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Leonard: Rangers captain took lesson from his predecessor

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Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh says he learned his lead-by-example style from Ryan Callahan, who now sports a Lightning sweater with an ‘A’ on it.

In Game 7 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, Ryan McDonagh was beaten to the net by Alex Ovechkin off a faceoff battle on the boards for a goal.

Later in the game, McDonagh encountered the same situation and was confident enough to make the same read – the exact same one-on-one challenge off the face-off – to clear the puck from the zone against one of the NHL’s most dangerous forwards.

McDonagh is a lead-by-example captain. He and Ryan Callahan are different people, but McDonagh certainly learned an aspect of that “do as I do” demeanor from the former Ranger captain who now wears an “A” for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Just that accountability, that trust-ability of your teammates, really, making sure you do your part and you don’t try and extend and do too much,” McDonagh said of what he took from Callahan’s example from September 2011 to March 2014. “Obviously a few guys are expected to play a bit more of a role here and there, but you need everybody to pull their weight and be prepared to play the way they need to play.”

McDonagh, who turns 26 on June 13, is one of those “few guys” of whom more is expected. In Game 7, he logged a team-high 29:02 of ice time with the Rangers’ season on the line. On Saturday afternoon in Game 1 against Tampa, he and Dan Girardi kept the top Tampa “Triplets” line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov off the even-strength score sheet.

In the aftermath of the Blueshirts’ Game 5 win over Washington to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, MSG reported that McDonagh had addressed the team during the second intermission and told his teammates simply to trust the system and themselves.

Most often, though, McDonagh doesn’t use words to motivate.

“It’s his work ethic,” backup goalie Cam Talbot said of McDonagh’s distinguishing trait as captain. “He’s not always the most vocal guy, but he leads by example. He’s a guy you like to look at before games, because he’s serious, he’s focused on preparation, and it’s calming.”

Talbot said a strength of the Rangers’ locker room is that they have so many veteran leaders who are comfortable saying something the group needs to hear. Their collective approach is mirrored on the ice.

McDonagh’s defensive complement, Girardi, is right there with Henrik Lundqvist, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan as this team’s MVPs through 13 playoff games. McDonagh, however, has a ceiling that few can reach, and recently he has begun to elevate to that next level.

Last postseason was McDonagh’s coming-out party as an elite defenseman. He led the Rangers with 17 playoff points and asserted himself as one of the best players on the ice, night-in and night-out.

Early this season, McDonagh struggled a bit under the weight of the “C,” and how to avoid changing himself or his game due to the new role. These playoffs McDonagh had shown his top level of play only in spurts through most of the first two rounds, namely dominating Game 4 of the first round in Pittsburgh.

In the past two games, though, in Game 7 against Washington and Game 1 on Saturday against Tampa, McDonagh asserted himself as dynamically as he did last year. His key play in Game 1 wasn’t just a point shot for an assist on Derek Stepan’s late-second period goal — it was his charge forward in the neutral zone to dislodge the puck from his captain counterpart, the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, sending the Blueshirts back into the offensive zone.

The Rangers’ defense had one of its most complete outings of the postseason.

“I thought we were fairly good at spending just a limited amount of time in our end,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Our guys for the most part were able to read the pressure and break out. I like the way we supported the attack and played in the offensive zone. So as a group of six, against such a strong opponent, it was a good game for us from the back end.”

But the Rangers can’t expect the Lightning’s Palat (power-play goal), Johnson and Kucherov to start as slowly in Game 2 as they did in Game 1. The three Tampa forwards never stop moving or skating. It is truly a sight to see.

“They have great chemistry,” McDonagh said. “They don’t necessarily need to see where the other guy is to throw the puck to an area where he can get it.”

That’s a major strength of McDonagh’s: He sees the game in detail, its X’s and O’s. He anticipates and communicates what he sees on the ice.

Most often, though, the Rangers don’t need to hear McDonagh to follow his lead. When he’s playing his best, all they need to do is watch.

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