The New York Rangers are looking for a hero. Down 2-0 with Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final set for tonight at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS), they need someone to provide the spark that was missing in their two frustrating losses in Los Angeles.
It could be Henrik Lundqvist. The all-world goalie has been fine to this point, but he hasn’t given his team that one critical stop that Jonathan Quick has provided at the other end of the ice. (Brad Richards is still wondering how he didn’t score on that in-close chance in the third period on Saturday.)
It could be Rick Nash, who peppered Quick with eight shots in Game 2 with hands that are stonier right now than Ben Grimm’s. Or maybe it’ll be Richards, coming off a game marred by giveaways and defensive gaffes as well as blown chances.
But the man who really needs to step it up is Ryan McDonagh.
This postseason has been a coming-out party for the 24-year-old, and he’s used this run to establish himself as one of the top-10 defenders in the league. He’s been bold and decisive and dangerous in all three zones, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals when he rang up 10 points that crushed the Cup dreams of the Canadiens.
A legitimate Conn Smythe candidate? You bet.
At least until the Cup final started.
Oh, he’s had his moments. In fact, McDonagh put together a terrific first 40 minutes in Game 2. He scored the opening goal on an absolute rocket from the point, and made a nice play to get the puck to the net so Mats Zuccarello could bat it home to give the Blueshirts a 2-0 lead. He was quick on his feet and aggressive in his coverage…and then it all fell apart.
The retaliation penalty McDonagh took in the second period after being popped by Dustin Brown was inexcusable. If a rookie loses his cool like that, at least you can write it off as a kid getting caught up in the emotion of the game. A veteran–a leader–like McDonagh? It can’t happen.
After that, his game unraveled. Depending on your viewpoint, he either failed to get position on Dwight King, or actually planted him on top of Lundqvist, leading to the Kings’ controversial third goal. On Marian Gaborik’s tying marker, McDonagh scrambled to clear the puck only to put it directly on the sniper’s stick low in the slot.
And then, most critically, he failed to tie up Dustin Brown on the deciding play in that thrilling second OT period. He had the inside position on the Kings’ captain only to lose it just long enough to let Brown squeeze into the shooting lane and redirect Willie Mitchell’s point blast by Lundqvist for the winner.
And those were just the big moments, the ones that ended up costing New York the game. There were other, equally troubling, signs like the way the Kings were absolutely crushing him on the cycle and his limited effectiveness in transition.
Add it all up and it looks like McDonagh is a tired player after 77 regular season contests, a tour with the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi, and now 22 hard games on this Cup run, all while matched up against the best forwards in the world. His legs are a little slower, his body doesn’t react the way he wants, and he clearly isn’t thinking the game quite as quickly.
So what, right? Everyone is tired at this time of year, especially the guys on the blueline. You don’t have to look too hard to see sloppy plays being made at the other end of the ice to know the Kings are struggling with 23 games worth of their own playoff fatigue.
But the truth of it is their depth has given them an edge, allowed them to minimize the impact of their mistakes.
With Marc Staal and Dan Girardi working through their own issues, the Rangers don’t have that luxury. That’s why they’ve blown four–FOUR–two-goal leads in the span of just two games. And it’s why they’re minimizing their greatest asset in Lundqvist by allowing too many of the kind of shots that he has almost no chance of stopping. Look again at the goals in Game 2: on one he was hopelessly screened; two came off of rebounds; the other two were deflections.
Not all of those were McDonagh’s fault, but too many of them were.
It’s not all on him. Winning Game 3 will require all hands on deck. But he’s their leader. The one who sets the tone, not just with his play, but with his consistency and his execution.
And that’s why the Rangers won’t have to worry about planning a return trip to the West Coast if he can’t elevate his game.