LOS ANGELES — Ryan McDonagh doesn’t know if he’s graduated to the level of “elite” NHL defenseman — he’ll leave that to the fans and media to debate — but there’s no question he’ll be a major key for the underdog New York Rangers as they try to upset the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
In fact, after goalie Henrik Lundqvist, McDonagh might be New York’s most important player. After all, besides Lundqvist, no Ranger is on the ice as much as the star blue-liner, who’s averaging over 25 minutes a game in these playoffs. No forward on the team has averaged more than 19 minutes.
“I’ve got a lot more responsibility this year, and with that you’re expected to perform,” McDonagh said Tuesday. “I’ve liked having more responsibility, more pressure, being put in situations, power play, penalty killing, where you’ve got to make plays. It could be a difference in a win or a loss.”
The 24-year-old had a bit of tough start to the postseason, but his performance against Montreal in the Eastern Conference Final — with 10 points in six games — drew high praise from his coach, Alain Vigneault.
Vigneault, of course, has played a major role in McDonagh’s emergence, allowing the talented blue-liner the freedom to leverage his talent and make plays at both ends of the ice.
“He really trusts everybody to play to their strengths, and tries to put you in situations where your strengths can happen,” McDonagh said.
Not that McDonagh had particularly bad things to say about Vigneault’s predecessor, John Tortorella.
“He set a great example for me about what it takes mentally, getting over mistakes and trying to prepare every day in practice,” said McDonagh. “But for us, we thought we could get to another level, and I think A.V. has brought that for us.”
As for the Kings, McDonagh knows what kind of challenge the Rangers’ opponents will present starting Wednesday at Staples Center.
“They’re a big, physical team,” said McDonagh, who managed to catch the last two games of the Western Conference Final on TV, after the Rangers had taken care of the Canadiens.
“They’ve got a lot of size and speed. So we’ve got to make sure that we break their forecheck and not spend a lot of time in our zone. They’ve got some guys that are going to get in hard on the forecheck. We’ve got to utilize our communication and our puck-moving skills to try to get out of our zone clean.”
And for the people who believe the Rangers are in over their heads versus the powerful Western Conference champs?
“We try not to focus too much on what’s being said outside the locker room,” said McDonagh, “We understand what our strength is. We really believe in each other on the ice, and that’s all we care about. We’ve got great leadership in our group, great coaching staff that works really hard to put a plan on the board, so we can execute on the ice.”