Blueshirts captain Ryan McDonagh, who plays despite having broken foot, battles ex-Ranger Anton Stralman for puck during Game 7 of Eastern Conference finals Friday night at Garden.
Long before Ryan McDonagh was the Rangers’ captain, on May 25, 2012, he sat at his locker in the visitors’ room at the Prudential Center in Newark with tears forming in his eyes, devastated to be knocked out in Game 6 by the New Jersey Devils, in the Rangers’ first Eastern Conference finals trip since 1997.
Beginning that postseason, McDonagh played in all 76 of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup playoff games through Friday night, launching the franchise into the highest echelon of its sport in three of the past four seasons, only to fall devastatingly short in Game 5 of the Cup Final last spring on June 13 in Los Angeles.
And then, there was Friday.
There was McDonagh at his locker, with the “C” on his jersey, his first season as captain having concluded in heartbreaking fashion, with that same look on his face — fighting back tears, searching for answers, aching to lift the Cup and wondering whether it will ever come to pass.
There was something quite different about McDonagh after this crushing defeat though — his foot was broken.
Alain Vigneault revealed after the Blueshirts’ 2-0 shutout loss that McDonagh had played “a couple games” with a broken foot. The coach dressed Matt Hunwick as a seventh defenseman because the staff “sort of got caught there during warmup” managing McDonagh’s injury.
“The freezing hadn’t kicked in. We weren’t sure if he was gonna be able to play,” Vigneault said of preparing the foot for pain. “So we had to at that time make the decision to go with seven. He went back in (to the locker room) right at the start of the first period and it kicked in for a little bit, but he played through a lot of pain.”
McDonagh wasn’t discussing the injury that limited him to just three shifts for 1:47 total ice time in the first period and hindered his performance through 17-plus minutes in this game, and in others. He said only: “I had to really simplify, that’s for sure.”
The inability of the Rangers’ 25-year-old stud defenseman to play at his max level, however, killed him inside. It hurt his good friend going back to the University of Wisconsin, alternate captain Derek Stepan, who got choked up just saying the words.
“I’ve been with Mac a long time,” said Stepan, another true Blue blood. “And he showed tremendous guts in this series, tremendous guts. And out of anything,” Stepan continued, wincing, “he wanted to be Mac so badly. And he just wasn’t able to get there.”
McDonagh has a ceiling higher than most. Not having him close to full strength impaired the Rangers immeasurably. That was not, however, an excuse for a team that averaged 31.5 shots per game in the regular season and 30.9 in the playoffs to put a measly 22 pucks on Ben Bishop in Game 7.
It did not excuse rookie center Kevin Hayes, for all his major contributions this season, not putting a shot on goal after Game 2 of this series. It did not explain how Hayes’ line with Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis put just five shots on goal in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined, with no points.
St. Louis never turned it around. Vigneault insisted on featuring him on his power play to the team’s detriment, and it now adds major insult to injury that Glen Sather traded Ryan Callahan and two first-round picks to Tampa Bay and the Lightning now is four wins away from its second-ever Stanley Cup.
Ryan McDonagh congratulates ex-teammate Anton Stralman after the loss.
The Garden crowd, meanwhile, was miserable — par for the course now at the World’s Most Famous Library. Even poor Henrik Lundqvist — hung out to dry despite a masterful early show — said “the entire building kind of died” after Tampa’s second goal with 8:43 remaining.
Trainers were packing the Rangers’ gear into dark blue bags as Lundqvist talked, the last remaining Ranger in the locker room, surrounded by the sound of zippers sealing off another season that came up short.
“We should be real proud,” McDonagh said of winning the Presidents’ Trophy and getting this far.
But did their excellent season make it any easier to accept it’s actually over?
“No, it doesn’t,” McDonagh said with a gulp. “It won’t really hit ya for a couple days yet. But that’s a really good hockey team there, and it was two teams that went the distance. Not much more you can ask for.”
Not much more he could ask for. Only everything.
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