Initially, New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault wasn't pleased with Derek Stepan and his linemates.
By the end of the night, Vigneault's assessment of his top line had changed dramatically.
Derek Stepan scored his first three goals of the season, and Carl Hagelin added his first two as the Rangers' had their best offensive output of the season Saturday night in a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
"It didn't start the way I wanted, not just the game but (Stepan's) line. Their first three shifts were totally in our end," Vigneault said. "I must've sat that line out eight, nine minutes of the first period."
The trio of Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider finished with three goals and six assists, and a combined rating of plus-7.
"I like the way they responded," Vigneault said. "Challenged them, and they responded the right way. They went out onto the ice and had some solid puck possession shifts.
"That line ended up being real good for us at the end of the night after having a so-so start."
Henrik Lundqvist made 27 saves and grabbed first star honors for New York (6-7), which is on a season-high, three-game winning streak.
Hagelin scored the Rangers' first two goals of the game, and Stepan netted the final three.
Andrej Sekera scored a power-play goal with 37 seconds left in the second period to provide the only offense for the Hurricanes. Justin Peters, subbing for Carolina's top two goalies who are injured, made 33 saves in the loss and fell to 0-5.
"We've been chasing the game lately, and we're not getting the timely saves," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said.
Hagelin opened the scoring 8:46 into the game. Brad Richards sprung Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot with a clearing pass. Hagelin cut to the slot before beating Peters with a backhander.
"Hags' speed definitely helps us," Vigneault said. "When he scored the way he did tonight and backing down their defense the way he can does, it's so important to a team having success and winning games."
Before Hagelin's goal, the Hurricanes had outshot the Rangers 6-2. New York finished the game with a 38-28 edge.
Hagelin increased New York's lead to 2-0 at 8:16 of the second period. As the Rangers finished killing Hagelin's hooking penalty, Taylor Pyatt fired a clearing pass from the defensive zone that ricocheted off of Peters pads to the corner. Hagelin corralled the loose puck, then cut toward the net before slipping his second goal of the game through Peters legs.
"I was going on the forecheck," Hagelin said. "It wasn't like I (thought) it was going to bounce off him and go in the corner. Soon as I saw the puck go in the corner I knew he wasn't going to go there, so I decided to take it to the net."
Stepan pushed the advantage to 3-0 with a power-play goal at 15:54 of the second. Stepan found a rebound of Ryan McDonagh's point shot through a maze of players before beating Peters with a high shot.
New York, which went 1-for-4 on the advantage, has scored power-play goals in three straight games. The Rangers are 4-for-11 on the power play in that stretch.
"Goals on the power play, that's going to help a power play," Stepan said. "We've certainly simplified things. Our power-play goal was a play out of the corner. Mac takes a slapper, and a mad scramble in front. If you look around the league, that's how the power-play goals are being scored."
Outside of Sekera's goal, not much went right for the Hurricanes (4-7-3), who have lost five straight.
"We were a fragile team (after) giving up the first goal," Muller said. "It seems to be a pattern. It pushes you back on your heels a bit after that first goal."
Sekera scored with a seemingly harmless shot that hit Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman and found its way past Lundqvist.
Stepan scored his second of the game 9:09 into the third to complete a strong forechecking sequence by his line. Kreider's hit on Tuomo Ruutu in the offensive zone forced a turnover, which Zuccarello corralled behind the net before feeding Stepan.
Stepan completed his hat trick at 14:37 when his attempted pass to Kreider hit Sekera and deflected in off the goal post. It was Stepan's first three-goal game since Oct. 9, 2010, against Buffalo, where he made his NHL debut.
"My two linemates have created pretty good looks for me, and I wasn't able to find the back of the net," Stepan said. "Tonight they continued to do it, and I was fortunate enough to find the net a couple times, so that's good."
NOTES: New York is 63-48-7-2 against the Hurricanes. ... Carolina activated D Brett Bellemore from the injured list. Bellemore had missed three games with a lower-body injury. ... Vigneault said he had "mixed emotions and mixed feelings," about Manny Malhotra's return to the NHL. The veteran center signed a one-year deal with Carolina on Thursday. Vigneault was Malhotra's coach with Vancouver when Malhotra was struck near the left eye in a 2011 game. ... Rangers LW Rick Nash missed his 10th straight game with a head injury. There is no timetable for his return.