Here’s the story by Josh Thomson, 26, in today’s Journal News and on LoHud.com:
NEW YORK — Like every new pairing or line combination, tethering Ryan McDonagh to Dan Girardi required a leap of faith. John Tortorella only inserted McDonagh alongside Girardi on the Rangers’ top defensive pair out of necessity anyway.
Marc Staal began the season sidelined, suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and the club and Girardi were forced to start the season without him.
More than seven months and three playoff series later, fans have dubbed McDonagh “McMonster,” an ode to his development into one of the league’s top young shutdown defensemen. The pairing with Girardi now has their eyes on keeping Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise off the board in the conference finals, a daunting feat they accomplished in Game 1 on Monday.
“You never know how this works out,” Tortorella said. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever split those two guys up.”
McDonagh began the season as the unknown. The 22-year old joined the Rangers midway through the 2010-11 season after 38 games in the AHL. He skated in their last 40 regular-season games and posted a plus-16 rating, followed by playing all five playoff games against the Capitals.
The St. Paul, Minn., native came to the organization from Montreal the year prior in a swap for disappointing center Scott Gomez and others. He transformed what was once viewed as a contract dump into an outright pilfering. McDonagh skated in all 82 games with the Rangers this season, scored 32 points and posted a plus-25 rating.
“I don’t think about it too much. I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to play here and make the jump last year and help the team in the playoffs,” McDonagh said. “Going into this year, I just wanted to be that much more effective. I knew my role would increase a little bit and I just wanted to be prepared to help the team win.”
In Game 1 Monday night, the fleet McDonagh saved his stay-at-home partner Girardi, who struggled before scoring the eventual game-winning goal in the third period. Instead, it was McDonagh who recovered to help snuff out breakaways by Parise and Kovalchuk in the first and drew a penalty in the defensive zone after Girardi’s clearing attempt early in the second nearly ended up behind goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
“Sometimes it works between guys and sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s just seemed to gel,” Girardi said.
The absence of Staal not only forced McDonagh into this increased role, it accelerated the young defenseman’s learning curve. Tortorella calculated that McDonagh was probably a year ahead of where he’d be without the extra responsibilities.
In the meantime, McDonagh and Girardi have strengthened their bond away from the rink. They eat together on the road and McDonagh visits Girardi at home to play with his son, Landon.
“I think that’s kind of part of why we’re doing well,” Girardi said. “We’re good friends off the ice, and it makes our job on the ice easier.”