EDMONTON — After the Lightning’s 4-1 loss in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, Ryan McDonagh didn’t hold back his disappointment.
He didn’t call out his teammates, but he wasn’t sugar-coating their performance, either.
It’s hard to win games without your captain and leader, and the Lightning have been forced to play without Steven Stamkos the entire postseason. While McDonagh may not fill in the offensive void of the captain, he has become a powerful voice and leader with the Lightning.
“You think about (the fact) that Stammer hasn’t played in these playoffs and you lose a leadership void in games there, but Ryan has really stepped up in that regard,” coach Jon Cooper said.
“When (Victor Hedman) isn’t on the ice, someone has to play those minutes and oftentimes it’s McDonagh. He’s the first guy over the boards on the PK, doing a lot of those grinding minutes.
"We don’t get very far without guys like Ryan McDonagh in our lineup. In our locker room, he’s a big part of our success.”
When former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman acquired McDonagh at the 2018 trade deadline, it sent a message to the rest of the league that Tampa Bay wasn’t messing around.
When you acquire a two-time NHL all-star, and former captain, expectations can be high, and McDonagh has done everything asked of him and more.
The former University of Wisconsin Badger has three 40-plus point seasons in his 10-year career, including his first full season with the Lightning last year. While his offensive production dipped to just one goal and 12 points in 50 games, his value goes a heck of a lot farther than what’s shown on the boxscore.
In Game 1, he made a couple brilliant plays to break up potential breakaways against the Stars.
In the conference final against the Islanders, who could forget that unbelievable cross-ice pass he made along the wall to Nikita Kucherov for the winning goal with nine seconds left in the game?
Those are things you see, but there is so much subtlety to his game, he makes many other great plays that often go unnoticed.
His presence on the ice allows for Hedman to do his all-world things that make him one of the top defensemen in the league and a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.
McDonagh’s veteran status also has helped bring along young defensemen like Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev into playing bigger roles the last two years.
Playoff experience is another thing McDonagh brings to the table. He made the playoffs every year with the Rangers, getting to the Stanley Cup final in 2014, but he was 25 years old and still learning the playoff grind back then.
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McDonagh knows what it takes now and is doing everything he can to help bring the Lightning a Stanley Cup.
“He’s our calming factor on the back end,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
"He has to play against the team’s top lines every night and get put out in defensive zone situations and the penalty kill. It may not be the areas that are the flashiest, but his commitment to doing all those little things well and his commitment to blocking shots and being responsible, defensively.
“That shows us he’s willing to do those hard details in the game that we all have to step up and do”.
McDonagh talked candidly after the Game 1 loss about the Lightning needing to play at a higher tempo and pace. He felt they were too slow for the hard forechecking the Stars like to play.
He thought the team needed to make better puck decisions and that they didn’t play to their strengths.
But all those things came to the forefront in the Lightning’s Game 2 victory, and it’s safe to say his team got the message.
The Lightning’s speed in the opening period forced Dallas into penalty trouble and Tampa Bay took advantage, scoring twice with the man advantage.
Dallas is one of the most physical teams in the league, and the Lightning outhit the Stars in Game 2 and stood up for themselves when Dallas tried to drag them into extra-curricular activities on the ice.
When Dallas seemed to pick up momentum in the second period after a goal from Joe Pavelski, McDonagh delivered a devastating and clean hit that knocked Blake Comeau out of the game to help swing the momentum back toward the Lightning. As the Stars made their big third-period push, McDonagh and the Lightning didn’t fold.
“He leads by example,” Shattenkirk said. “He’s a quieter guy, and when he speaks in the locker room, it carries a lot of weight. When he’s doing those things, we feel we have to step up and chip in as well and follow in his footsteps.”