By Matt Calamia
Partially lost among the focus that has been put on the play of Henrik Lundqvist during the Rangers’ current five-game winning streak that began when they were down 3-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins up through the team’s current 2-0 advantage over the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final has been the surge of defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
It feels like ancient history now that McDonagh — who shined both defensively and offensively during the regular season — was held completely off the scoresheet during the Rangers’ seven-game series win over the Philadelphia Flyers and through the opening three games against Pittsburgh and was an uncharacteristic minus-4.
McDonagh finally found the scoresheet with an assist in the team’s loss against Pittsburgh in Game 4, and followed it up with a goal and an assist in the team’s 5-1 Game 5 win to stave off elimination.
Following wins over Pittsburgh in Game 6 and 7, McDonagh has not wasted any time against Montreal, posting two goals and four assists for six points to lead the Rangers thus far in the Eastern Conference Final.
“Obviously, I think at the beginning part of the playoffs [I] was trying to force it, try and do too much,” McDonagh said after the Rangers’ practice at Madison Square Garden Wednesday afternoon. McDonagh added that keeping it simple is the best formula, something that he’s been doing more against Montreal than previously against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
This season was McDonagh’s arrival of sorts at the national — and international — level of the hockey world. McDonagh posted career-highs with 14 goals, 29 assists and 43 points in 77 games during the regular season, and earned a spot on Team USA’s top defensive pairing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in February.
But for those who know him best, McDonagh is just being McDonagh.
“I’ve been saying this about Mac — I’ve been with Mac a long time — he’s never changed,” said Derek Stepan, who has been a teammate of McDonagh’s dating back to their time at the University of Wisconsin. “He’s always been this player. He got rewarded this season and the last five games with production points wise, but this is the player that Mac has been since he’s been here. This time, he’s getting the recognition he deserves and he’s showing that elite player that he’s going to be.”
The Rangers’ power play, which was such a focus in the first two rounds of the postseason due to its struggles, has shined against Montreal in round three, going 4-for-10 over two games, with McDonagh scoring a goal and two assists, leading his teammates to crediting him with helping its turnaround.
“He’s been awesome. I think his plays on the power play have been key for us,” Marc Staal said. “He’s made some great plays when we’ve needed it. The rest of his game has kind of taken off. He’s been great for us, absolutely.”
McDonagh’s role on the team over the last three seasons makes it easy to forget that he’s still just 24 years old. His age, though, does not prevent younger players on the squad looking up to him as a role model.
“He’s one of the best defensemen in this league,” John Moore told BlueshirtsUnited.com. “He does it with his skating and the way he thinks the game and his stick skills. Even today in practice when we were doing 2-on-1s, I’m focusing on him and doing what he’s doing to try and pick up certain things.”
A potential factor for McDonagh’s short-lived drought at the start of the postseason could be attributed to missing a handful of games at the end of the regular season. That injury, though, appears to be fully behind him and coach Alain Vigneault said it’s nice to have McDonagh producing again.
“Coming back from missing those few games, it took him a little bit more time than we anticipated for him to find his game,” Vigneault said. “It took him — I’m sure if you asked him, he would say the same thing — it took him more time than he anticipated to find his game, but he did find it at the right time, and we need him to continue that.”