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Lightning feels Ryan McDonagh’s impact

Defenseman acquired at trade deadline has been one of the best Lightning on the ice during the series against the Devils
Ryan McDonagh, celebrating with Nikita Kucherov after Kucherov's goal in Game 1, is a big reason the Lightning is spending less time in its offensive zone. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Ryan McDonagh, celebrating with Nikita Kucherov after Kucherov's goal in Game 1, is a big reason the Lightning is spending less time in its offensive zone. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Apr. 20, 2018|Updated Apr. 21, 2018

BRANDON — Ryan McDonagh blocks shots. He competes for pucks in the corners and wins those battles. He moves the puck up the ice well. He can join the rush. He can shoot from the blue line. He kills penalties.

"It was a great pickup by (Lightning general manager) Steve (Yzerman)," defenseman Dan Girardi said Friday, loud enough for McDonagh, who was dressing at the next locker, to hear.

McDonagh laughed.

The two go way back, Girardi and McDonagh. They were teammates for seven years with the Rangers, then reunited in February when the Lightning acquired McDonagh at the trade deadline to fill a need on the blue line.

McDonagh has filled it well.

"He brings a little bit of everything," Girardi said.

RELATED: Why Game 5 is crucial to the Lightning.

He brings stability and consistency, said associate coach Rick Bowness, who coaches the defense.

McDonagh was the Lightning's best defenseman during the first four games of the first-round playoff series against the Devils that continues this afternoon with Game 5 at Amalie Arena. The Lightning can clinch the series with a win.

McDonagh leads the Lightning defensemen with three points, all on assists. He has helped the offense transition up the ice during 5-on-5 play and is a big reason the Lightning has killed off 15 of 18 penalties.

"He's been just fantastic during these four games," Bowness said. "You really notice him."

This is why Yzerman acquired the six-time All-Star who served as the Rangers' captain.

"The big thing for me is the way he is breaking pucks out (of the defensive zone)," coach Jon Cooper said. "We can sit here and talk about all the other parts to his game, but I can tell you, (we're) spending less time in the defensive zone, and a big reason is because Ryan McDonagh is breaking the puck out himself.

"All our (defensemen) have been doing a good job with that, but he especially has just brought an additional element to our game that we didn't have before. And now to get to play him 22 to 25 minutes, that's definitely a bonus for us.''

McDonagh has been on the ice often when Devils coach John Hynes rolls out his top two lines, including 51 percent of leading scorer Taylor Hall's ice time in Games 1 and 2, according to data tracked by the website the Athletic, and nearly 40 percent of Hall's ice time when the series shifted to New Jersey for Games 3 and 4 and the Devils had the last line change.

RELATED: Devils' Vatanen in dout for Game 5 after Kucherov hit.

"I'm used to seeing it every night," said Lightning forward J.T. Miller, who came over from the Rangers with McDonagh in that trade.

McDonagh missed more than a month this season with an upper-body injury he suffered Feb. 7 while with the Rangers. He did not take the ice for a game with the Lightning until March 10. It took McDonagh a few games to get up to speed with how the Lightning's system works.

First, he had to get comfortable being in the right spots. Once that happened, he could let his instincts take over.

"I take a lot of pride in playing in my own end and playing well defensively," McDonagh said. "I wanted to be trusted there late in games, playing against top players, top lines, being trusted defensively.

"But I also want to help push the pace possession-wise and create things on the other end. We have a lot of skill up front, and if I get involved — whether it's moving the puck up to them or getting my legs going and carrying it up the ice and being that second wave — we've got guys who can make plays."

That is what happened during the first two games of this series when McDonagh assisted on three of the Lightning's 10 goals.

Perhaps McDonagh's biggest contribution is the pressure he takes off Victor Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist for top defenseman in the league.

When the Lightning needs a goal, it can pair McDonagh with Hedman. That takes some of the defensive responsibility off Hedman and allows Hedman to join the rush and act as a fourth forward.

"We don't have to worry about (Hedman) being the shutdown guy," Bowness said. " 'Mac' steps into that role. … He was a perfect pickup for this team."

Contact Roger Mooney at rmooney@tampabay.com. Follow @rogermooney50.


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