider were not on his line until November. Kreider spent the first seven games in Hartford; Nash was out with a concussion from Oct. 3 to Nov. 19. But in the last 25 games, at least one of the trio has had a point in all but seven. "I like the dynamics of that line," Vigneault said recently.

"With his [Kreider's] speed and size, he wears down the opposition and makes the other team's defensemen think. It's just a matter of time before they start going in."

In his fourth season, Stepan, who has 11 goals and 44 points, says he's learned to cope with the ups and down of the pro game. On Sunday, he even offered Kreider some advice.

"I told him before the game, 'Try to have a little bit of fun.' He's had a great season, but I remember my first year. It's tough. You have to be able to handle the dips and valleys, and Chris has done a great job with that and he's continued to improve his game."

Notes & quotes: Henrik Lundqvist is expected to make his sixth straight start tonight. With a win, he would tie Mike Richter (301 wins) for the franchise all-time mark. Cam Talbot could be in line to start one of the back-to-backs in Minnesota and Winnipeg Thursday and Friday.

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