When you think about key players for the Tampa Bay Lightning, your first thoughts will go to names like Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman. These three stars have been the driving force behind the Lightning’s run to the 2020 Eastern Conference Final, scoring game-winning goals while logging big minutes.
If I said to think of role players, then your mind will likely go to names like Mikhail Sergachev, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow. Sure, they may not have the same star power as the aforementioned players, but they are all making noticeable impacts on the Lightning each and every night.
The one name that you might forget is Ryan McDonagh, who, in terms of scoring, has had just an average postseason. However, what you may miss in his three points is just how important he has been for the Lightning so far.
McDonagh Is Eating Big Minutes For the Lightning
To put it simply, McDonagh has been a workhorse on Tampa Bay’s blue line. In 10 starts, he leads the team in ice-time, averaging close to 27 minutes each night. While that total is somewhat inflated due to his 53 minutes played in their 5OT epic back in Round One, he is still taking on more minutes than anyone else for the Lightning.
This matters to the Bolts for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, McDonagh has been playing a smart defensive game. He is blocking more shots than anyone else on the roster while limiting opponents’ options.
Second, and arguably most importantly, his play allows the Lightning to distribute ice-time more evenly for Hedman. When you have two left-shot, top-four defensemen who are playing well, it keeps you from having to overwork your top option.
When Mcdonagh was out with injury, Hedman saw his ice time jump to about 28 minutes each game, up from the 23 to 24 he was playing before. This increase of four minutes each night is significant, as even the best defensemen in the NHL will get worn down during the postseason.
By having such a strong option in McDonagh, the Lightning won’t have to overload their top defenseman each night, helping both players stay relatively fresh for the long run.
McDonagh’s Doing His Part on the Penalty Kill
While taking on big minutes each night is important, when you’re getting those minutes matters equally as much. For McDonagh, a large chunk of his nightly playing time comes when the Lightning are most vulnerable.
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Throughout the postseason, he is averaging close to three minutes and forty seconds of ice-time on the penalty kill, which leads the team. The player with the second most short-handed ice-time, Erik Cernak, is playing around three-minutes a night.
For a team that is averaging close to six minutes short-handed each night, McDonagh’s presence is all the more important. When he was not in the line-up, you noticed it, as backup defensemen were pushed into those key kills that they may not have been ready for.
Even if the Lightning’s penalty kill has been fairly pedestrian, finding success in 81 percent of their chances, most of those failed attempts came against the Boston Bruins when McDonagh was injured. When he is healthy, he is the engine of the penalty kill, something that the Bolts need in order to push for their ultimate goal.
Lightning Need a Healthy McDonagh To Continue Push
While the Lightning were able to win three-straight games against the Bruins while McDonagh was out, this is not a sustainable path to postseason success. Not only did it require Hedman to take on more ice-time, but it also changed their line-up so they could run seven defensemen to help spread out the lost minutes.
If the Lightning hope to break through and win the 2020 Stanley Cup, they need McDonagh playing at a high level. Sure, his play may not be as noticeable as their offensive stars, but what he brings defensively each and every night is equally as important.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.