TAMPA — Ryan McDonagh hasn’t spent much time during the Eastern Conference Final pondering his previous life as captain of the New York Rangers.
Other than some initial nostalgia from experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs again at Madison Square Garden, where McDonagh and the Tampa Bay Lightning will visit the Rangers for a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS) , the defenseman has been all business.
“Maybe a little bit of a feeling just playing in some of those games at the Garden, the first game maybe,” McDonagh said. “But at this point in the series now, just focusing on my job each and every shift.”
After winning the past two games at home to even the best-of-7 series, Tampa Bay can take a significant step in its pursuit of a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship with a road victory Thursday.
[RELATED: Complete Rangers vs. Lightning series coverage]
McDonagh has been a fixture in these kind of high-pressure games during his 12 NHL seasons, including the first eight with the Rangers before being traded to the Lightning on Feb. 26, 2018.
Having never missed the playoffs since entering the NHL in 2010-11, McDonagh will play in his 178th postseason game Thursday to move ahead of Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins for fifth among active players.
This is McDonagh’s seventh conference final/League semifinal and he’s seeking his fourth trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a date with Colorado Avalanche, the Western Conference champion. McDonagh played in three conference finals with the Rangers, losing to the New Jersey Devils in 2012 and the Lightning in 2015, and defeating the Montreal Canadiens in 2014 to reach the Cup Final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
He was captain his final four seasons with New York.
“‘Mac’ is one of the best humans I’ve ever played with,” said Rangers forward Chris Kreider, who was teammates with McDonagh for seven seasons. “I learned so much from him about how to be a pro, how to conduct yourself on and off the ice. The number of things that he did for our group when here it’s a very, very long list. I mean, he was our example of what it was to be a Ranger.”
With New York beginning a rebuild in 2018, Tampa Bay jumped at the chance to acquire a defenseman with McDonagh’s pedigree and signed him to a seven-year contract extension after that season. He was integral in helping the Lightning get over the hump to win the Stanley Cup in 2020 following repeated playoff disappointments and, after winning the Cup again last season, they are seeking to become the first team to win it in three straight seasons since the New York Islanders’ run of four straight championships from 1980-83.
“That was the first kind of piece going forward for us in becoming the team that we are today,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said of the trade for McDonagh. “…Ever since he’s been here, (he has been) a leader on this team, a guy that when you think about the past couple playoff series, one of our best, if not our best player.”
Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk played for the Rangers when McDonagh was traded and remembers the signal it sent to their players 18 days after management sent a letter to the fans detailing their plan to rebuild.
“I think anytime a captain gets traded, you kind of know that letter really meant business,” Shattenkirk said. “…So, it was just hard and I think it was hard for him as well. He was a New York Ranger his whole career and to grow into that role and then have to be moved elsewhere, especially when they were going through that rebuilding.” , I think he would’ve been happy to be a part of that.”
Instead, McDonagh joined the Lightning and quickly integrated himself into their locker room, becoming an alternate captain. A leader by example, McDonagh has blocked 404 shots in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which are most in the NHL since the League started tracking the statistic in 2005-06.
McDonagh is leading the Lightning again with 43 blocked shots (one behind Jacob Trouba of the Rangers for the League lead) to go along with his four points (one goal, three assists), in 15 playoff games this season.
“He’s not an overly vocal guy, but when he does speak, it brings a lot of weight,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the Lightning in 2019 and won the Cup with them in 2020. “But I think his play is what gets Everyone to buy into what he’s selling. He just lays his body on the line and it’s kind of a true indication of him just really being willing to do whatever it takes to win.
“You can see how that carried over into the team and, obviously, the last couple years with when they won the Cup.”
Approaching his 33rd birthday June 13, McDonagh has his sights set on winning the Cup again. With the Rangers’ rebuild essentially completed, they are standing in his way.
If McDonagh has any lingering feelings on that, he already pushed them aside.
“Right now, we’re in the thick of another playoff run with a great chance to do something special,” McDonagh said. “So, we’re just trying to focus on that and keep adding to our success here.”