John Tortorella has tried countless line combinations for all four of his lines this season, but one he keeps coming back to on a regular basis has Derek Stepan centering Carl Hagelin and Rick Nash. And for good reason. That threesome has been far and away the Rangers most consistently effective offensive line in 2013.
All three have enjoyed much success this year no matter their linemates, but when Stepan, Hagelin, and Nash are together there are even more special results. Reunited Tuesday night in Philadelphia that threesome further proved that theory as they combined for three goals and eight points in the Rangers 5-2 win over the Flyers.
"It's been an effective line, and I consider that to be our top line," stated Tortorella Tuesday night. "They've probably been our most consistent players this year."
Nash has come as advertised in his first year on Broadway, leading the Rangers with 12 goals, 16 assists and 28 points in 28 games played this season, following last night's two-goal, three-point outburst. Even early on in the season when the puck wasn't finding it's way in for Nash, he was quite often the Rangers top forward creating numerous chances for himself and his linemates.
Stepan and Hagelin have been more plesant surprises. The Rangers hoped the two younger players would take major steps forward this season, but there were fewer guarantees with them than with Nash, already an established star in the league.
But Stepan has emerged as a go-to force, a player Tortorella now trusts in all situations, and he is playing with a very high confidence level. Tuesday night he produced a career-best four points (1-3-4), and the 22 year-old third-year pro finds himself second on the team in goals (10), assists (15), and points (25).
"Step is such a smart player and he is so good defensively that it really opens things up offensively," explained Nash.
Added Tortorella, "He's turned into one of our top players. It's a great lesson for veteran guys, rookies, anybody, how he goes about his business. He's turned into a pretty damn good pro."
And Hagelin has improved on an impressive rookie season a year ago (64 gp, 14-24-38) to rank tied for fourth on the team with 18 points (8-10-18). Perhaps even more importantly is the max effort Hagelin plays at nearly every shift, and how his speed changes the complexion of shifts and games.
"Carl's backing the D off so much with his speed that I have more time to look up the ice," explained Stepan, who posted a career-best 51 points last season. "It's a big part of my game now having Carl on my wing. When Carl backs the D off, it gives time for a guy like Rick Nash to get a little space. And when he gets space he is a special player."
Tuesday night against the Flyers Hagelin recorded just one point, an assist on Nash's second goal. However his value on each goal that line produced is not lost on his linemates.
"I think on all three goals he was the main reason why they went in," Nash said of Hagelin. "He started all three plays, started the forecheck on Step's (goal) and started the forecheck on mine. His speed just keeps their D honest. They've got to back up to defend his speed, so it opens things up."
With 16 games to play in the regular season, the Rangers hungry for every point they can get, and with goals coming at a premium for the Blueshirts this season, one would imagine Tortorella will scrap experimenting with his top line because it seems quite clear that Stepan, Hagelin, and Nash have some major chemistry going. And the Rangers will need every bit of that chemistry the rest of the way and into the playoffs.
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