NEW YORK -- Ryan McDonagh spent Tuesday trying tried to deflect some of the attention placed on his rise for the New York Rangers in his first full NHL season.
He mentioned other members of the blue-line corps who saw an increase in responsibility at the start of the season when Marc Staal wasn't able to play because of issues stemming from a concussion last year. He's not quite 23 years old and might have only had 45 NHL games on his resume before coach John Tortorella pegged him as Staal's replacement next to Dan Girardi on the team's go-to pairing, but McDonagh is going to continue to have a tough time slipping away from praise the way he can smoothly skate a puck out of danger.
"Ryan hasn't changed much," said Rangers forward Derek Stepan, who has played with McDonagh since their college days at Wisconsin. "He's always been the same guy since I've known him. I've known him for a quite a while now. Hockey player-wise, everything he's doing now he's been doing his whole entire life -- his skating, his strength, his ability to shut down guys that are big players in this League. He's been doing that for a long time now. It is pretty cool to watch."
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At 28, Girardi is the "grizzled veteran" -- the guy with more than 400 NHL games and the one who constantly has cuts and bruises to attend to because of the way he plays. He's developed into one of the top defensive defenseman in hockey, and given the sudden surge in shot-blocking as the desired form of defense he might be the prototype at his position -- the same way Scott Niedermayer was perfect for the neutral zone-squeezing New Jersey Devils of the 1990s and Nicklas Lidstrom was for the puck-possession ways of the Detroit Red Wings in recent seasons.
When this season began, McDonagh was just the kid who didn't look out of place during a half-season with the Rangers as a rookie in 2010-11. He might have oozed potential, but Tortorella was assuming some risk by pairing him with Girardi.
"It's just like when we put lines together. I don't know if the line's going to work," Tortorella said. "You try to put some guys together. You don't know if it's going to work. You just have a feel. You watch it and you see if it does. And that's what happened with [McDonagh] and Danny.
"It certainly was out of necessity. We talked about Michael Del Zotto, but Michael Del Zotto was still in the process of coming out of the minors and starting to play again. So you never know -- and if any coach tells you that he knows this will work he's lying, because we don't. You try it and you make a judgment, and hopefully your judgment is the correct one, keeping them together or splitting them up."
The Rangers began the season on a European expedition, and the pair has been almost inseparable ever since. McDonagh played 87.93 percent of his minutes at even strength this season with Girardi on the ice, according to the line combinations tool at DobberHockey.com. Each played all 82 games, and they evolved into one of the League's top shutdown pairings.
Girardi earned more individual accolades during the season, earning a berth in the All-Star Game and even popping up on the fringes of the Norris Trophy discussion. McDonagh was absorbing huge minutes in key situations -- and progressing faster than just about anyone expected.
"It's funny how it works out when you end up with injuries," Tortorella said. "We always talk about when there's injuries another guy gets an opportunity. You never know where it's going to lead you. So with [McDonagh], the amount of time he got so quickly in key situations because of that injury has accelerated his process, where that may be a year down the road if we didn't have an injury. So you never know how this works out. I'm not sure if I'll ever split those two guys up. That's just the way it works."
Added McDonagh: "I was really excited. Obviously, it was unfortunate we didn't have Marc at the beginning of the year. But when the opportunity came, I was really ecstatic and knew how important it would be for me and Danny to play well, having Marc out."
Stepan said he wasn't surprised at how quickly McDonagh embraced the top-two role, and how suddenly his emergence became one of the keys to New York capturing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Wisconsin blue line was chock full of NHL talent when Stepan and McDonagh were there. If McDonagh was drawing tough assignments, he was either playing with or instead of the likes of Jake Gardiner, Justin Faulk, Brendan Smith and Jamie McBain.
While Girardi began this season as the known quantity of the two, McDonagh has come a long way toward closing the gap. He actually finished the season with slightly better defensive numbers -- McDonagh was on the ice for eight fewer goals against (and four fewer goals for) at even strength.
Girardi played more minutes, but not enough to make up the difference. McDonagh's 1.86 goals against per 60 minutes at even strength was the third-best among the top 30 defensemen in Behind the Net's quality of competition rating, behind only St. Louis' Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo.
There were several guys on that top 30 list -- Lidstrom, Karl Alzner, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Robyn Regehr and Ian White -- who had a GA/60 worse than McDonagh but better than Girardi's 2.14.
During this postseason, Tortorella has actually trusted McDonagh with 36-plus minutes of ice time more than Girardi at even strength (Girardi makes up the difference on special teams).
"It's been great," McDonagh said. "I mean, I make some mistakes, and Danny's great at recovering and blocking a shot or disrupting an odd-man rush. And he just gives you that much more confidence to join the rush and create and make your plays that way. And obviously learned a lot from him, how mentally tough he is. The grind that he goes through, the hits that he takes, and the way he blocks shots. He's such a leader in that aspect, and it's something that I'm trying to get involved in in my game."
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 1
SOG: 28 | +/-: -2
Girardi has been there to clean up McDonagh's mistakes during this season, but Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils might have been symbolic of the strides the kid has made in catching up with his partner.
Zach Parise put the puck past Girardi early in the first period and skated in on Henrik Lundqvist, but McDonagh was able to chase him down and prevent a prime scoring chance. Later in the period, Ilya Kovalchuk blocked a Girardi shot at the right point and also appeared to have a clean break on Lundqvist before McDonagh caught him and forced a weak backhanded attempt that Lundqvist had no trouble stopping.
Girardi has established himself as one of the League's top defensive defensemen after a couple of years of solid work with Staal and now one with McDonagh. But that doesn't mean the kid from St. Paul, Minn., doesn't deserve equal billing after the progress he's made.
"I'm lucky he's such a good skater," Girardi said of the play on Parise. "I think I just got a little bit -- maybe to slow him down, and [McDonagh] made a couple of good plays right off the bat and I had a couple of tough plays right off the start. I think [McDonagh] did a good job of covering for me and making some good solid plays, and that helped me get past a couple of things.
"Obviously it's easy to play with [McDonagh] on the ice. He's such a good skater it makes my job pretty easy out there. … I think sometimes it works between guys and sometimes it doesn't. It just seemed to gel. I really couldn't tell you why. I think it's just kind of read off each other from the beginning and talking on and off the ice about different things we could do, and it's been good so far."