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Ryan McDonagh has Rangers up to speed

Captain, on pace for 50-point season, leads New York against Red Wings on Sunday

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh felt the difference right away this season.

His reads were sharper. He was skating better. He was more confident with the puck. He was helping to set the pace, not trying to catch up to it.

The fast start to his season, he said, was due to the head start he got playing in the World Cup of Hockey 2016. 

"You're talking about having some intense games before half of the League does," said McDonagh, the Rangers captain who played for Team USA in September. "You're amping up your training a little bit beforehand and you're able to make your reads to a high pace in those games. Transferring back here with New York was a good feeling, seeing the play and playing fast, the way we want."

Although the Rangers, who play the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, NHL.TV), recently hit a snag with their team defense, McDonagh's level has remained reliably high. His speed is unfailingly fast and his production has been consistently impactful for an offense that is averaging 3.50 goals per game, second in the NHL to the Pittsburgh Penguins (3.60).

Video: MIN@NYR: McDonagh scores from the blue line

McDonagh, who had 34 points in 73 games last season, has 28 points, including 26 assists, playing 45 of 46 games in 2016-17. He's on pace for 50 points, which would shatter his career-high of 43. For the second straight season, he will be the only Rangers player heading to the NHL All-Star Game, which is Jan. 29 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. 

And he is not the only Rangers All-Star defenseman to say that playing in preseason tournaments helped him once the NHL season began.

"That World Cup, I always felt my best in seasons when I played in those World Cups," Hall of Famer and former Rangers captain Brian Leetch said. "I always found it made a huge difference for me, going through that and then stepping into the NHL. I was always up and running a lot easier. That might have something to do with [McDonagh] too."

Leetch won the Norris Trophy twice; in 1992 after he played for Team USA at the 1991 Canada Cup and in 1997 after helping Team USA win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

"You jump into that practice in the World Cup and everybody is at a high level so you're going hard in practice just to keep up with the flow and the stick-to-stick passes," Leetch said. "For Ryan, he jumped into real high-level hockey in training camp so once he got to the NHL it's a lot simpler when he got moving."

McDonagh also credits that Rangers' attacking style as a reason he has felt better and been more productive this season.

A year ago, the Rangers were more of a plodding team and McDonagh, as Leetch said, looked like he was in between. This season, the Rangers are an aggressive team, one that wants to push out of the zone quickly and score in transition.

"I think just overall I fit better with this team," McDonagh said. "We've really amped up our transition game and that's obviously a big strength of my ability. We've got a lot more depth up front so we're really trying to move the puck and find them in areas to score goals."

McDonagh said the Rangers recently have been guilty of trying to feed their offense at the expense of defending properly. Their structure eroded and they allowed a total of 20 goals over four straight games before getting a 5-2 win at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday. They went 1-3-0 in that stretch, despite scoring a total of 17 goals in those four games.

McDonagh, who was on the ice for eight of those 20 goals, including seven in New York's three straight losses against the Maple Leafs (4-2), Montreal Canadiens (5-4) and Dallas Stars (7-6), said the key as the captain was to avoid showing any variance in his approach.

"It's just making sure as a group we don't blow everything up and change our preparation," McDonagh said.

Video: NYR@BUF: McDonagh rips a shot past Nilsson for PPG

It wasn't difficult for him to set that example. In many ways that's how he approaches every day with the Rangers.

"Every year is different with different things going on and the team playing different, but he just plays the same way no matter what," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "He's our rock back there. It's pretty much all you can ask for in a player and obviously your captain, to do everything and anything it takes to win."

That includes setting an example for young players like rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, a Minnesotan like McDonagh.

"He's always the last guy off the ice [at practice]," Skjei said. "That's very noticeable. I try to stay out there as long as I can before the guys kick us off and we're usually out there pretty late, and it's very consistent that he's one of the last ones off the ice and always working on stuff."

Defenseman Adam Clendening, a healthy scratch for 31 of 35 games from Oct. 23-Jan. 3, said McDonagh kept constant tabs on him during that stretch to make sure his spirits were up, to make him feel like he was still very much a part of the team and would be needed, as he is now.

"He would always check up on me, ask 'How's it going,' that kind of thing," Clendening said. "He is what he is, your captain and everything you'd expect a captain to be."

It's easier for McDonagh to do everything else as captain when he feels like he's doing his part on the ice. He didn't always feel that way last season, especially at the end, when he was playing with a broken right hand which caused him to miss the first two games of the Rangers' five-game loss to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The World Cup gave him a chance to start quickly this season. He hasn't slowed down.

"I know he's really driven this year," Girardi said. "You can really see it in him. He's trying to lead the way, to play the right way. He's doing everything for us."

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