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Lightning’s Ryan McDonagh returns to lineup in his hometown

Playing in Minnesota is special for McDonagh, who grew up 12 miles from St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) in the tunnel before heading out to the ice for warms ups before taking on the New York Rangers at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Tampa.  [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) in the tunnel before heading out to the ice for warms ups before taking on the New York Rangers at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

ST. PAUL, Minn. — He’s back. Ryan McDonagh was back in the Lightning lineup to face the Wild back in his hometown Thursday night.

The defenseman missed six games after taking an inadvertent elbow to the head against the Senators on Jan. 4. Until then, he hadn’t missed a game since making his Tampa Bay debut March 10, 2018.

Related: The Lightning's defense had been strong recently, but fell off in the loss to Minnesota

“Obviously I wasn’t going to push anything to make it happen,” McDonagh said about returning in Minnesota. “But fortunately I started turning the corner the past few days.”

McDonagh, 30, grew up in Arden Hills, 12 miles from the Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild play, and went to high school at Cretin-Durham Hall in St. Paul. He won a state title at the Xcel Energy Center in 2006 and was Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in 2007. Safe to say this town and this arena are important to him.

McDonagh was named to Minnesota’s all-time all-state-tournament team in honor of the tournament’s 75th anniversary last year, the youngest former player to make the team by a decade.

“It’s always special (to be in the Xcel Energy Center),” McDonagh said. “One of my favorite moments of my career, winning the high school tournament in this building, is really special to me.”

McDonagh has not gotten to play in St. Paul often. Because of injuries and other reasons — one being that he has played his entire 10-year NHL career in the Eastern Conference — he has played in the city just seven times. So returning maintains its significance.

Victor Hedman is the Lightning’s No. 1 defenseman, but even on the second pairing, McDonagh is the clear No. 2.

Related: How did the Lighting's accurate challenge become a penalty against them?

“If you don’t have a ton of points, you kind of get overlooked,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But if you ask any player in that (dressing) room what McDonagh means to our team, it’s everything.”

McDonagh is a defensive defensemen. A few weeks ago, Kevin Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev referred to the stigma of being an offensive defenseman, the implication being that a defenseman is bad at defense. Well, defensive defensemen often go undiscussed.

Not only does McDonagh play a lot of minutes, he plays hard minutes. He typically matches up against the opponent’s top line and its top power-play unit. He’s on the ice late when the Lightning are protecting a one-goal lead.

“He’s the guy that’s handling the 6-foot-3 player down low,” Cooper. “He has to do a lot of the unheralded stuff that doesn’t show up in the newspaper, but he’s an extremely valuable player on our team.”

Shattenkirk called McDonagh a nightmare for other teams’ top players.

The Lightning played tight defense even without him — Tuesday’s 41 shots by the Kings was the first time in five games they’d allowed more than 25 — but it’s safe to say the Lightning are very happy to have McDonagh back in the lineup.

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