By Sean Hartnett
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Great leaders are born in desperate times. The suffocating, shot-blocking Washington Capitals currently hold a 3-1 series advantage over a Rangers team that is desperately looking for a spark. Captain Ryan McDonagh is looking to breathe life into the Rangers by bringing his best performance in a win-or-go-home Game 5.

“I’m expecting to be an impact player and be a difference-maker here,” McDonagh said during Thursday’s conference call. “I’m going to be playing in a lot of situations and a lot of different roles. I need to be as sharp as anyone here and try and step up; continue to make effective plays and make the right plays, give my team and help myself be part of hopefully a win on (Friday) night.”

Last playoffs, the Rangers noticed a budding leader in McDonagh. His accountability and positive habits were rubbing off on teammates. He wanted to take the bull by the horns by providing an example for all teammates to follow.

“You try and make sure that every game, every shift, you’re making an impact and doing your job out there,” McDonagh said last June. “I think naturally, different guys that are coming in will notice that and try to be a part of it, make sure they’re doing the same things. This group, we’re all leaders in a sense. We all hold each other accountable and make sure we’re playing to the potential we can reach.”

He was behaving like a captain at the age of 24 and without a letter sewn on the front of his jersey. On October 6, the Rangers made it official by handing the captaincy to a very deserving McDonagh.

“They’ve given me this responsibility because I’ve carried myself the way I have,” McDonagh said in his first press conference as Rangers captain. “Obviously, speaking to the team is important, holding guys accountable. But it’s the stuff you do when people aren’t looking that really makes a difference, too.”

It’s about doing it his way. He isn’t trying to emulate famed former captain Mark Messier by making bold “we will win tonight” predictions. Captain Mac isn’t going to bark in the faces of teammates to summon a series comeback. He has gauged the dressing room temperature and knows that the Rangers are a group of motivated self-starters.

“It’s tough to kind of create words when you’re in a situation like we are, with one loss ending our season,” McDonagh said. “As far as speaking up and saying things – I think the guys we have in this room, there shouldn’t be much that needs to be said. We’re pretty honest in the way that each of us play our game, and can understand if we’re playing the way we need to – or if we’re expected to do more for our team to have a chance to win.”

McDonagh’s even-keeled personality fits the team’s identity. The Rangers do not get too high or too low. Throughout the regular season and playoffs, they’ve stuck to taking things one game at a time.

“This series and this season isn’t over,” McDonagh said. “We’ve got to control what we can. (Game 4) was definitely tough. At the same time, we still have a job to do and a job at hand (Friday) night, an opportunity to play in front of our home fans, use our home crowd and the energy that they’re gonna provide us. They’re gonna stand behind us. We have to continue playing to our abilities and play to our strengths, go out there and try to win one hockey game and go forward from there.”

He expects the Garden to be roaring. The home atmosphere adds an additional layer of belief for Rangers players.

“It’s a huge difference,” McDonagh said of home ice. “Whether you’re up or down on the scoreboard, hearing that crowd continues to drive you to be better and focus on your next shift. That’s gotta be an advantage for us, for sure. They have just as much passion as any fans in the league. I’ve got full faith in them.”

One year ago, the Rangers were in the same exact position in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Down 3-1 to the Penguins, the Rangers appeared to be on the verge of an early playoff exit. Friday’s Game 5 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Martin St. Louis’ mother, France. One day later, the Rangers rallied around a heavy-hearted St. Louis to win Game 5 and staged a remarkable series comeback by defeating the Penguins in seven games. The Blueshirts rode an emotional wave of momentum all the way to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Head coach Alain Vigneault believes that the current Rangers will benefit from having a group of core players that can recall the experience of what it took to turn last year’s conference semifinals around.

“The core has past experience in dealing with this situation,” Vigneault said. “I expect them to pass on their experience and their leadership to the remainder of the group.”

Veteran center Dominic Moore spoke of the mentality of chipping away one shift and one game at a time.

“We’re comfortable in that environment,” Moore said. “The playoffs are always one-goal games, almost all the time. We can’t worry about winning a series. It’s a matter of winning one game. That’s our focus all the time, whether we’re up or down in a series. It’s just win one game. That’s the focus. Even within that, to hone the focus into winning one shift and not worrying about the rest of it.”

Winning three games in a row is a monumental task, but the Rangers have never looked at it that way. It’s about chipping away one shift, one period, one game at a time.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.