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Brady doing a bunch for Rangers

Rookie defenseman Skjei filling McDonagh's shoes against Penguins in first postseason action

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Somehow the coolest and calmest guy in the New York Rangers dressing room is the only one who would be given a pass if his head were spinning and his mind racing.

Through two games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Rangers rookie defenseman Brady Skjei has the look of a player who has been here and done that even though he's 22-years-old and hasn't been anywhere or done much of anything in the postseason.

But don't tell him that.

"I have the confidence," Skjei said after practice Monday. "I know I can play up here. Let's keep it going."

Skjei, the Rangers' first-round pick (No. 28) in the 2012 NHL Draft, didn't turn pro until last year, after he finished his junior season at the University of Minnesota. He spent the majority of this season in the American Hockey League save for seven games spread out over four call-ups with the Rangers.

Skjei has proven he can play on the big stage through two games in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He's earned the right to say there's more to come because as the least experienced of New York's defensemen, Skjei hasn't looked out of place.

Skjei has played the sixth most total minutes (36:10) and shorthanded minutes (4:23) of the 19 skaters the Rangers have used against Pittsburgh. He has an assist, a plus-1 rating and two shots on goal.

He's been in the lineup because New York's top defenseman and captain Ryan McDonagh has been out with a right hand injury.

McDonagh's skates are impossible to fill, but it's as if Skjei has slipped them on and tied them tightly anyway. He's fit in so well he's drawing comparisons to McDonagh that don't seem so far reaching once you get past their difference in age (McDonagh is almost 27; Skjei turned 22 last month) and experience (McDonagh has played in 471 NHL games; Skjei has played in nine).

"He does look like a young 'Trucker' out there," defenseman Kevin Klein said, using McDonagh's nickname. "He's built the same way. He skates really well. He can play in every situation. He's going to be a good player, and he's already showing that right now."

It doesn't seem Skjei has surprised himself either; just take his answer to a question about the pressure of being a rookie in the playoffs, if he feels it and if it ever can be overwhelming.

"Not really, no," Skjei said. "I'm playing confident now. I'm trying to make the simple play when it's there, not trying to do too much with the puck. When that stuff starts creeping into your mind, that's usually when things go wrong. I'm just trying to keep that totally out of my system."

What about his answer to a question about playing on the right side, his off side, which he had to do for some shifts in the third period of Game 2, when the Rangers were protecting a two-goal lead.

"I feel good," he said. "It's just hockey, it's not too much different."

And then there was his answer to a question about the confidence coach Alain Vigneault has shown in him by putting him in every situation, including on the penalty kill and power play, and on the ice late in Game 2.

"I'm not trying to read too much into that stuff," Skjei said. 

Other rookies might. They might have the tendency to look over their shoulder, overanalyze their ice time, their usage, and use it to form a conclusion for how the coach feels about them.

It's only natural, really. Everyone wants to make a good first impression.

Skjei doesn't seem too worried about it. And maybe that's another reason why Vigneault has liked him and his game so much.

"His skating, it's National [Hockey] League [level]," Vigneault said. "He moves the puck well.

"Even in a fast-paced hockey that we're seeing right now, I thought he could handle his own."

Vigneault has had nothing but praise for Skjei. He especially liked his ability to handle the shift to the right side in Game 2. It was proof that the plan the Rangers put in motion for Skjei after a two-game call-up in December is working.

"When he came in [in December], we sent him back to Hartford with the advice to play him on the right side instead of the left side," Vigneault said. "We saw that we might need some help there moving forward. [Raphael] Diaz at that time was hurt. So they did. He gives us a couple different scenarios that we could use, and I think so far in the two games he's played well."

Well enough that Vigneault isn't ruling out the idea of keeping Skjei on the right side whenever McDonagh returns to the lineup, which could be as early as Game 3.

"We have some decisions to make," Vigneault said.

Dylan McIlrath, another rookie who more closely resembles Dan Girardi more than Skjei does, played 9:07 in Game 2, but only 4:26 after the first period. Vigneault might be reluctant to use him again out of fear that Pittsburgh's speed would be too much for McIlrath if he had to play more minutes.

Diaz, a right-handed puck-mover and power-play specialist, was recalled Monday and is another righty who could play in Game 3. Diaz has played in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games, but has spent the entire season in the AHL.

Regardless, it's unlikely Skjei is going to come out of the lineup. He hasn't looked like McDonagh's clone (nobody thought he would), but he hasn't looked out of place either, in any situation, on any side.

The coolest and calmest guy in the room has been pretty poised on the ice too.

"It's confidence," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "It's confidence, and you gain that by being out there, making a mistake and being back out there. You gain it through experience and you gain experience by playing. That's where his poise comes from."

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