Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues
When Ryan McDonagh was named to the All-Star Game as the lone Rangers representative, some in the New York press corps privately speculated that the captain was chosen because the Metropolitan Division squad in the 3-on-3 “tournament” in Nashville next weekend needed a defenseman, not a forward.
After all, the 11-man Metro team already had six forwards locked in, including the Islanders’ John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin (Capitals) and Evgeni Malkin (Penguins), and goalies Braden Holtby (Capitals) and Cory Schneider (Devils).
And to be fair, McDonagh hadn’t fared all that well before the Jan. 6 announcement. He had five goals and 12 assists in 40 games, but more troubling was a slippage in defensive coverage, rare for a shutdown blueliner such as him.
Maybe he was trying to do too much, over-reacting while attempting to cover too many holes in a suspect defense. Maybe he was still not 100 percent healthy.
Remember, McDonagh played Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning on a broken right foot and was in a boot during much of the offseason.
Sure, he had repeatedly insisted that he was fine during the first half of the season, which is exactly what you’d expect from the intense Rangers captain.
But guess what?
Since the All-Star nod, which he gracefully accepted, McDonagh’s game has soared, capped off by a spectacular goal on Friday against the Hurricanes.
He intercepted a pass by Carolina defenseman John-Michael Liles in the neutral zone, sped to the left circle and unleashed a rising shot that zipped short-side past goalie Eddie Lack for a 1-0 lead in the first period. McDonagh had four shots and three attempts blocked in 21:40.
In the last seven games, McDonagh, who leads the team in ice-time at 23:01, which puts him 14th in the Eastern Conference, has seven points.
And on the other side of the puck, McDonagh’s play has tightened up while playing with Kevin Klein and to some extent, with Dan Girardi, on the right side.
Let’s face it, for the Rangers to make any kind of run in the playoffs — assuming that they will get there — McDonagh has to be the foundation on defense. The body is only as strong as its core. He needs to play like an All-Star and get some help from his teammates.
“I liked the fact that we didn’t give away a lot of pucks tonight in the offensive zone,” he said after Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Canucks. “We made high percentage , looked before we saw and found guys, found space. It was a good example of continuing to trust our structure and trust our details.”
Decisions for Vigneault
Some lineup decisions are looming for Vigneault in the back-to-back set before the All-Star break. Does Henrik Lundqvist play both games, in Ottawa on Sunday against the Senators, who have lost eight times in regulation in the last 12 games, and at home against the Sabres on Monday? Or will Antti Raanta get the call against Buffalo?
Then there’s Chris Kreider (sore neck), who sat on Friday, but Vigneault said would be ready against the Senators. If he’s in, who’s out on the left side? The coach said he liked fourth-liner Daniel Paille’s debut: Three hits, two blocked shots, one shot, plus-1, in 15:17, his most time since last season with the Bruins. Viktor Stalberg (five shots) and Oscar Lindberg were pretty good Friday with Kevin Hayes in the middle. Maybe Jesper Fast, who took Kreider’s spot with J.T Miller and Derek Stepan?
On defense, Dylan McIlrath should get an opportunity in one of the two. Dan Boyle, 39, has played 23 straight, and is pointless in the last nine, including the power play.
Notable No. 12’s
Most notable No. 12 in New York sports? Joe Namath. Not as legendary with the Rangers; in fact, for more than a decade, the digits on the sweater that Daniel Paille is wearing have been a short-term thing. After 2003, it was in the closet until it was issued to Patrick Rissmiller in 2009. Ales Kotalik and Olli Jokinen wore it in 2010, Todd White in 2011, Jesper Fast in 2014 and Lee Stempniak last season. The guys who have worn 12 the longest? Bryan Hextall Sr., Don Maloney, Andy Hebenton.
Henrik a big fan of J.T.
Henrik Lundqvist has become one of J.T. Miller’s biggest fans. “He’s still young and still learning, but he has all the tools to be a really, really good hockey player,” Lundqvist said. “His speed, his skill, his shot is probably one of the best on the team. He’s a hard-nosed player with skill.’’ . . . Interested in seeing Sabres rookie Jack Eichel, chosen second overall in June draft and 14-16-30, in person at MSG on Monday. From the highlights, he’s impressive.