Derek Stepan at top of his game

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- There were times during the first half of this season that Rangers coach John Tortorella wondered if Derek Stepan was fit to handle the responsibilities of the team's second-line center.


The 22-year-old pivot is the unequivocal choice to center the team's top line between speedy winger Carl Hagelin and captain Ryan Callahan.

"He's a 22-year-old guy that I use in every freaking situation," Tortorella said of Stepan. "He has proven to all of us that he has taken a huge step this year."

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was voted the team's MVP of the regular season, but among forwards, Stepan has been the team's most dynamic and consistent performer.

The Rangers, and Stepan, hope that continues once the playoffs begin with a first-round matchup against the Capitals on Thursday.

"That's what we'd like to do, obviously," Stepan said. "The way we're playing as a team, we'd like to carry that over. As a team, we've gotten better. You can just see it. We control games more."

In his third year as a pro, Stepan finished the regular season strong with eight goals (including three game-winners), 19 points and a plus-14 rating in the month of April, good enough to earn him accolades as the NHL's third star.

The Rangers will need him to sustain a high level of production if they are to contend with a supremely talented cast of offensive players for the Capitals in Round 1 of the playoffs.

"I am totally confident that he's going to be able to handle the things going into this playoff series," Tortorella said.

Stepan finished with one goal and nine points in 20 playoff games for the Rangers last spring. He recorded four assists in the team's second-round series against the Capitals.

But this year he plays a decidedly more important role as the catalyst to the team's offense, which heads into the postseason with an improved 2.62 goals per game (15th, NHL) following a stretch in which the Rangers were ranked dead last.

Beyond his versatility -- Stepan kills penalties and plays up front on the team's first power-play unit -- his greatest asset may be that he makes those around him better.

Linemate Ryan Callahan is riding a seven-game points streak (five goals, six assists) heading into the playoffs, while Rick Nash (now on a line with Mats Zuccarello and Brad Richards) played some of his best hockey to date while flanking Stepan on the right.

"I definitely had a good month. I felt good going into games. I was playing with a good confidence level," Stepan said. "Whoever I was playing with, I seem to develop chemistry with quick and those guys seemed to help quite a bit wherever I was. When you build chemistry like that it, helps your game."

Despite his youth, Stepan is practically a grizzled vet in the sense that he is preparing to face the Capitals for the third consecutive postseason.

He'll draw upon that experience but he knows that, once playoffs come, it's hard to know what to expect.

"You've been through it now and you get that aspect of it, but every playoffs is gonna be new and it's gonna be exciting," Stepan said. "It's gonna have a different feel to it."