PITTSBURGH -- Ryan McDonagh felt earlier this season that if he figured out how to marry being the New York Rangers captain and their top defensemen he'd start to resemble the player who earned each of those titles through his performance last season.
It was a union that took some time to develop and came with some internal struggles for McDonagh, but it's become the perfect marriage for the Rangers, who have a 2-1 lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series heading into Game 4 Wednesday at Consol Energy Center (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, MSG).
"He's done so many great things for us and now you see it," Rangers center Derek Stepan said. "He's a big part of what we do as a group."
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 7 | +/-: 1
McDonagh, who was named the Rangers captain prior to this season, scored the winning goal in New York's 2-1 win in Game 1 and had an assist in Game 2. He finished the regular season with 33 points in 71 games, including a stretch of eight points in the last eight games.
He has 19 points in his past 18 Stanley Cup Playoff games dating back to last season.
"Gradually, the last couple months I felt more like myself on the ice and with the guys in the room," McDonagh said. "I kind of understand now how to come in and approach different situations to make sure the group is prepared and keeping the right mentality so we're all coming ready to play."
Oddly enough, it took an injury for McDonagh to gain the perspective he needed to do both of his jobs well. He missed 11 games from Nov. 3-26 because of a shoulder injury; the time off allowed him to focus on himself and realize he needed to be doing more of that all along.
"That was maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise," McDonagh said. "Obviously you don't want to be hurt and missing games, but it allowed me to kind of mentally rethink my approach. My focus still has to be on myself and my game and making sure that I'm doing the job I need to do for this team."
McDonagh said during training camp and through October he was too worried about his teammates, how they were feeling, what they were doing, and what they thought of him as captain. He was afraid of being too bossy, and of stepping on the toes of veteran players such as Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, who have been captains on other NHL teams.
It was an internal struggle that threw McDonagh and his game off. It was obvious in October, when he was turning pucks over, missing assignments and generally just playing an average game, which was surprising considering the level he reached last season.
"You want to try to get back to that level I was at last season, but you've gotta build yourself to that, and mentally I was worried about guys and what to say and stuff like that," McDonagh said. "At the beginning of the season you've got new guys and they're asking you questions about this and that, and you want to make sure they feel comfortable and they understand what we're trying to get accomplished here. Maybe it was a little bit of the wrong approach mentally for me."
On the ice, McDonagh's production was an issue, which might have been the reason he was turnover-prone, Stepan said.
McDonagh had three points in 10 games before sustaining his shoulder injury; he had a career-high 43 points last season, and 17 in the last 15 playoff games.
"When offensive guys go in ruts everything gets magnified, it's tough," Stepan said. "You're going through it, you make the wrong play, you're thinking too much. I think maybe the struggles were offensive and he started to grip the stick a little bit."
McDonagh knew he was back to playing up to his high standard, a standard he set for himself last season, when he started making the right reads on the ice and in the dressing room.
It started after he returned from his injury. He played better and with less stress in his game. He gradually cut down on his turnovers, particularly in the neutral zone. He started to play more with his head up and with greater speed.
"I'm just able to anticipate my next play with the puck," McDonagh said. "It's just feeling natural. With the changes of being named captain, I can't change the player that makes me who I am and try and do too much out there."
The results followed. The Rangers were 44-14-3 after McDonagh returned to the lineup on Nov. 28; they were 9-8-4 until that point, including 4-4-3 in the 11 games he missed.
New York won the Presidents' Trophy by setting franchise records for wins (53) and points (113). McDonagh finished the season with 33 points and a plus-23 rating. He led New York in average ice time per game (23:07).
In the dressing room, McDonagh got comfortable with being captain, with being the leader his teammates were seeking.
"I don't remember the exact detail, but I want to say we had four games in six nights in the dog days, and we had a scheduled practice, but he went in, talked to the guys, decided to do a day off and he took onus on that," Stepan said. "We didn't play that great the next night and he took onus on that too. That's just a small thing. He's done more things, little housecleaning things too, but stuff like that, it takes a lot to do that. Not only to go in and ask for the day off, but then afterwards understand that, 'Hey, that one is on me and I'll take that one.'"
McDonagh's impact was quickly felt by defenseman Keith Yandle, who came to the Rangers on March 1 in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes, where he played with Shane Doan, the longest-standing captain for one team in the NHL.
"I think he's one of those guys that you'd think he's been a captain for 10-15 years the way he handles himself and handles the team," Yandle said. "He brings a certain calmness to the team and a certain intensity to the team where it's infectious and it goes throughout our whole lineup. He's a guy that you forget how young he is and that he's only been a captain for a year with the way he handles the team, especially in a market like New York. He does an amazing job."
It just took McDonagh a little bit of time to get to that point.
"It was a learning process," McDonagh said, "but now I feel real comfortable in my role here and I feel like myself on the ice."