TAMPA — Ryan McDonagh is no stranger to the intensity of a Stanley Cup playoff series.
During his 11-year NHL career, the Lightning defenseman has seen postseason action every year since his debut in 2010-11.
His experience is invaluable. But so is his way around the puck.
In two games against the Panthers, McDonagh has handed out two pivotal assists and made some key blocks (especially on the penalty kill). His physical play has been an asset to the Lightning as they took a 2-0 series lead after Tuesday’s 3-1 win.
“He’s been a stud,” coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s no way around it. It all starts in the defensive zone. He’s a selfless player, sacrifices his body all the time and ... (Tuesday night) on the penalty kill, he was a monster back there. He’s a warrior and a phenomenal teammate, and he has shown that these past two games.”
McDonagh sat out the final two regular-season games with a lower-body injury, and his presence on the ice — along with the other starters who missed action — was sorely missed. Tampa Bay dropped both games to the Panthers to lose home-ice advantage for the opening-round series.
But since returning to play, McDonagh hasn’t missed a beat.
In Sunday’s series opener, he assisted on Blake Coleman’s game-opening, shorthanded goal in the first period and Brayden Point’s game-winner late in the third.
As time dwindled down, McDonagh stepped in front of a MacKenzie Weegar shot and collected the puck in the slot. He took two strides and passed clear down the ice to a racing Point, who beat Sergei Bobrovsky for the winning goal with 1:14 left. It was arguably McDonagh’s best assist of the year.
The defenseman would be the first to say it takes sacrifice to get to where teams ultimately want to be — winning games and hoisting championship hardware.
After blocking two shots on Sunday, McDonagh got his body in front of another four (a game-high for both teams) on Tuesday. It was business as usual for the veteran blueliner, whose 96 blocks (23 more than second-place Victor Hedman) during the regular season led the Lightning.
“You’ve got to make some crucial plays defensively when the team’s going to push and trying to get back in the game,” McDonagh said. “You need your goalie to step up, and you just need guys willing to sacrifice their bodies in the line and make some blocks, take hits to make plays and every one of those guys in the locker room is willing to do that.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.