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Leonard: If Rangers need a Game 7 hero, Stepan's the man

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Derek Stepan is used to scoring big goals, burying game-winner in Game 7 against the Caps in last round and evoking memories of Stephane Matteau.Kathy Willens/AP

Derek Stepan is used to scoring big goals, burying game-winner in Game 7 against the Caps in last round and evoking memories of Stephane Matteau.

Everyone knows Henrik Lundqvist has won six straight Game 7s. Everyone knows from last season’s 1-0 Game 6 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens at the Garden on May 29, 2014, that the King can lock it down to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

The most nagging question entering Game 7 of these wild Eastern Conference finals at the Garden on Friday night — again, on May 29 — is who will be the goal scorer who etches his name into franchise and New York sports eternity, if the team piggybacks on his heroics to actually win it all.

Who will be the Rangers’ Stephane Matteau?

Look no further for a prime candidate than Derek Stepan. It would be convenient for trivia buffs. Then the answer to the question of biggest Ranger Game 7 goals ever scored would sound no different: Stepan, Matteau.

Matteau was 24 years old, the same age as Stepan, when he scored his double-overtime wraparound goal on Martin Brodeur for a 2-1 win on May 27, 1994, sending the Rangers on to eventually snap their 54-year Cup drought. Howie Rose’s call of “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” will live forever.

The Quebec product hadn’t joined those Rangers, though, until coming over at the deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks in one of then-GM Neil Smith’s daring trades. Matteau also had only a cup of coffee with his Cup with the Rangers, playing in just 85 regular-season games and 32 playoff games.

Stepan, on the other hand, is a young man from Hastings, Minn., by way of the University of Wisconsin, who has played all 362 career regular-season games and 79 playoff games with the Rangers since the club drafted him 51st overall (second round) in 2008.

“He’s a year older than me,” linemate Jesper Fast, 23, said Thursday morning in Greenburgh. “And he’s been in the league for, what, five years? Yeah, that’s just impressive.”

Thanks to his loyal and productive service, Stepan also is coming up on a nice raise this summer in restricted free agency from his current $ 3.075 million annual salary. First, however, there is the matter of proving once and for all that he is what Fast said he was Thursday: Elite.

Last spring, when the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup, the common opinion was that the greatest disparity between the Kings and the Rangers was L.A.’s strength and depth at the center position including Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards.

Stepan (five goals, 12 points) and fellow center Derick Brassard (nine goals, 16 points, both team highs) aren’t ones to dwell on the past, but they played in the games, and they recognized their opportunity this postseason.

“I think when you talk about with me and Brass, we leave that in last season, and that was a lot of the conversation,” Stepan said. “We’re in a spot here to prove ourselves. Me and Brass want to be a big part of this, and we want it to be something that we can say we competed hard, and so far we’ve done a job of beating some pretty good centers.”

They helped shut down Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin in a first-round series in which Stepan had his ups and downs but Brassard turned it up. Stopping Sidney Crosby was difficult, but Brassard scored three goals in that series, Stepan scored two, and the Rangers won in five games.

In a low-scoring second-round series against Washington, Stepan’s line with Fast and Chris Kreider combined for 13 points. Brassard scored twice, rookie center Kevin Hayes, 23, tallied in Game 7, and Stepan buried the overtime winner to summon the Daily News back page of “Stepan, Stepan, Stepan” a round early.

With the Rangers coming off Tuesday night’s 7-3 Game 6 win in Tampa, the line to stop is Brassard’s surging Blue Chips unit of former NHL first-round picks with Rick Nash and J.T. Miller. It’s not all about the offense, though.

Stepan completely outplayed Capitals top center Nicklas Backstrom — you know, the guy from those Geico commercials — and it is one of the primary reasons the Rangers got this far. Stepan’s defensive acumen has translated to recent frustration for Tampa Bay’s top center, leading NHL postseason goal scorer Tyler Johnson (12 goals).

“Step has been shutting down Johnson for the past couple games,” Brassard said after Game 6. “He has been a difference maker since we’ve started the playoffs. . . . It’s always a challenge for us to play against superstar centers, and we’re almost there.”

The quality that stands out most when people talk about Stepan is his “hockey sense,” his ability to read plays and consistently make the correct, prudent decision, and to keep the team cohesive.

That’s what Ranger legend Adam Graves told the Daily News in 2013. Graves played junior hockey with Stepan’s father, Brad, a 1985 Rangers fifth-round draft pick, and when Derek arrived at his first development camp, Graves said Stepan “didn’t stand out at all.”

“Then, the puck dropped,” Graves added. “It was certainly an ‘I get it’ moment.”

Fast said “as far as hockey sense, Step is one of the best in the league, how he reads the game so well.”

“It feels like when he’s on the ice, he’s controlling the game almost,” Fast said. “He knows the game. If I go, I know he’s gonna take my back.”

Hayes, Glen Sather’s best offseason signing, has struggled recently but makes this team bigger and more skilled down the middle. James Sheppard spent significant time holding down a pivot in the middle of this playoff run. And then there is last year’s Matteau, veteran Dominic Moore, who already has scored a goal to send the Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final, the lone tally in that Game 6 victory over Montreal.

Moore, though, said the centers don’t think about their task in terms of a response to last year’s Cup Final defeat or to other teams’ talent at certain positions.

“I don’t think any of us are thinking about comparisons or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s thinking of it in those terms. Everybody wants to prepare themselves individually and collectively as well they can, do their job well, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

It takes that focus to be the hero. It takes heroes to win the Cup. It could be any one of them, but it would have a nice ring to it and certainly not be a surprise to hear: “Stepan! Stepan! Stepan!”

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