Nary a playoff series ever is won without a standout defenseman having some impact, either offensively or defensively, and sometimes both.
You go back to the beginnings and you had guys like Doug Harvey. In future generations it became Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Dennis Potvin, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Nick Lidstrom, Brian Leetch, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara …
Guys who make a critical difference on the blue line.
The New York Rangers have one of those guys, and his name is Ryan McDonagh. How the 24 year old controls the back end against the Flyers when the playoffs open Thursday at Madison Square Garden could very easily sway the outcome.
McDonagh, a Norris Trophy candidate, was the Rangers’ team MVP this year, ending Henrik Lundqvist’s seven-year reign, while leading the team’s blue line with 14 goals and 43 points.
“He’s got great feet,” Flyers coach Craig Berube said of McDonagh on Wednesday. “That’s the No. 1 thing about him. He closes so fast on people -- side to side, forward, backwards.
“Very aggressive defenseman because he has such good feet and a good stick to go with it. His game was elevated this year offensively. He’s an all-around defenseman. He’s up there.”
The Flyers have watched a lot of video of McDonagh. He averaged just under 25 minutes of ice time this season and should hit 30 in the playoffs. You’ll see him matched against the Flyers' top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.
“McDonagh had a great game the last time at the Garden,” Hartnell recalled. “He matched up on us, and we had to make plays we had done against other teams, and he kept taking the puck away, dipsy doodling, and he scored a nice goal.
“You let that happen against a guy like that and the Rangers, it’s going to be a long night. We have to be a little bit smarter.”
Can this kid from St. Paul, Minn., be neutralized?
“I guess we’ll find out,” Giroux smiled.
McDonagh missed the final five games of the regular season with a left shoulder injury. The Flyers’ strategy is no different now than it was in 1974 against Orr in the Cup Final: dump the puck into his side, make him get it, bang him.
“Yeah, he’s a little banged up,” Hartnell said. “You definitely want to be physical on him. You don’t want to take a dumb penalty or roughing penalty. You want to be clean and hard on him and make sure he is working hard for every inch of ice out there with or without the puck.
“Defensively, if we don’t get pucks deep [on him], we will lose this series. They've got a lot of guys who are quick and can counter and score. We've got to get pucks deeps. That has to be our mindset from the get-go.”
McDonagh knows what’s coming.
“It’s going to happen,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “They’re going to try to get the puck to my side, it’s just part of the game.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a coincidence if they’re doing that more than any other. I wouldn’t expect it to be any different than any other player out there. If it’s a focus for them, I don’t know. I’m not going to worry about it.”
Berube emphasized some of the same, as well, adding the team needs to make McDonagh skate, go back for pucks, and come the full 200 feet.
“The 30 minutes that he plays have to be hard minutes,” Berube said. “Not only being hit, but you have to make him work. Grind him out. Grind down there. Make him work. Make him stay long shifts out there.
“Battling. That kind of stuff goes a long way. It’s important that we make him go back [for pucks] and work. Sure, you want to take the body, but it’s not always available.”
Vinny Lecavalier has seen his share of defensemen who can turn a playoff series around during his 15 years in the league. He says being cognizant of when McDonagh is on the ice was a point of emphasis this week.
“When he is on the ice, we have to know he is on the ice and can’t beat us up the ice,” Lecavalier said. “You can’t give him too much room. Got to come back with him. He is going to create 4-on-3 and odd-man rushes. Always be aware of him.”
Because of the heavy minutes he’ll play, McDonagh will also see a lot of Wayne Simmonds in this series.
“Great player, great two-way defenseman,” Simmonds said. “Tough to play against. He has a good stick has good positioning. He’s pretty strong along the boards and the thing is he battles, he plays very hard.”
How do you neutralize him?
“I’d hit him if I’m out there,” Simmonds replied. “He’s a defenseman who is going to play a lot of minutes in this series ... You want to put pucks in his corner. You want to punish him physically.
“Anyone who is going to play that amount of time, if you start to punish them physically, they will wear down over time.”