NEW YORK -- New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh spent the past two weeks playing the role of observer, a dichotomy to his reputation of an iron man, when an injured shoulder sustained on April 1 against the Vancouver Canucks forced him to the press box at Madison Square Garden.
Sitting high atop his perch, McDonagh studied what became a polished product while the regular season drew to a close and took notes on what he can add to his burgeoning game. The Rangers often discuss the tempo of their team and the desire to play hard, play fast and transition quickly. To see that style unfold from a different perspective, McDonagh came away astonished at what's possible if the Rangers are firing on all cylinders.
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 43
SOG: 177 | +/-: 11
"To see it up top live, it's amazing when we're on our game and really playing to our strengths," McDonagh said Monday. "Guys are making quick decisions, making plays, and not extending their shifts a lot and getting caught out there. To see what happens when we do play simple and execute, how effective it can be, makes you want to do the same out there."
Beginning Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Rangers' opponent in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, McDonagh will attempt to ensure that the perspective gained parlays into a championship. He'll go for it completely healed from the shoulder ailment that temporarily derailed a season that saw him set career highs in goals (14) and points (43) in 77 games while averaging a team-best 24:49 of ice time.
McDonagh was healthy enough to play in the Rangers' regular-season finale against the Montreal Canadiens last Saturday, but coach Alain Vigneault decided to rest him one more game in light of New York securing home-ice advantage in the first round. McDonagh skated the morning of the game and took wrist shots from 50 feet, but did not take part in contact drills.
All restrictions will be lifted when the Rangers return to practice Tuesday and Wednesday.
"These next two days will be great to get some bumps in, and some contact, and really get back to game speed," McDonagh said. "We practice at a high pace too and my conditioning will be fine. I've been doing some biking and stuff off the ice, and these last few days stuff on the ice too, so I feel good on the ice-conditioning wise. It's just a matter of taking a couple of bumps here in practice and getting the game speed back."
Speed is what the Rangers will need to combat the physical Flyers in their first postseason series since the 1997 Eastern Conference Final, when Philadelphia eliminated New York in five games. On paper, gaining home-ice advantage was critical for the Rangers, who have won eight straight against the Flyers at Madison Square Garden since Feb. 20, 2011, while outscoring them 32-9 and holding them to two or fewer goals in each game.
In reality, all trends are wiped out once the postseason begin.
"You have to dismiss it," McDonagh said. "In my four years here we made the playoffs every time, but we haven't played these guys in the playoffs at all since I've been here. The intensity rises and there's no small plays, and it's going to come down to power play, penalty killing and goaltending. We're not focusing on the past. We're just trying to continue to take one game at a time here and try to roll with some momentum."
It will be up to McDonagh and partner Dan Girardi, not the Garden crowd or favorable statistics, to slow down the Flyers' top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, who combined for 71 goals and 200 points. The catalyst of the Philadelphia's rise from 4-10-1 on Nov. 7 to third place in the Metropolitan Division, Giroux played himself into the Hart Trophy debate by scoring 28 goals after needing the first 15 games of the season to score his first.
"They've got speed, they've got some physicality, they got playmaking ability and they've got finishers," McDonagh said. "They're not afraid to score pretty goals and go hard to the net and get the greasy ones too. You want to try and make them defend, really try and get the puck out of their hands before they can come across the zone and blue line. You really want to try and play fast and frustrate them."
Named the Rangers' Team MVP by the local media, in addition to being awarded the Players' Player Award by his teammates, McDonagh was tied for sixth among NHL defensemen in goals and tops in shorthanded goals with three. His 14 goals are the most by a Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch's 21 in 2000-01.
Playing alongside Dan Girardi, another minutes-muncher averaging 23:07 of ice time, McDonagh has taken advantage of Girardi's ability to block shots and break up plays that allows him to join the rush, create offensively and flourish on each end.
"We feed off each other," McDonagh said. "I've obviously picked his brain my first few years and since we started to play together, it's really taken off and we feel really confident together."
The Rangers (45-31-6) as a whole took off once they were fully acclimated to Vigneault's system. Following a season-opening nine-game road trip that saw them get off to a 3-6-0 start while being outscored 33-15, they won at least 45 games for the second time since their Stanley Cup season of 1993-94 and ended 2013-14 with a 9-2-2 run in their final 13 games.
"He wants us going fast, going 100 miles per hour and trying to be creative when the time is right," McDonagh said of Vigneault. "When it's time to make a simple play, do it. As a coach, he's been awesome. It took a little while to get used to the changes, but it's been a huge part of our success."