DENVER - Almost a quarter of the way into the season, the issue that surfaced in the preseason remains a nagging one: Who is the Rangers' No. 1 center?
Tonight's game against the Colorado Avalanche is the 20th of the season, and the first of five of six on the road, where the Rangers are 6-2. Although centers Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle have provided much-needed contributions on the second and third lines, coach John Tortorella is reluctant to change their roles. That leaves a choice of rookie Derek Stepan and the inconsistent Erik Christensen to skate between Marian Gaborik, who has played four games since missing 12 games with a separated left shoulder, and left wing Alex Frolov.
Christensen, 26, has more experience, but Gaborik has been double-shifted and bounced around to avoid matchups, a signal that it may be time again for Stepan, who has been more engaged physically and smarter away from the puck, to get a shot at the job.
He averaged about 17 minutes in the first six games of the season, then his ice time was cut back to about 10 for six games, and is gradually on the rise again. He played 14:43, including 8:09 in the third period in the 3-2 loss Wednesday to the Bruins, and freed Gaborik for a 2-on-1 goal with a backhand pass from the left side at 5:26 of the third.
Stepan's play in center ice, bumping Dennis Seidenberg, recovering the puck and taking off to the offensive zone, provided a late spark.
"It hit me in the chest, then I got a stick on it and a piece of him," said Stepan, 20, who left the University of Wisconsin after his sophomore year and made the club out of camp. "It was the first bounce that came my way. It kind of felt good. From there Gabby was yelling for it, so it was easy for me to get it to him. He finishes well, better than anyone."
Gaborik and Frolov are "very skilled guys," said Stepan (3-5-8 with three assists in the last three games but no goals since his hat trick in the opener). His first NHL assist came on Frolov's goal in the 3-1 loss to the Avalanche at home on Oct. 18, when he played a season-high 20:06. "Anytime you play with those two, it's going to make life easier on you. I'm just going to work on playing my game, keep things simple, give them the puck and go from there."