The well-deserved tribute — a video montage of Derek Stepan’s playoff goals and celebrations — came during a timeout with just under five minutes to play in the first period Thursday night, and the crowd rose in applause. The honoree, still wearing No. 21 but in visitor’s white at Madison Square Garden, stood near the Arizona Coyotes’ bench, raised his stick with one hand and tapped his heart with the other.
After all, Stepan’s professional roots are here. He was drafted by the Rangers in 2008, played 515 games as a Blueshirt with 128 goals and 360 points, and appeared in 97 playoff games, fourth in franchise history.
Stepan wanted to be a Ranger until he retired, but he learned a lesson: Nothing lasts forever. “It was a date I certainly circled,” he said, and hoped for “a win, plain and simple.” But it was not what he had envisioned as the Coyotes fell to 0-9-1 with a 5-2 loss.
Stepan said “a lot” was going through his mind. “I mean, it was probably one of the hardest things I had to do in my career,’’ he said. “It took me a period and a half to get going. Mentally, I wasn’t sharp. It was hard to stay focused. I’m glad that it’s over with and I can move on.”
Stepan played 20:21, including 2:35 on the power play, had one shot on goal and was a minus-3. He won only eight of 21 faceoffs.
In fact, the spotlight shifted to another center, Boo Nieves, 23, who recorded three assists in his second NHL game and first as a Ranger at the Garden. Nieves was a plus-3 in only 12:01.
“He might not have had the preseason and training camp he wanted, but he certainly looked like an effective player for us,” Ryan McDonagh said.
The game capped a long, busy summer for Stepan. Six weeks after he left the Rangers’ training center on breakup day in May after a playoff ouster by the Senators, he and goalie Antti Raanta were shipped to the Coyotes for the No. 7 overall draft pick and defenseman Tony DeAngelo.
“I certainly wasn’t shocked by it, but it surprised me a little bit,” Stepan said Thursday. “We all kind of knew there was a chance someone could go . . . with the exception of Ryan [McDonagh] and Hank, everyone was kind of uneasy. It happened to be me.”
For all his key goals, Stepan struggled down the stretch last season — at one point going 23 games without a goal — and was 2-4-6 in 12 playoff games with a 41 percent faceoff success rate. General manager Jeff Gorton wanted to create cap room in his pitch for free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, and Stepan’s no-move clause was going to kick in this summer, leaving the Rangers with a $6.5-million cap charge. Hence the trade.
After the Rangers won only two of their first 10 games, Rick Nash, playing his 1,000th game, said he “told the boys I really wanted this one,” and the Blueshirts responded early on Thursday night. Mats Zuccarello dished a no-look pass to Chris Kreider, who slammed the puck past Adin Hill for a 1-0 lead at 8:01. Later in the period, Pavel Buchnevich’s wrister from the left wall went under Hill’s glove, off the iron and in at 15:57.
Former Ranger Anthony Duclair beat Ondrej Pavelec low after the puck banked off David Desharnais’ skate right to him at 5:13 of the second period. Only 46 seconds later, Michael Grabner took a pass from Nieves and beat Hill to make it 3-1.
Stepan and the Coyotes have been in the city for a few days on this road swing, and he had a chance to see some of his pals. “I thought it would be a lot of hockey talk, but it was life talk, catching up,” he said. Stepan and his wife, Stephanie, had their second child, a girl, three months after the trade.
“I’ve played in so many games here and it’s not easy to leave a fan base that treated me so well,” Stepan said. But the cord with the Rangers has been severed. “Honestly, all I’ve really seen is their record and highlights,’’ he said. “And I’m invested here [with the Coyotes]. I don’t have any time to help them out.”