Like Roy Halladay's post-season no-hitter, this one goes into the record books.
Derek Stepan's three goals in his NHL debut----the first ever such feat by a Blueshirt in the 85-year-history of the franchise---propelled the Rangers to a 6-3 dispatching of the Sabres on opening night here in Buffalo.
“I’m happy for him,” said Ryan Callahan. “It’s unbelievable. He played a great game. The whole line (also Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko) did. Said Fedotenko: "If he keeps improving as a player, it’s going to be great. (Avery) 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 historic.
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 Fabrian Brunnstrom of the Stars in 2008. He is the first Rangers rookie to score three since 2000, when Jan Hlavac turned the trick. He is the first Ranger in 55 years to record a hat trick in the season opener. Ron Murphy also had a trio in the 1955-56 season opener on Oct. 7, 1955 at Chicago.
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, Minnesota. 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.”
Stepan opened the scoring when his shot from the right side deflected off the skate of Tyler Myers in front as he was checking Sean Avery, and slid past Miller at 10:53 of the first period. “Anytime you can get your feet wet and get a goal, it’s great. 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, said Stepan, “and this game is something I’ll remember all my life.”
Down 5-1 in the third, the Sabres gamely tried to close the gap and did on goals from Jordan Leopold and Derek Roy. With 1:32 left, Ryan 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 has a long lull and Stepan scored twice. His three goals came on three shots.
After the 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.”