Losing Captain Ryan McDonagh to a punch from Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, put the Rangers in a position to replace the key defender. Keith Yandle stepped up to take on the bulk of the responsibilities, but the reality was that the whole team did a good job of giving a little more in the captain’s absence; despite the strong effort, it’s still not possible to replace a player of his caliber.
With the defender back, the team’s starting to resemble what management, and fans hoped it would in the preseason. McDonagh plays against the other teams best forwards, is a mainstay on the powerplay, and is a big part of the five-on-five game. With him joining a team that’s been playing better, New York becomes much scarier. If the Rangers want to go deep into the postseason, they will need to make sure their best player is healthy, and not take any chances with him.
The general thought is that McDonagh’s the Rangers’ best overall player, he’s had 31 points in 60 games this season, and leads the club in ice time per game, with 22:32, playing a major role in special teams, and five-on-five situations. The fact is, when the team needs something to get done, number 27 gets the call, and when he can’t play there’s no “one player” who could step in, and fill his role; it needs to be a group effort. For example, when he missed a stretch of games, Yandle took on most of the five-on-five, and the power-play time, but he still didn’t kill penalties. That responsibility fell on other veterans like Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal.
McDonagh is one of the best skaters in the NHL, he catches guys who appear to be on a clear breakaway, is incredible at taking away space from the best in the league, and still brings physicality, and brute strength to the back-end. When you see the Rangers’ defenseman bowl Corey Perry into the bench, you get an idea of just how strong he is.
There’s no arguing that the Rangers’ Captain is a terrific player, but one major area of the game where he can’t be replaced is his ability to break the puck out of the defensive zone. He’s so fast, and strong on the puck, that teams can’t give him too much room, but he’s such a good passer that the opposition has to make sure they don’t let anyone get loose behind them. One of the recent examples was in the club’s recent loss to Pittsburgh; McDonagh heads up the ice and deals a clean hard pass to Mats Zuccarello that ends up in the back of the net.
For the Rangers to have any success in the postseason they will need the defender to be at the top of his game, because he’s their only true difference maker on defense. That’s not a knock on the other Rangers, just acknowledging that their Captain has the ability to make something out of nothing on both ends of the puck, and that’s a trait that’s hard to find, even at the NHL level. If New York doesn’t have that break-out ability in their arsenal, all of their other weapons falter.
Give credit to the Rangers’ defense for holding the fort when their best player went down with an injury. For whatever reason the team coverage just seemed to tighten up in his absence. That being said, for the team to compete they will need a healthy McDonagh. Look at last season against the Tampa Bay Lightning; the defender was hurting with a broken foot, and it was obviously taking away from his ability to use his incredible skating against a fast opponent. If the rear-guard has any issues with health, the team will need to tough it out and get him rest, they can’t afford to enter the post-season with an ailing Captain.