NEW YORK -- Besides goalie Henrik Lundqvist, defenseman Ryan McDonagh is the one player the New York Rangers can't afford to lose for any length of time. He's their captain, their ice-time leader, an all-situations player, and their best defenseman.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, losing McDonagh for at least the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs might be their reality. McDonagh is out indefinitely with a hand injury he sustained blocking a shot Monday.
He did not play in New York's 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, and he will not play in the Rangers' last two regular season games -- against the New York Islanders on Thursday and the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.
New York also may have lost defenseman Dan Girardi to an injury against the Lightning; he was hurt when he got hit into the boards by former Rangers forward Brian Boyle with 1:08 remaining. His status likely won't be updated until Thursday.
The Rangers have clinched a playoff berth, but they're still jockeying for position. They have a two-point lead on the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division, and trail the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins by three points.
Where the Rangers finish is less important than getting McDonagh back for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round (the playoffs begin April 13). He leads the Rangers in ice time with 22:21 per game, and is routinely matched up against the opposition's top line.
His 34 points are second among Rangers defensemen (Keith Yandle has 46). McDonagh and Yandle each have 24 even-strength points, and Yandle has played 90:14 more at even strength because he has played seven more games.
The Rangers' only real option to replace McDonagh is 22-year-old rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, who was called up Tuesday from Hartford of the American Hockey League and played an 16:22 against the Lightning, including 5:12 on the penalty kill. He had one shot on goal and three of his shot attempts were blocked.
Skjei, a lefty like McDonagh, played his fifth NHL game Tuesday; he has no points. He is expected to stay in the lineup against the Islanders on Thursday. It's correct to look at it as sort of a tryout in case McDonagh isn't ready for the start of the playoffs.
By all accounts, Skjei is a future top-four defenseman. He could be the eventual replacement for Yandle, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and might be too high-priced for the Rangers to fit under the salary cap.
Skjei can skate, move the puck, get up in the attack, play on the power play and produce offense. He led Hartford defensemen with 28 points in 68 games. But he's not McDonagh. He might get there someday, but not yet.
Without McDonagh, Skjei has to pick up the slack, especially on the penalty kill because the Rangers do not use Yandle in shorthanded situations. That might be asking a lot for a rookie if he has to do it in the playoffs, which is why the Rangers are going to need more from their other veteran defenseman, particularly Yandle, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein, if McDonagh can't return.
Staal has been playing his best hockey of the season in the past few weeks. He might have played his best game at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, when he led the Rangers with 25:33 of ice time. He had an assist in 23:13 of ice time against the Lightning.
Staal won't attack the way McDonagh does, but he has shown recently how reliable he can be. He struggled this season with reads and defensive positioning, but not lately.
"Marc's been playing real well for us for I want to say the last 10 games," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Defensively, he's been very solid with his reads when he doesn't have the puck. He's also been very good with the puck, knowing which outlet to use and when to jump up into the attack. The Marc Staal that we see in pressure moments, this is the guy that we're seeing at this time."
Klein picked up some of McDonagh's minutes against the Lightning, and finished with a season-high 27:24, including seven minutes on the penalty kill.
Yandle will still be relied on for his offense on the power play, but he might on occasion have to play more even-strength minutes too.
All of this won't matter if McDonagh is able to come back to start the playoffs. But that is unclear. And, if history tells us anything, even if he does play in Game 1, we won't know if he's healthy or battling through an injury at the most important time.
So the Rangers have to brace and prepare for the worst, or at least the second worst. Losing Lundqvist would be devastating.
Losing McDonagh is a close second.