LOS ANGELES — All those years being so close to the ultimate goal have built up inside Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and crystallized as extra motivation.
McDonagh was rewarded for his revitalized individual performance through the first half of this season by being the Rangers’ lone representative in this NHL All-Star weekend, starting with Saturday’s skills competition and followed by Sunday’s 3-on-3 tournament at Staples Center.
But last season’s disappointing five-game first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Penguins did not sit well with McDonagh, not after three of the previous four years ended in the conference final or the Stanley Cup final.
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“Like any player, you want to play up to your full potential or what you think is your best ability,” McDonagh told The Post prior to leaving for the break.
The Rangers are 31-17-1, two points out of third in the terrific Metropolitan Division, behind the Capitals, Blue Jackets and Penguins, while solidly eight points clear of the ninth-place Maple Leafs.
“Had a long summer to think and work on a lot of stuff,” McDonagh said. “Pretty motivated here to not only play for myself, but play for this team and get something done here. We’ve been talking about it for a while. So that’s been a big motivation key for me, keeping my focus on my game and where it needs to be.”
During those deep runs into the postseason, the Rangers’ strength always was defense and goaltending. But last season, the defense started to crack, and it seemed like all those cheap nhl jerseys authentic hard, tight-checking games were catching up to them. Even McDonagh, who splendidly skated his way to Norris Trophy consideration en route to the 2014 Stanley Cup final, where the lost to the Kings in five games, had fallen off. It was the culmination of injuries to his shoulder and his foot and all of those short summers inadequate for proper rehabilitation and a training regimen to prepare for the grind of the NHL season.
But general manager Jeff Gorton also saw how the past was going to affect the future. So he retooled his team under the tight restraints of the salary cap and added youth, speed and skill up front. Yet it still was imperative McDonagh respond for the Blueshirts to be good again.
He did, and they are.
“Our group is real focused,” McDonagh said. “We’ve been consistent in our game. For me, that really helps. Certainly we’re a fast team, and myself, as a good skater, want to try to keep evolving the play. And the skill that we’ve added, seems like more opportunities have been there for me to contribute offensively and defensively. So just really trying to focus on making the right read on if there’s an opportunity or not and also make sure I set a good example for a lot of the new faces here.”
Now in his third year of the captaincy, the broad-shouldered 27-year-old out of St. Paul, Minn., is becoming more comfortable in the limelight. If the “culture” of an organization can be described by example, then McDonagh is the one at whom the Rangers front office wants everyone to look.
“He’s grown into this position,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s his own man. He understands the culture that myself and [Gorton] want to bring to this team. He’s a great extension of when we’re not around of what to do and how to do it. We’re very fortunate to have a gentleman of his caliber be captain of this team.”
It also helps that in his seventh season in the league, McDonagh is on pace to surpass his career-best points total. He is second on the team with 26 assists and has added two goals while continuing to grow into his role as the quarterback of the power play.
“Certainly the power-play time really helps, confidence-wise, especially plays on the blue line and getting shots,” he said. “Probably wish I had a few more goals at this point, but the way our forwards have been able to create opportunities, I feel like I’ve focused a lot on distributing and getting them pucks in situations to finish. So far, it’s helped us win a lot of hockey games.”
This is McDonagh’s second All-Star appearance after his debut last season in Nashville, Tenn. But what a difference a year can make, and McDonagh is proud to represent his own revitalized game as well as that of his team.