TAMPA — Veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s name hasn’t been mentioned much among the top contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it probably should.
If the Lightning are able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, the award for the playoff’s top performer will likely go to one of the team’s superstars — right wing Nikita Kucherov, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy or center Brayden Point. But McDonagh has been a superstar in his own right this postseason, on and off the ice.
“He’s just one of those guys that if we can win this Stanley Cup, he’s not going to get the Conn Smythe voting that other people will, but he surely deserves it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday.
McDonagh has seven assists this postseason, setting up some of the Lightning’s biggest goals. Combine a plus-14 plus-minus rating that leads all postseason skaters and his role as one of Tampa Bay’s top shot-blockers, and McDonagh has been one of Tampa Bay’s top players in the playoffs.
In Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Canadiens, McDonagh made two heady plays to set up Barclay Goodrow’s game-tying goal.
McDonagh pinched at the Canadiens blue line, intercepting Jeff Petry’s pass. The puck skipped out to Blake Coleman above the right circle, and McDonagh charged the net, taking Petry with him and opening up space for Goodrow trailing.
As Montreal goaltender Carey Price made a save on Coleman’s shot, McDonagh grabbed the rebound and made a backhanded pass to Goodrow coming through the slot, gifting Goodrow with a wide-open net.
“We talk about it all the time,” McDonagh said. “When we set our gap up, hold that blue line, try to keep pucks alive in the O-zone, pucks alive for our forwards, and that was just a good example of it. It looked like they had lost some of their numbers after that, (so he) just tried to go to the net and create something and glad that the guys hung around the net there a little bit for a play to be made for ‘Goodie’ to put it in the net.”
McDonagh also set up Nikita Kucherov late in the third period Monday for what could have been a game-winning goal, making a touch pass from the left point across the slot and through traffic, but Kucherov hit the near post.
McDonagh has assisted on three game-winning goals this postseason. From his stretch pass through the neutral zone that sprung Brayden Point for the winner in their Game 1 victory over Florida to Blake Coleman’s diving winner in Game 2 of the final against the Canadiens, it seems like McDonagh has been in the middle of the action.
That doesn’t even include McDonagh setting up Yanni Gourde’s shorthanded goal to win Game 7 against the Islanders to advance to the Stanley Cup final. McDonagh didn’t get an assist on the play, but his stretch pass to Alex Killorn from deep in his own zone sent the Lightning on the rush that led to the goal.
“First of all, first and foremost his leadership has been outstanding,” Cooper said. “He’s just a calming presence in the room. Just his demeanor in the locker room, and then more importantly on the ice. His poised plays, the ones he made last night, you think about Game 7 against the Islanders and the shorthanded goal. It was a beautiful goal, but Mac started the whole thing.”
On a team full of postseason veterans, McDonagh has the most experience. The 32-year-old has played in the postseason in every year of his 11-year NHL career, first with the Rangers and then with the Lightning. Monday’s game was his 161st career postseason game.
McDonagh had 17 points for a Rangers team that lost to the Kings in the Cup final in 2014, but this year has been his best postseason yet. Though in a situation like this one, where the Lightning are closing in on a second straight title, his playoff experience is what might be most valuable.
“All of us that have been around the league a long time and played in playoff series, you’ve got to get everybody into the fight and pulling in the same direction,” McDonagh said. “So we all do a great job of stepping up in different moments in playoff series of game-to-game getting our group with the right mindset to go out and play.”
Coming off Monday’s loss, he’s helped the Lightning put Game 4 in the past and looking forward to an opportunity to win the Cup on home ice on Wednesday night.
“We missed an opportunity last night, our group knows that,” McDonagh said. “And you turn the page pretty quick here this morning and you realize what a great opportunity you have here as a team as a group, as an organization, up 3-1 in the series.
“You’ve got to win one more, and you’re going into a place you’re familiar with, with the fan base that’s going to be behind us, and we’re going to go out there and give it our best effort and try to win one hockey game.”
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