GREENBURGH, N.Y — The captain of the Rangers, always with an eye for developments before they happen, was sitting at his locker room stall when he noticed a cluster of reporters approaching Henrik Lundqvist at the adjacent space. Ryan McDonagh politely got up and moved.
“I need to get better real estate,” he said. He was joking because everyone in that room knew that when McDonagh is in a game, his will makes it seem like every inch of the ice is his turf.
He is not the type to brazenly guarantee a victory, the way former captain Mark Messier did. Nor is McDonagh the kind of defenseman who can dominate offensively, in the manner of Senators captain Erik Karlsson, whom the Rangers will face in the second round beginning Thursday night. McDonagh is simply and quietly the kind of captain and player who can lift a team and control a series.
That the Rangers are still playing is testimony to that. After his team fell behind 2-1 against the Canadiens in the opening round, he played as well as he ever has. Maybe better. He was the tide that raised all the boats, leading by word and example (probably more of the latter) to three inspired wins in a row.
“He brought an edge to that series against Montreal and he let everybody around him know that he was there,” Alain Vig neault said after practice on Tuesday. “I really love the fact that he wanted the puck and he wanted to make plays with that puck. You’ve got to have players who want to be on the ice, who want to be difference makers.”
Hockey is the one sport in which captaincy does make a difference, beyond something merely ceremonial or honorary. A hockey captain wears a “C” on his uniform and is empowered to represent his team in discussions with referees. He also holds definite stature among his teammates. McDonagh was first given the honor in 2015, when he was only 25. Then and now, the greatest source of his authority is that he is a terrific player with outsized heart.
“I’ve been around him a long time. Mac is an elite defenseman. He’s got the size, the skill, the speed to handle anyone in the league,” said Derek Stepan, his fellow Minnesota native and teammate at the University of Wisconsin and on the Rangers. “He’s leaning toward getting more vocal each year. He’s more the quiet, lead-by-example type guy but as he has worn the ‘C’ more and more, he has gotten more vocal. It’s good to see.”
Brady Skjei, another Minnesotan, said the captain always is setting examples, even when they work out together in the gym in the summer. “He’s got all the tools, but his focus and his leadership are what set him apart,” Skjei said.
McDonagh, having attracted his own media scrum after Lundqvist was done, said, “We’ve got a lot of guys talking in our room, both veterans and young guys. We’ve been around each other long enough now that we know what’s expected. We know if we’re not playing well enough to give ourselves a chance. You can talk a lot, but it’s about going out on the ice and doing it.”
He was generously complimentary of Karlsson and of the Senators’ defensive system, which requires the opponent to have lots of patience. The only thing that threw McDonagh off stride was an inquiry about his own character: Is he a patient person?
“Boy, I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a very full question. I just stay with it one step at a time.”
Unassumingly, his steps have a way of becoming leaps and bounds. He upstaged all of the game’s other top players with a match-saving block at the All-Star Game this year. He overwhelmingly outshone fellow captain Max Pacioretty last series.
Don’t be surprised if he steals the show from Karlsson this week. In everything McDonagh does, quiet as it might be, you can see the “C.”