When Islanders winger Cal Clutterbuck collided with Dylan McIlrath in the first period of a game on March 6, the Rangers’ rugged rookie defenseman immediately clutched his right knee and hobbled straight down the tunnel into the trainer’s room at Madison Square Garden.
It was a frightening flashback for McIlrath, who had two knee surgeries in 2012, stemming from a dislocated knee in development camp, an injury that derailed the development of the former first-round draft pick.
“It hurt right away,” the 6-5 blueliner recalled this week after his first full practice since the collision. “You never want to get injured, so I was pretty bummed. But it was a blessing in disguise — if you look for the silver lining — that it was my better knee. I’m fortunate that this knee is a lot stronger.”
Before the second period that night, McIlrath, 23, who was playing in his 31st game of the season, took a test spin on the ice but headed straight back to the locker room.
The initial diagnosis was that McIlrath would miss at least several weeks, but the Winnipeg native, who has never hesitated to drop the gloves to set a tone or defend a teammate, said that having experienced a severe knee injury before, he felt that this one was less serious.
“I hoped to turn the page quick and have a speedy recovery, and I’m glad I did,” said McIlrath, who missed his eighth straight game Wednesday but is pain-free. In his words, he’s “definitely getting close” to returning to complete what he termed “a successful year, personally” that began by earning a role as a seventh defenseman in training camp.
“I came in with an open mind, and obviously was fighting for a spot,” he recalled this week. “We already had seven ‘D,’ it looked like . . . Early on, I just kind of wanted to get in as many games as I could. Once I got into a regular routine, I was really hungry and instead of just making sure I didn’t make mistakes, I was hoping to score every game, and it evolved.”
His longest stretch of playing time — 11 consecutive games — came when both Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi were hurt in December, which gave him confidence that he could “play at this level.” He had spot starts against more physical teams and dressed for a five-game stretch when Ryan McDonagh was sidelined in February.
In those games, the edge and grit were evident. McIlrath — nicknamed “The Undertaker” in juniors — delivered some booming hits, among the more memorable to Nick Schultz of the Flyers and Tom Kuhnackl of the Penguins, and scrapped with the Bruins’ Matt Beleskey, the Flyers’ Luke Schenn and the Blue Jackets’ Jared Boll. He also scored two goals and had an assist, and improved defensively — in 21 of his last 23 games, he had a plus-minus of even or better.
Coach Alain Vigneault will probably give McIlrath a game or two down the stretch, especially if a playoff berth is secured. McIlrath is yearning to contribute but understands the landscape. “My main focus is just getting to that level [of being ready], then it’s out of my control,” he said. “It’s up to the coach. Our guys are healthy right now. I think they’re going to roll with that.”