By Sean Hartnett
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What would the Rangers become without the steady contributions of captain Ryan McDonagh? It’s a question no diehard fan wants answered, but is a reality that could unfold.
McDonagh blocked a shot with his right hand on Monday night and left New York’s 4-2 win in Columbus, a victory that clinched a playoff berth.
The Rangers face a nervous wait over the health of their captain after McDonagh kneeled and blocked a Brandon Dubinsky one-timer with his right glove while the Blue Jackets were on a power play late in the first period.
Initially, the situation appeared less worrisome. McDonagh remained on the bench and skated for three additional shifts before the first intermission. But when the Rangers emerged from the tunnel for the middle stanza, their bench was one man short. They then announced that McDonagh would miss the remainder of the game.
After the Blueshirts defeated the Jackets and clinched their sixth consecutive postseason berth, head coach Alain Vigneault said that McDonagh would be evaluated further. It’s likely that one of Brady Skjei, Rafael Diaz or Chris Summers will be recalled from AHL Hartford ahead of Tuesday’s home meeting against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Out of the trio, a Skjei call-up makes the most sense given his defensive zone poise and blossoming all-around game.
Despite the apparent similarities between the 22-year-old Skjei and a young McDonagh, no one player can fill the tremendous void in the event of the captain missing significant playoff time. It’s possible that Skjei will one day go on to emulate McDonagh. The fellow Minnesotan plays a sound positional game, excels in the shutdown game, is an athletic skater and should eventually tap into his promising offensive upside.
For now, however, the Rangers appear set to lean heavily on alternate captain Marc Staal. The 29-year-old led the Blueshirts with 25:33 of ice time during Monday’s victory. While it was an impressive, bounce-back performance for Staal, questions remain over whether the veteran blueliner can return to his shutdown best under playoff intensity. If McDonagh misses first-round time, the Rangers are certainly going to need Staal’s A-game.
Besides all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, there isn’t a more important player to the Rangers’ cause than McDonagh, given his all-around ability. Throughout much of the regular season, the Rangers have been a poor possession team and have looked frail and disorganized in their own end. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Rangers would rank 15th of the 16 in possession rating among the postseason qualifiers.
Aside from a three-game stint by Summers, Keith Yandle and Dylan McIlrath are the only two Rangers who own a positive seasonal five-on-five Corsi For rating — plus-15 and plus-12, respectively. According to War-On-Ice.com, the Rangers rank 26th of all NHL teams with a 47.2 five-on-five seasonal Corsi percentage.
There’s a big difference between shutting down the hapless Blue Jackets and doing the same against, say the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins or the dangerous, well-constructed Florida Panthers in a potential opening-round playoff matchup.
Rangers fans better start forming prayer circles and beg the hockey gods for a healthy No. 27. Without him, they’re a totally different team and would be exposed against the Eastern Conference’s heavyweights.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey