Behind the Scenes for Derek Stepan's Big Day and Night

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Written on 10/10/2010 by Jim Cerny

Last night in the Rangers locker room following their season-opening 6-3 win in Buffalo, I approached goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for his take on Derek Stepan's NHL debut.

Before the question was even completely out of my mouth, Lundqvist was shaking his head in disbelief and laughing heartily. And then he said the only possible thing that could sum up the rookie center's 3-goal first-game as a pro.

"Wow!"

Perhaps Lundqvist's laugh and shaking of the head said more than words---or the word "Wow"---could. Because those responses really said, "You've got to be kidding me! A 20 year-old kid, fresh out of college, scores a hat trick in his first NHL game! No freaking way! This game is not that easy."

But Stepan made it look that way. In fact he has made a lot of things seem so easy since turning pro this past summer. He has an easy-going confidence, a terrific knack for being in the right place on the ice most of the time, and is an extremely intelligent kid.

"He has an inner confidence about him, yet he is very respectful and always asking questions, trying to learn," said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. "He loves challenges, and we have challenged him a lot along the way here."

Stepan became only the fourth player in the entire history of the National Hockey League to score three goals in his first game. I was fortunate enough to be up in Buffalo and cover his great accomplishment. Following is a behind-the-scenes look at Stepan's big day and night (and a little more, too).

Saturday

11:15-The zamboni is cleaning the ice following the Sabres morning skate at the HSBC Arena. An eager Stepan, his NHL debut roughly eight hours away, is sitting on the Rangers' bench alongside defenseman Dan Girardi watching the zamboni. No other players are on the bench just yet. Makes you wonder if the kid is super excited, insanely nervous, or always one of the first ones out at the morning skate.
11:30-Stepan and his teammates hit the ice for the quick skate, which is meant to wake the players up, get the blood flowing. Stepan skates with veteran linemates Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko during line rushes, and he will center those two as he did late in the pre-season.
11:45-Tortorella meets with the media outside the Rangers dressing room. When asked if he will have to keep an eye on Stepan, fearing the kid may be a bit nervous on this night, Tortorella sounds almost prophetic when answering, "I don't think that's going to be a problem because I think he embraces his challenges...I think he'll be a good player for us tonight." Little did I know that Torts had just written the lead to what would be my post-game story on the Rangers web site later on in the evening.
12:00-I chat with Stepan by his corner locker and ask him a few questions about nerves. "Slept well last night", "Think I'll be more excited than nervous", "Not thinking about being nervous...but if you keep asking me about it...!" are just some of his relaxed answers.
12:45-Back at the team hotel Stepan meets with family and friends, including his Mom, who drove to Buffalo from Minnesota. Next it's a little lunch with his teammates and then a nap (later on he told me he had no problems napping!).
First Period-Stepan had joked to me in the morning that on his first shift he might just "take a skate" and let Avery and Fedotenko handle the puck just to get acclimated to his first NHL game. In reality, Stepan steals the puck along the left wall in the offensive zone, and though his centering pass is knocked away, it almost leads to an early scoring chance. Kid seems on top of his game. At 10:53 he is credited with his first NHL goal when Girardi's slap shot is deflected by the rookie, bounces of Buffalo's Tyler Myers, and slips across the goal line. "That's the way everyone's first goal is. They're never pretty," Stepan tells me later.
Second period-With the Rangers 2-1 lead hanging by a thread, thanks to Lundqvist's brilliance in net, and with the visting team being outshot by a wide margin, Stepan kills the home team's momentum by getting free in front and lifting a rebound of Marc Staal's point shot over Ryan Miller's glove. 3-1 Rangers 15:08 into the second. Then with 1:40 left to play Stepan whips a shot from the slot into the back of the cage off a pretty feed from Avery. 4-1 Rangers. Hat Trick in his NHL debut for Stepan. Torts told me today, "What I really liked is that he didn't go all crazy about it. He was excited, but he expects to do good things."
Third Period-As amazing as his NHL debut was, incredibly Stepan's night could have gone even better. He misfired on an odd-man rush up ice and then missed with a long shot at an empty net after Miller was pulled for an extra attacker. Kid could have had four, or five, goals on the night!
Post-Game-I am the first reporter to get to Stepan, who is more than willing to chat---he always is, great kid---though he undresses quickly at the same time because you can tell that he has the rookie fear that he might miss the team bus to the airport. I feel like saying, "Relax. Tonight, they're not going anywhere without you!". Typically, Stepan is gracious in his praise of his linemates and downplays his huge night, though he does confess, "This was exciting...the hockey gods must have been looking down on me." As I leave Stepan he is besieged by a media horde, so I seek out others for opinions on what Stepan accomplished. Lundqvist offers, "What can you say about a first game like that? We'll let him enjoy it tonight, but tomorrow it's back to work and it's forgotten. It's going to be our job to help guide him through his first year. But he is very mature kid and I think he'll handle it well." Brandon Dubinsky said, "It's awesome! He's such a great talent and is going to be a really big part of the team. Best thing about him is he's confident, but pretty mellow, stays with that even keel." Staal added, "He was smart, in the right place, didn't get caught running around, and it transferred into three goals because he was in the right position. It's impressive."
10:30-Stepan heads to the bus after saying goodbye to Mom. Then on to airport where the charter takes him and his teammates back to New York.

Sunday:

12:00 Noon-Just as Lundqvist said 14 hours earlier, it's back to work. Stepan is on ice with his teammates practicing for Monday afternoon's showdown against the Islanders. Three goals in your first game, kid? No problem. Now let's see what you can really do!

Follow Me on Twitter at: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

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3 Comments

  1. John S. |

    Hey Jim,

    I just thought of a random question that you might already have the answer to or might want to ask. It's always interesting to me what very young athletes do as far as living arrangements when they make it to the NHL, especially when they weren't sure if they would make the team. Any idea what Stepan is doing? Hotel? With a teammate? Looking for his own place? Just wondering. Must be very interesting to be a 20-year-old professional hockey player in NYC, especially coming from a place like Minnesota and then Wisconsin.

     
  2. Jim |

    During training camp, players---in particular younger ones---not assured of a roster spot stay at a local hotel. If they make the team, then they can look for living accomodations. Case in point was Michael Del Zotto last year. He stayed at the hotel even into the season just to make sure he was sticking around before finding his own place in the city. As for Stepan, not sure what his plans are just yet, but I'll find out!

     
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