Rangers' Stepan steps up again

Rangers center Derek Stepan celebrates scoring the game-tying

Rangers center Derek Stepan celebrates scoring the game-tying goal during the third period against Tampa Bay. (Dec. 23, 2010) Photo Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

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Derek Stepan began this Rangers season by opening plenty of eyes, registering a hat trick on opening night in his first NHL game.

He's had a few lulls since then, but he's lately been reminding everyone about that first-night eye-opener.

Stepan carried a three-game goal-scoring streak into the two-day holiday break. The Rangers were only 1-1-1 in those three games, but Stepan showed that at 20, he's able to handle all the situations he's thrown into and be productive.

"He's a very mature kid. He doesn't seem to get rattled," John Tortorella said.

The coach has called Stepan the team's most talented center. It's why Tortorella has most often put Stepan on Marian Gaborik's line in the search to find some consistency for Gaborik, who should return to practice Sunday after missing Thursday's shootout loss to the Lightning with a sore groin.

Stepan isn't just scoring goals, he's scoring clutch ones. Each of the goals in his three-game streak came in the third period.

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Against the Coyotes on Dec. 16, he tied the score at 3-3 with 5:43 to play, setting up a shootout win. He was working on the right wing and drove to the net to bury a rebound of Chris Drury's stuff-in try.

In Philadelphia last weekend, he scored with 11:37 left to bring the Rangers to within a goal at 2-1. He started that game as a left wing and scored after driving down the slot to bury a feed from Alex Frolov.

And Thursday, back at center between Brandon Dubinsky and rookie Mats Zuccarello, Stepan tied it at 3-3 with 8:42 to play. This one was a neat bit of stickhandling in close.

And Tortorella has put Stepan out second in shootouts.

"There's been a few different situations, different things," Stepan said. "There's a lot I can learn from."

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