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Rangers need captain Ryan McDonagh to be on top of his game

Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) looks on during

Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) looks on during a game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 16, 2014. Photo Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

EDMONTON, Alberta - Ryan McDonagh won't admit it, but the responsibility of being captain of the Rangers had to play some sort of role in his sluggish start.

When the defenseman, an overwhelming favorite for the job, was named the franchise's 27th captain on Oct. 6, he acknowledged that expectations were high, not only for the team but for himself.

He had yet to find his best form . . . until Saturday in Vancouver.

It was vintage McDonagh.

Paired with Dan Girardi for the third straight game, McDonagh produced his most complete effort since his return from an injury. He helped shut down the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel. He scored his first goal of the season after jumping into the attack, fired four shots on goal, was a plus-4 and blocked three shots in the Rangers' 5-1 win over the Canucks.

Asked if the goal had any personal significance, McDonagh responded: "Yeah, for sure. I've got to continue to play to my strengths, and that's using my skating ability to join the rush." He agreed that he was feeling better about his overall effort.

McDonagh recorded career highs in goals (14), assists (29) and points (43) last season, when the Rangers made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Although the Rangers have veteran leaders, McDonagh, an intense competitor who played for the U.S. Olympic team in last year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, wanted to set the tone with his work ethic and demeanor. But he struggled early, making uncharacteristic defensive errors and producing only three assists in nine games.

In the 10th game, on Nov. 1, McDonagh's fortunes took a turn for the worse when Winnipeg's Evander Kane drove him into the boards and separated his left shoulder.

He missed 11 games and watched helplessly as the Rangers went 4-4-3 in his absence. And in the first few games back, perhaps cautious about his shoulder, McDonagh did not resemble last year's model. He was out of rhythm.

On Dec. 3, after a pair of losses to Tampa Bay, coach Alain Vigneault voiced concerns.

"He and I expect a lot more," he said. "We've all seen Ryan play and the type of hockey that he can play -- assertive, strong one-on-one, not casual going back for the pucks, gaining the first forechecker, getting on the hands of the forwards, joining the rush when the opportunity is there. It's safe to say we need him to play up to his potential. If he does, we're going to win. If he doesn't, it's going to be a little hard."

In Vigneault's system, a major part of the offense derives from mobile defensemen moving the puck quickly out of the zone, getting shots through and keeping pucks in the offensive zone.

Without a doubt, with the teams around them in the Eastern Conference standings continuing to grab points, it's essential for the Rangers (13-10-4 entering Sunday night's game against the Oilers) to have contributions from McDonagh in the next stretch, with winnable games against the Flames, Hurricanes and Devils on the schedule.

Before their game against the Oilers, who entered with a 7-18-5 record, the Rangers had won four of six since McDonagh's comeback and he had points (1-4-5) in five of them.

As constructed, the Rangers win when they use their speed, get steady goaltending and feed off each other. But McDonagh, who was voted MVP by his teammates last season, can be a game-changer.

"When he's on top of his game," Vigneault said, "he has a different skill set."

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