In arguably the most impressive debut in Rangers history, rookie Derek “The Real Deal” Stepan stole the spotlight with a hat trick to lead the Blueshirts to a win in their season opener, 6-3 over the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena. The Rangers, who spent last season desperately seeking complementary scoring for Marian Gaborik, rode the precocious rookie’s big night to an impressive road victory.
The Blueshirts got strong performances from their entire lineup tonight as Brandon Dubinsky, whom the Rangers are counting on for a big season, scored 2 goals and Erik Christensen, who had a lackluster preseason, added a tally off a perfect pass from Gaborik early in the third period to give the team a 4 goal cushion. Artem Anisimov, Sean Avery and Ryan Callahan played up tempo hockey all contest long and the defense led by Dan Girardi (2 A) and a solid game by Michael Sauer kept the Sabres at bay for most of the matchup. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 31 of 34 shots to earn his first victory.
Even with all the great performances, the story of the night was undoubtedly Derek Stepan. With his 3 goals, he became the first player in the long and storied history of the franchise to score a hat trick in his first NHL game. Stepan, who had an impressive training camp and preseason, still might not have been on the opening night roster if Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal were not forced to miss time with injuries. Stepan, who could have had 5 goals tonight but who missed high on a breakaway and hit the post in the closing seconds on an empty net, proved that he is ready to not only play but make an impact at this level, threw his hat into the ring for Calder Trophy very early on.
It would be foolish to expect this kind of offensive output from the Blueshirts on a nightly basis but it would not be a stretch to expect the level of effort we saw tonight consistently as the season progresses. The Rangers’ biggest problem last season was giving that type of effort on a nightly basis but with the competition to stay with the club from youngsters like Stepan and Sauer, newcomers like Ruslan Fedotenko and Steve Eminger and even players like Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust, whose jobs might be in jeopardy with the return of Drury expected soon, the effort we saw tonight might come easier for this group than last year’s squad. The Rangers will try to follow up tonight’s victory with another strong performance against the Islanders in a matinee at the Coliseum on Monday.