It ended a year ago for Derek Stepan with 13:28 of ice time in the Rangers’ elimination Game 6 against the Devils, his least amount of ice time in the playoffs.

That’s how much of a struggle the tournament became for the then-sophomore pro, who recorded just one goal with eight assists in 20 matches, scoring only in Game 6 of the opening round against Ottawa.

Last year’s disappointing performance followed a difficult five-game first round against the Capitals in 2011 during which the then-rookie was moved out of the middle onto the wing.

“The playoffs have never been my strong point,” Stepan admitted following yesterday’s practice. “The first year was a bit of a struggle and the next year I didn’t feel all that great.

“But I think I learned from it. I learned how you need to play and handle the atmosphere of the playoffs; how you handle it when you win one, how you handle it when you lose one.

“All that stuff adds up.”

Stepan has been more than the sum of his parts since his first day on the ice in his first training camp as a pro in 2010. He carries himself with the demeanor of a captain-in-waiting. Still, this is a more capable, more reliable and more confident Stepan as he and his teammates await tomorrow night’s Game 1 of the opening round in Washington.

This is a Stepan who has emerged as a legitimate NHL first-line center off a club-leading 44-point season (18-26) that he completed with a flourish and an exclamation point by recording 19 points (8-11) over the final 14 games.

“Step is prepared; he has intangibles that some players don’t,” coach John Tortorella said. “He had that right away. You could see it right away.

“He’s proven to all of us he has taken a huge step this year.”

Stepan finished the year between Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, a combination that was intact for the final six games and 12 games overall. At various times he centered Hagelin and Rick Nash (11 games); Callahan and Marian Gaborik (six games); Nash and Callahan (six games); Taylor Pyatt and Callahan (four games); plus other sets of wingers in nine games.

Beyond the numbers, the measure of Stepan’s impact is that whatever line he centered invariably became the Rangers’ best line. He made the people around him better — after he made himself better following a dreadful first two weeks of the season in which he seemed lost and confused.