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Timing back, Rangers' McDonagh finding elite level

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- New York Rangers center Derek Stepan can't help but smile and even laugh as he witnesses the recognition defenseman Ryan McDonagh is starting to receive from the media during the Eastern Conference Final.

Stepan knows why it's coming in droves now: McDonagh's six points against the Montreal Canadiens and eight in his past five Stanley Cup Playoff games (all wins), is a giveaway.

"It's well-deserved," Stepan said.

Stepan is thrilled for his teammate and close friend. He's proud too. But you can forgive him for not being surprised.

Six years of playing with McDonagh has given Stepan perspective on the defenseman that nobody else in the NHL has or can have. Eight points in five games, as impressive as that is, won't change the opinion Stepan long-ago formed on McDonagh, his former college teammate.

"I've seen this coming for a long time," Stepan said.

This refers to McDonagh's ascent into an exclusive category of NHL defensemen, the few who can be labeled "elite," which Stepan called him three times after practice in advance of Game 3 against the Canadiens on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

There's no arguing this point with Stepan, or anyone associated with the Rangers. And there shouldn't be. They're right. Just ask the Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins.

McDonagh has three goals and five assists during the Rangers' five-game winning streak. He led New York with six points in its back-to-back wins at Bell Centre to start the conference final, a best-of-7 series it leads 2-0.

"I've been with [McDonagh] a long time," Stepan said. "He's never changed. He's always been this player. He got rewarded this season and the last five games with production, but this is the player that [McDonagh] has been since he's been here, and this time he's getting the recognition he deserves."

He is because of the production and the time of year. No one is denying that.

"But I certainly think if you go around and ask every guy in this room, they're going to tell you this is no surprise and this is the player we all see every single day," Stepan said.

That player put up career-highs in points (43), goals (14), assists (29), power-play goals (two), game-winning goals (four), and shots (177) during the regular season. McDonagh credits coach Alain Vigneault's system for allowing him to be an offensive force, something he couldn't be under former coach John Tortorella.

However, McDonagh also was a shell of himself in the first 11 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He sustained a shoulder injury with five games to play in the regular season. At first the injury limited his range of motion. When he rejoined the lineup at the start of the postseason, it was obvious the injury had eaten away at his timing.

McDonagh led the Rangers in ice time in each of the first six games of the first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, but he didn't do much of anything with all the minutes.

"Knowing [McDonagh], he probably came back a little too early," said Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, who is in charge of the defensemen. "If you do, you're fighting it. He may have had trouble sleeping; who knows? He's such a warrior that he won't tell much."

McDonagh, typically reserved when speaking about himself, reflected on his early postseason struggles Wednesday.

"I wasn't able to make the right reads at the pace we were playing," McDonagh said. "I was trying to force things when they were not there, not understanding situations in the game, when it's time to take a risk or time to peel back. It was more mentally just getting myself in the right frame of mind.

"It didn't happen right away. It didn't click."

He was fortunate the Rangers were winning and other defensemen stepped up.

Dan Girardi had a goal and an assist in Game 3 against the Flyers, a 4-1 victory. Marc Staal scored in Game 5 against Philadelphia, a 4-2 win. New York eliminated Philadelphia in seven games.

"I just knew over time I was going to try to find my game here to help the guys the best I can," McDonagh said. "We had guys stepping up … everybody making plays around me. Over time it helps you gain confidence because we're all working together."

McDonagh had no choice but to find his game after Game 4 against the Penguins, when it appeared the bottom had fallen out from under the Rangers. Pittsburgh had a 3-1 series lead and New York was coming off one of its worst playoff performances in recent memory.

Game 5 featured McDonagh at his best. He was skating, pinching, reading the play, getting involved in the offense without sacrificing his defensive responsibilities. He was superb, and was rewarded for it with a goal and an assist in a 5-1 win.

Ryan McDonagh
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 9
SOG: 29 | +/-: -2
Vigneault said after the game McDonagh was not injured and needed to play that way if New York was going to have a chance at coming back against Pittsburgh.

McDonagh has been brilliant ever since. The Rangers haven't lost. This is not a coincidence.

"He managed through the season to get to a very high level, close to some of the better [defensemen] in the League, then he got hurt and it took him a little while," Samuelsson said. "He hasn't really had many injuries to fight back from, and it's tough for any player to go through injuries, especially for a player like that, who is counted on in so many ways. Pretty much in all aspects of our game he's the first one out there.

"It's streaky that he's getting points now, but more than that his overall game is back to the level where it was."

You can tell by looking at the plays McDonagh is making, such as chipping a puck off the glass and into the zone instead of rimming it along the boards where it can get intercepted by an opponent.

"I'm just focusing on being a little more simple, not looking for direct passes every time," McDonagh said. "It's very tight checking in the playoffs, like we want to play, and sometimes you've got to just throw it to an area. Sometimes the glass is the best play."

Look at the pinches McDonagh is making into the offensive zone; his reads are spot-on, and he rarely, if ever, compromises himself because of the way he can skate.

"We're looking for our [defensemen] to join [the rush] whenever they can, but you have to be able to read it. He's really crisp in his reads," Samuelsson said. "He may read a pass in the neutral zone and step up on it to generate something from there. That's obviously confidence, but also being able to accelerate very quick. He's very physically blessed that way."

Samuelsson is talking about McDonagh's skating ability. It's the best part of his game.

"He's just such a powerful skater," Stepan said.

McDonagh's skating is why United States coach Dan Bylsma was comfortable putting him on the right side, his off side, alongside Ryan Suter at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. McDonagh had no hiccups in making the transition. Even the Rangers coaches were surprised when they saw it.

"We hadn't seen it much because we were so stacked on the right side, but it's been in our back pocket [since]," Samuelsson said. "He played a shift on the right side with Staal in the last game."

He did during a 4-on-4 sequence late in the first period.

"His skating ability … I mean, it's just fun to watch him play," Rangers forward Chris Kreider said. "He's so smooth. He works so hard and he does so many things right. There's just a lot you can learn from him. Even as a forward there's a lot I can learn."

Stepan doesn't have to learn anything more about McDonagh.

His perspective on the defenseman, gained during six years of playing with him, of friendship, is rock solid. No amount of production or recognition will change it. In fact, to Stepan it's actually kind of funny the rest of the hockey world only now is discovering what he long has known.

"I can sit here and pump [McDonagh's] tires all day," Stepan said. "His coming-out party might have been this season, but he's an elite player and he's going to be an elite player for a long time."


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