GREENBURGH, N.Y. - All it took was one goal.
For the first seven games of the NHL regular season, Derek Stepan was not in sync. The third-year Ranger, who played 12 games in November and December for KalPa in Finland during the lockout, had just four assists and felt a little off. Maybe, he thought, it was adjusting to the smaller ice surface and a far shorter training camp.
The switch clicked on in Florida on Feb. 2.
"The Tampa game, that was my first goal," Stepan recalled after the Rangers practiced yesterday for a second day to prepare for the Washington Capitals, their first-round playoff opponent beginning Thursday. "It's funny how a goal works, it does so much for your game. I score and it felt like my whole game came together after that, not just the offensive side of that, the entire thing. So it's a weird sport sometimes."
There was nothing strange about Stepan's season after that. In the end, he rose to become the No. 1 center, scored 18 goals -- six of them game-winners -- and added 26 assists to finish as the team's highest scorer. He also was plus-25, fifth-best in the league, and had only 12 penalty minutes.
"He's prepared," coach John Tortorella said. "He does a lot of work. That's an intangible he has, and some players don't. He's a 22-year-old guy that I use in every situation . . . I was worried about him as our No. 2 center, going into the year. He's proven to all of us that he's taken a huge step."
Here's a tangible measure of his progress: Stepan had a goal and two assists in eight regular-season games against the Capitals in his first two years; he had a goal in each of the three games this season. And that was before a remarkable April, with 19 points in 14 games while centering Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, an effort that earned him the league's third star of the month.
"I felt good going into games," he said. "I was playing with a good confidence level, seemed to build chemistry quickly and those guys seemed to help me quite a bit. That's what we'd like to continue to carry over as a team."
Going into his third postseason, Stepan has learned about the elements needed to compete in the Stanley Cup tournament. He was scoreless in his first foray in 2010-11, and was 1-8-9 in 20 games last year.
"Playoffs have never been my strong point," said Stepan, who left the University of Wisconsin after two years. "My first year, we only played five games, it was a bit of a struggle -- the 82-game season coming out of college, and I'd never been in a series like that. The next year, I still didn't feel all that great; it took a lot out of us to get by each team. I definitely learned from it. Towards the end of the playoffs, I started to find it again . . . You understand how you've got to carry yourself, the whole atmosphere, how you handle yourself after a loss, how you handle yourself after a win."
Stepan, who will be a restricted free agent, isn't thinking that far ahead. "Let's get to the playoffs, and be successful and after that we'll deal with the next thing," he said.
Asked to define successful, Stepan grinned and said: "Win all the series 4-0."