GREENBURGH, N.Y. – With four days off until the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, John Tortorella is tired of talking about the Rangers’ matchup with the Washington Capitals.
And, of course, the gruff New York coach isn’t shy about saying so.
“Notice I have my skates on because I’m not staying here that long,” Tortorella said Tuesday following a double-session practice and before a team meeting. “I don’t know what you’re going to ask me today that you didn’t ask me yesterday, but go ahead and try.”
After quickly dismissing a question regarding the health and status of key defenceman Marc Staal, by saying there was no update regarding his eye injury, Tortorella became engaged when asked about rising star Derek Stepan.
The 22-year-old forward from Minnesota had a breakout year in his third NHL season. With a roster filled with luminaries such as Rick Nash, Brad Richards and captain Ryan Callahan, Stepan led the Rangers with 44 points and 26 assists, and he was second on the club with 18 goals while playing every game of the lockout-shortened, 48-game season.
But the biggest sign that he has arrived was his finish as the Rangers surged down the stretch to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Stepan was chosen as the NHL’s third star for April when he was second among skaters with 19 points—including eight goals—and posted a plus-14 rating in 14 games.
Stepan had only two games in April in which he didn’t earn a point, and had more than one in seven contests. He also recorded three winning goals in that span while playing on a line with Callahan and fellow forward Carl Hagelin.
“I definitely had a good month,” Stepan said. “I felt good going into games. I was playing with a good confidence level. I seemed to, whoever I was playing with, build chemistry quickly. Those guys seemed to help me quite a bit, whoever I was playing with at the beginning of the month or toward the end of the month with Cally and Hags.”
Now Tortorella relies on him no matter what is going on in the game. Tortorella said he was concerned about Stepan in the role as the Rangers’ No. 2 centre at the start of the season, but those fears are long gone as Stepan has assumed top centre responsibilities.
“He is prepared,” Tortorella said Tuesday. “He does a lot of work, and that’s an intangible that he has that other players don’t as far as being prepared for all situations. That has helped him in his confidence, and it keeps on growing.
“He’s a 22-year-old guy that I use in every situation. He was a guy that I was worried about him being our No. 2 centre going into the year. He has proven to all of us that he has taken a huge step this year.”
Stepan doesn’t seem bothered by the waves of reporters that now regularly come at him after games and practices. He is hardly brash, and seems a bit reluctant to talk about himself, but clearly he is enjoying his upcoming third trip to the playoffs.
“It’s something that I take, and am very honoured to hear stuff like that, but it doesn’t mean anything right now,” Stepan said, referring to Tortorella’s praise. “We’ve got a fresh start here, and as a team we’ve got to continue to win hockey games.”
Stepan gives the Rangers scoring depth, which will be needed against Alex Ovechkin and the offensively powerful Washington Capitals.
After notching one goal and eight assists in 20 post-season games a year ago, when the top-seeded Rangers reached the Eastern Conference finals, Stepan is ready to put his experience to good use.
“It definitely helps,” Stepan said. “A group of young guys going that far in the playoffs last year is going to make a difference for us this year, but at the same time it’s a different team, different year.
“It’s something you learn from and gain as much as you can. You’ve been through it once now, and you understand how you’ve got to carry yourself. You get that aspect of it, but every playoffs is going to be new and it’s going to be exciting. It’s going to have a different feel to it.”
Hagelin is also enjoying his time playing with Stepan, but thinks his teammate came in with plenty of innate hockey sense.
“You don’t have to worry too much about him,” Hagelin said. “You can just do your own thing. You will get the puck, he is a good passer. He is also such a smart player, so he is usually in the right spot and that is why he got so many goals this year.
“He is just one of those guys who was born to play hockey. He has been scoring a lot and has been involved with a lot of goals. He is getting rewarded for playing the way he has. It has definitely set the tone.”
NOTES: Starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist had the day off from practice. … Injured forwards Brian Boyle and Ryane Clowe also stayed off the ice. They appear to be questionable at best to play in the series, but there were no updates on their conditions.