Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Ryan Callahan was back on the ice for the Lightning Thursday, practicing three days after an emergency appendectomy because, well . . . why the heck wouldn't he be?

There was a reason the guy was the Rangers' captain during the blood-and-guts, no-shot-goes-unblocked John Tortorella era.

Now the former Rangers pillar -- who was traded to Tampa Bay 14 months ago -- merely is the hockey enemy. But his presence on the opposite side of the Eastern Conference finals is a reminder of how nicely his successor, Ryan McDonagh, has adapted to the gig.

OK, that's an understatement: He's been great at it, largely by being understated.

Compared to some larger-than-life figures who wear the "C" -- such as two who were at the Garden for Game 7 Wednesday night, Mark Messier and Alex Ovechkin -- McDonagh is a wallflower.

Off the ice, I mean. On it? Let's take a look at his work in Game 7, shall we?

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He picked up an assist on the first Rangers goal, led everyone on both teams with six blocked shots and had five shots on goal, three takeaways and 29:02 of ice time as the Rangers finished with only five available defensemen.

Three nights earlier in Game 6, he crumpled after absorbing a hit against the boards from Ovechkin and left the game, seemingly with a shoulder injury or a concussion or a general rethinking of his chosen career path.

Then he returned to Game 6 and was a stalwart as the Rangers held on during a frantic last few minutes. He finished with seven blocked shots and seven hits in 23:30 of playing time.

Game 5? Winning goal in overtime.

It has not been perfect, of course. There was a giveaway that led to a Capitals goal in Game 4. Even in Game 7, Ovechkin outmaneuvered McDonagh to the net for the first goal in the hockey equivalent of a backdoor play.

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But the guy has been on the lead defense pair for a team that has survived a couple of talented opposing captains in Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin and now will get another in Steven Stamkos.

"I've seen Ryan over the past two years here, and he's had some great opportunities to match up against some great players, and he's always met those head on," coach Alain Vigneault said.

"He's such a good skater that can move the puck well, and he brings a physical dimension to his game."

But enough about hockey. In the dressing room and in front of the news media, McDonagh's vibe is ideal for a team with a solid veteran core that has seen and done it all and a star goaltender that is his own island of seasoned serenity.

McDonagh is from the Derek Jeter school of public speaking and private leadership, preferring to do things by example and trust that grown-ups can figure things out for themselves.

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These Rangers reflect that, with a surprisingly low melodrama quotient for a New York team on a several-years-long run of success.

One of McDonagh's biggest concerns when he accepted the captaincy was that it might change him. But it does not appear to have done so.

Perhaps he and Callahan will have a chance to compare notes -- and scars -- during the next couple of weeks. There should be plenty to discuss.