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Derek Stepan to make first trip back to MSG with Coyotes

Derek Stepan of the Coyotes at American Airlines

Derek Stepan of the Coyotes at American Airlines Center on Oct. 17, 2017 in Dallas. Credit: Getty Images / Ronald Martinez

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Whenever a long-time teammate returns in a visiting jersey for the first time, it’s always a balance between the head and the heart, the past and the present.

So when Derek Stepan, the popular alternate captain who played for the Rangers for seven seasons, comes to Madison Square Garden Thursday as an Arizona Coyote, the mixed emotions will be front and center. “He was like a brother to me when I first got here,” Chris Kreider said Wednesday after practice. “Only good things to say about him.“

But when a team has just two wins in 10 games, where the struggling Rangers find themselves, the prevailing sentiment is, as J.T. Miller put it, “we have enough to worry about.”

Mats Zuccarello, who also has seen good friends traded such as Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin, said: “I’m sure it’ll be weird for Step, too; he’s had some big goals in big games and going to get a nice welcome at the Garden. He deserves it. It’s been a few months now, and I hope he does well [with Arizona], but we want to win.”

The Coyotes are 0-8-1 and goalie Antti Raanta, who was swapped with Stepan for the No. 7 overall draft pick (Lias Andersson) and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, is recovering from a lower-body injury. Andersson, 19, is back in Sweden and DeAngelo, 22, was assigned to AHL Hartford on Tuesday, so Stepan, who has two goals and seven points in nine games, is the lone player in the deal who will be playing at the Garden.

“Seven years in Vancouver and five here, he’s been one of my favorite players to coach,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “In our dressing room he was a real solid figure, as far as understanding where we needed to continue to push. We know we lost an important part of our team, but we were looking at the future, we feel we added some good young pieces, but we still believe this group is strong enough to get it done.”

Wanting to get back to “a better pace, a better tempo” with four lines, rather than 11 forwards and seven defensemen, Vigneault will deploy center Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, 23, summoned from the AHL, on a fourth line with Michael Grabner and Pavel Buchnevich, and likely on the penalty-kill. “He’s a guy who can skate, he was good in the faceoff circle and fits into the team we’re trying to build,” Vigneault said.

The 6-3 Nieves, who played one game here last season, wants to make the most of this opportunity: “I feel like speed catches their eye,” he said.

Nieves can only contribute so much in limited ice time, however, and Vigneault repeated that he desperately needs “A-games” from players such as Ryan McDonagh, Zuccarello, Marc Staal, Rick Nash and the goaltenders. “Not only compete, but make the plays that need to be made,” he said. “We need our top players to be on top of their game and if we do that, we’re going to be in good shape.”

Notes & quotes: Veteran goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who will make his second start for the Blueshirts, said he isn’t doing too much extra before the game beyond practice and video work. “I’m not superstitious, [but] a routine helps me to relax.” . . . Kevin Hayes was shifted from the penalty-kill to the power play, which is in a 3-for-25 slump . . . Forward Adam Cracknell cleared waivers and was assigned to the Wolf Pack.

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