Before Matthews There Was Stepan

Auston Matthews  kick-started his professional career, not to mention the 2016-17 National Hockey League season, in a simply amazing way Wednesday night by becoming the first player in modern history to score four goals in his NHL debut, albeit in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators.

He also was just the fifth rookie to record a hat trick in his initial NHL contest since the 1943-44 season.

The last player to record a three-goal game in his NHL debut? New York Rangers center Derek Stepan, who accomplished the feat as part of a 6-3 victory over the Sabres up in Buffalo on October 9, 2010.

Setting the Stage

Though he did not enter his first professional game with all the fanfare top overall pick Auston Matthews did, Stepan was a top Rangers’ prospect and far from an unknown. Selected in the second round (51st overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Stepan had played two years at the University of Wisconsin, leading the nation with 42 assists in 2009-10, after starring at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the famed Minnesota prep school.

His profile was raised even more when he captained the United States to a gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships. Stepan led all skaters with ten assists and 14 points over seven games in that prestigious tournament.

In his first NHL training camp, Stepan stood out with his strong play at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and subsequently was the recipient of the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award, presented to the top rookie in Rangers’ training camp.

Hats Off to Stepan

Derek Stepan was 20-years old the night of October 9, 2010, and his coach at the time, John Tortorella, opted to have the rookie skate between a pair of veteran wingers, Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko, against the Sabres. Like Matthews, Stepan scored on his first shot on goal, a deflection of Dan Girardi’s shot just 10 minutes 53 seconds into the contest — not only his first National Hockey League goal, but New York’s first goal of the 2010-11 season.

Also like Matthews, Stepan scored on each of his first three shots and did so before the second period was complete. However, Matthews one-upped Stepan by netting a fourth before the second intermission arrived Wednesday night.

Stepan ended up with three goals on three shots with over 17 minutes of playing time in his memorable NHL debut, at the time becoming only the second player in 31 years to record a hat trick in his NHL debut.

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Avery, who made a gorgeous pass into the slot to set up the hat trick goal late in the second period, assisted on two of three goals scored by Stepan, as did Girardi. Interestingly, only Girardi, Staal and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played for the Rangers that night six years ago and remain teammates of Stepan’s on the New York Rangers today.

I covered that game up in Buffalo as a reporter and was first to reach Stepan in the post-game locker room. He was standing in front of a corner dressing stall, having just posed for photos with the three pucks in his right hand.

As I approached, Stepan had a bemused look on his face, and then through a small smile, he said simply, “Incredible, huh?”

The Postscript

Stepan’s opening-night hat trick set the stage for a very strong first year in the NHL. He would finish the 2010-11 campaign with 21 goals, a total that was fourth-best on the Rangers and tied for fifth among all league rookies. He totaled 45 points to rank fourth on the club and fifth in the rookie scoring race.

Of course, since that first season, Stepan has become a core member of a Rangers team which has played in three Eastern Conference Finals, as well as the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. He has four 50+-point campaigns under his belt, though last season marked the first time since his rookie year where Stepan reached the 20-goal plateau (22).

Now a veteran who wears an alternate captain’s “A” on his sweater, Stepan also had his share of clutch playoff moments in his career, including a Game Seven overtime clincher against the Washington Capitals in 2015.

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No player has scored more goals, or recorded more assists and points, in a Rangers uniform since Stepan made his debut on that memorable night in October of 2010. Over 434 career regular season games, Stepan has 111 goals, 194 assists, and 305 points.