BUFFALO — Like Roy Halladay’s postseason no-hitter, this one goes into the record book. Derek Stepan’s hat trick in his NHL debut sparked the Rangers to a 6-3 win over the Sabres in their season opener last night.
Only three other players in NHL history scored hat tricks in their first NHL games: Alex Smart of the Canadiens (1943), Real Cloutier of the Nordiques (1979) and Fabian Brunnstrom of the Stars in 2008. Stepan is the first Rangers rookie to score three since 2000, when Jan Hlavac turned the trick. Stepan is the first Ranger in 55 years to get a hat trick in the season opener. Ron Murphy had three goals in the 1955-56 season opener Oct. 7, 1955, at Chicago.
“I’m happy for him,” Ryan Callahan said. “It’s unbelievable. He played a great game. The whole line did.”
Said Fedotenko: “If he keeps improving as a player, it’s going to be great. has some good speed and forces the defense to make mistakes and I do the same thing. The defense made a couple of bad decisions and covered the wrong people and Derek was in the right spot.”
The 20-year-old’s performance was not only timely, but historic.
It’s certainly far too soon to hand him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, but it was quite an opening act for Stepan, who left Wisconsin after his sophomore season this summer to turn pro.
Amazingly, the Rangers’ second-round draft choice in 2008 almost had his fourth in the final minute, with Ryan Miller pulled. His long shot from the neutral zone hit the outside of the empty net.
“I couldn’t believe I missed,” he said with a grin. “I just choked under the pressure.” Pressure? The kid seems unflappable.
Coming up big in the spotlight isn’t unusual for Stepan, who was raised in Hastings, Minn. As captain of Team USA, which won the gold medal at the World Junior Championship last spring, he scored 14 points to lead all players in the tournament.
Asked whether he thought the rookie, who was tried in different roles in training camp, would be nervous before this debut, coach John Tortorella said before the game, “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, because I think he embraces all of these challenges and looks at it as an opportunity.”
“Anytime you can get your feet wet and get a goal, it’s great,” Stepan said. “If you’re not gonna score, you hope to create something for someone else.”
His second of the game, lifting a rebound over Miller at 15:08, came four minutes after the Sabres had cut a 2-0 lead in half. The third goal was the prettiest. From behind the net, Avery slipped a backhand pass through the legs of Craig Rivet, and Stepan fired it top corner as Miller was caught leaning at 18:20 of the second period. It was Avery’s second assist of the night.
“The gold medal is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Stepan said, “and this game is something I’ll remember all my life.”
Down 5-1 in the third, the Sabres tried to close the gap and did on goals from Jordan Leopold and Derek Roy. With 1:32 left, Callahan pushed the puck ahead to Brandon Dubinsky, who scored his second of the night — a shorthanded empty-netter — just seven seconds later for the final tally.
Overshadowed was Henrik Lundqvist, who made 33 saves, including 18 in the second period, when the Rangers had a long lull. After Stepan’s third goal, a few hats drifted onto the HSBC Arena ice. Any idea who tossed them?
“I have no idea,” said Stepan, whose mother and stepfather drove from Minnesota to attend the game. “I don’t even know if my mom knows how to throw.”