LOS ANGELES — Strictly speaking, the riveting play that Ryan McDonagh made in the final minute was not a game-preserving save. Only a goalie can be credited with a save. So what. This was not really a game, either. It still sure turned out to be interesting, exciting and, for McDonagh’s Metropolitan Division team, a victory.
The Rangers defenseman and captain was in front of an otherwise open net with seconds ticking away against the Pacific in the final of a series of three-on-three contests Sunday that now represent the National Hockey League All-Star Game. The Metropolitans were clinging to a 4-3 lead and were not clinging too tightly as the puck skittered in front after goalie Braden Holtby left the crease to defend young sensation Connor McDavid.
Ryan Kesler took a whack at it, but McDonagh blocked it off the post, and it caromed away. Moments later, the final horn sounded to end the 4-3 decision and complete an event that became way more competitive than your standard midseason exhibition.
“We had to find a way to get it done. We came a long ways to California,” McDonagh said. “Just put your leg out and hope it gets a piece of it. It doesn’t happen too often in this sport where you make a desperation block like that. Those plays are pretty rare, pretty lucky for sure.”
It was more solid hockey instinct than luck, which was the point. The league has for years tried to find a way to make the All-Star Game worth watching and last year came up with the mini-tournament concept involving the four divisions. It began with two preliminary 20-minute contests — the Metropolitans beat the Atlantic in the opener, as Islanders captain John Tavares had two goals and two assists — with the winners meeting in a final for a $1-million prize.
“What is it, 11 guys? What is that, 90 grand? That’s a pretty good chunk of change,” Tavares later said with a grin.
The biggest smile of the day belonged to Metropolitan fill-in coach Wayne Gretzky, who replaced the absent John Tortorella. Gretzky was gleeful when he watched McDonagh’s play. Down the stretch, Gretzky was treating it like the Stanley Cup Final. He called timeout when his team needed a breather and used a coach’s challenge after an apparent goal by Kesler went in off McDonagh’s skate, which would have given the Pacific a 4-2 lead. After review, the goal was disallowed because McDavid was offside, and the Metropolitans trailed only 3-2.
“I knew that was a big turning point for us,” McDonagh said. “Fortunately, we kind of got the momentum back on our side and kept it a one-goal game. We tied it up quick there and kept going.”
Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who scored the game-winner and was named Most Valuable Player, said, “Helped us win, right? That was the play, that was the game-changer. That was the decision.”
Still, the winners needed the magic from McDonagh. The defenseman skated mostly with megastars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin and wound up upstaging both.
Capitals goalie Holtby, who did not allow any goals in his 10-minute segment of the finale, said of McDonagh’s effort, “That was old-school. Kick save. Got a little help from the post, too. It was perfect. I think we both kind of thought the play was over there or something for a second, then we realized we were still in our zone and we had to go back to playing.”
Tavares, who also was on ice at the time, recalled thinking, “Thank God you didn’t do that to me,” noting that the Islanders and Rangers will meet soon.
Ultimately, Tavares paid McDonagh, the team and the whole afternoon the ultimate compliment when he said, “It definitely started to feel like a real game toward the end there.”