By Sean Hartnett
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Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan are two of a kind — two aces in the Rangers’ winning hand.

Head coach Alain Vigneault trusts the duo to log heavy minutes in all situations. He expects them to set an example for teammates through sheer dedication to improving their craft and full commitment to the Blueshirts’ cause.

Having gained a 1-0 advantage in the Eastern Conference finals, the Rangers are three steps away from making a repeat Stanley Cup Final appearance. But it’s not going to come easy against the athletic, scoring-rich Tampa Bay Lightning.

The goals the Rangers are striving for both in the present and long-term couldn’t have been placed in better hands given the maturity and driven nature of McDonagh and Stepan. Despite neither being older than 25, teammates know that the pair of Minnesotans are willing to give body and soul for the franchise.

“I’m hugely impressed,” defenseman Keith Yandle said ahead of Monday’s Game 2. “They’re two guys who are 24, 25. To be battle-tested the way they are, both being Olympians and guys who know what it takes to win – it’s a treat to play with them. To come to work and see them work hard every day, it shows how much effort they put into the game and how much they love to be at the rink and get better. For me, it’s very cool to see young guys be like that.”

McDonagh leads all Rangers with 24:29 time on ice per game. He is the only NHL defenseman that has scored two or more goals, blocked over 30 shots and recorded over 20 hits during the playoffs. His two game-winning posteason goals are tied for second-highest in the NHL, only behind Lightning star center Tyler Johnson.

Since the start of the 2014 playoffs, McDonagh leads all defensemen with 18 assists and 24 points. He is also tied for first among all NHL defensemen with six goals during that span.

“He’s only going to get better,” Vigneault said of his 25-year-old captain. “He’s a very young person with great principles and great values. As he grows as a person and as he’s growing as a player, he’s only going to touch more people and share his experience and wisdom with them. It’s going to make our group better.”

Yandle sees all the ingredients of an outstanding captain in McDonagh during his first season serving in the role.

“I think he’s already one of the great captains,” Yandle said. “He’s a special captain. You can see how much respect he has in the way that he conducts the locker room and how he has the respect of everyone, the young guys and the old guys. For him to be captain of the Rangers, in a media market like this, it’s pretty impressive to see not only how he carries himself – but also the team. He’s definitely a great athlete and a great spokesman for the team and the city.”

Stepan leads Blueshirts forwards with 19:40 TOI/GP. He is tied for the team lead with five assists and nine points this postseason. The Rangers have won each of the six playoff games that he has recorded a point, the latest being the series-opening 2-1 victory over the Lightning where Stepan provided the game’s opening goal at 19:47 of the second period.

“He’s a real smart player that prepares himself real well,” Vigneault said of the 24-year-old in January. “He holds himself very accountable to his game. He evaluates his game well. He’s a young player that’s only going to get better.”

Try to find a fault in Stepan’s game. There isn’t one. Some of the league’s most gifted centers aren’t able to blossom into dependable, all-situation centers. Stepan was able to accomplish this before the age of 25.

“He’s a complete center,” winger Rick Nash said. “I think he’s one of the best two-way centers in the league. He’s a fun guy to play with. His game is so mature for his age. He wears a letter on his shirt and he’s definitely one of the leaders on the team.”

“He’s great on and off the ice,” forward James Sheppard said. “It’s weird because he seems like he’s a lot older than he is from what he does on the ice, off the ice. He’s already years above where most guys are in this league.”

Some coaches are ranters and ravers. Not Vigneault. He offers his leadership group the leeway to figure things out on their own and allows them to deliver messages to teammates in a positive, constructive way. There’s a reason why a captain’s ‘C’ was stitched on the front of McDonagh’s jersey and an alternate captain’s ‘A’ was affixed to Stepan’s sweater during training camp. Stepan and McDonagh are soft-spoken, humble guys who let their game do all the talking. They are both extensions of Vigneault’s calm and collected nature.

At nearly every turn, the duo has provided game-changing moments through spirited play, intelligent puck movement and discipline in all zones. They have risen together as college teammates at the University of Wisconsin, to representing the United States at the World Juniors and eventually both becoming key members of the U.S. Olympic team. Stepan and McDonagh have now become the Rangers’ dynamic duo.

“It’s special what they’ve done,” Sheppard said. “They played together when they were younger and they’re both Midwest guys. It’s just great to be playing with them. Those Minnesota guys, they’re all hard-working guys from great families. Those Minnesota guys, they do it right. For sure.”

Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey