BUFFALO, N.Y. — New York Rangers rookie Derek Stepan had difficulty determining which was more impressive: joining elite company in scoring three goals in his NHL debut or doing it against Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller.
Either way, Stepan didn't complain after he became the fourth NHL player to open his career with a hat trick. That carried the Rangers to a 6-3 season-opening victory and spoiled the Sabres' home opener on Saturday night.
Stepan was the leading scorer last season for the Badgers, who reached the NCAA championship game, but opted to forego his final two seasons at UW to sign with the Rangers.
"I was just kind of getting my feet wet in my first NHL game. And it was a fun process," Stepan said. "I guess for me, it's just one of those things where you kind of go, ‘I guess I got lucky.' "
He can say that about his first goal, in which Dan Girardi's shot first struck Stepan and then banked in off the skate of Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers to open the scoring less than 11 minutes in. There was nothing accidental about Stepan's next two goals, scored 3:12 apart to put the Rangers ahead 4-1 late in the second period.
For one game at least, the Rangers stopped worrying about where their offense will come from while forwards Chris Drury (broken finger) and Vinny Prospal (knee) are out with injuries.
"I don't think we expect him to score three every night," said Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 33 shots. "But if he does, we'll take it."
A second-round draft pick in 2008, Stepan became the first player to record a hat trick in his first NHL game since Dallas' Fabian Brunnstrom on Oct. 15, 2008. Real Cloutier of Quebec did it in 1979, and Montreal's Alex Smart accomplished the feat first in 1943.
Stepan also became the second player in the Rangers' 85-year history to open a season with three goals. Ron Murphy did it in 1955.
Brandon Dubinsky scored twice and Erik Christensen added a goal for the Rangers, who won the opener with a win for the fifth time in six seasons.
Buffalo defenseman Jordan Leopold scored twice and added an assist, and Derek Roy — with his third of the season — also scored. The Sabres, who won 2-1 at Ottawa on Friday, came out flat. They were outshot 10-4 in the first period before holding a 32-18 edge in the final two frames.
"As good as we were last night, we were bad (tonight)," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I was pretty disappointed with our work ethic."
Myers, last season's NHL rookie of the year, had a rough game. Aside from having the first goal go off his skate, his turnover behind the Sabres net led immediately to Dubinsky's goal which put the Rangers up 2-0.
After Leopold cut New York's lead to 2-1 midway through the second period, a poor clearing attempt by the Sabres led to Stepan's second goal. Marc Staal kept the puck in at the blue line and fired a shot on net, allowing Stepan to convert the rebound by flipping it over Miller.
No one was defending Stepan on his third goal as he drove into the slot and converted Sean Avery's backhanded feed from behind the net.
"We have some stuff to clean up," said Miller, who made 22 saves. "Unfortunately, everything that could have gone wrong pretty much went wrong. ... We'll take it as a learning opportunity. There's 80 (games) left."
Stepan beat Miller on all three of his shots. The 20-year-old forward was having such a big night that he nearly scored two more goals.
Stepan shot high, missing the net entirely, on a wide-open breakaway with two minutes remaining. In the final minute, he had his shot from the Sabres blue line carom off the outside of the post of an empty net.
"I couldn't believe I missed," Stepan said, shaking his head and laughing. "I just choked under pressure, I guess."
NOTES: Drury skated with the team Saturday morning for the first time since breaking his left index finger during a scrimmage on Sept. 20. There is no timetable for his return. ... The Rangers' don't open at home until Friday vs. Toronto. ... The Sabres began a four-game homestand, and are in the midst of playing six games in nine days. ... Stepan, who tied for the team lead with three preseason goals, was second in the NCAA last season with 54 points, including 12 goals.