When Ryan McDonagh crumbled to the ice late Tuesday night in Vancouver, his mouth agape, his face warped in pain, Rangers fans held their breath. They crossed their fingers. They averted their eyes then immediately looked back. They waited for him to rise to his feet.
The seconds rung like a gong. They dragged on relentlessly, their timbre low, their tenor dark. As McDonagh lay sprawled on the ice, the doom grew heavier, the season slipping slowly away with each passing moment. Get up, get up, the fans begged, shake it off. Their pleading was desperate, a call to be answered – as much for their own solace as his.
Eventually, the stouthearted McDonagh came to his feet and skated off the ice, whereupon he was whisked down the locker room hallway by the team’s medical staff. He disappeared from view with his left arm dangling by his side, hanging limp like the long leaves of a Weeping Willow. The image, difficult to swallow, impossible to dismiss, made one thing clear: the defenseman is not invincible.
It was the first time, really, in McDonagh’s career that Rangers fans have had to confront this truth – or rather, have been confronted by it. The star defenseman missed the team’s next game in Colorado (where, it should be noted, the Rangers surrendered a tying goal in the waning seconds before losing in a shootout) and wasn’t heard from for two doubt-riddled days.
The gong rang again.
But finally, Thursday night in Colorado, McDonagh gave a first-hand update on his status. Speaking during the first intermission from the press box in the Pepsi Center, McDonagh, already out of the sling he had been wearing Tuesday night, told reporters he is recovering quickly.
“Already today it’s feeling better than yesterday,” he said. “I was relieved that it was nothing structural. Now it’s just a matter of getting that range of motion back.”
To hear McDonagh talk so simply, so plainly about the injury after witnessing his colorful reaction on Tuesday night has to be a major relief for Rangers fans – if not somewhat of a surprise. There’s a feeling that he escaped disaster, that, somehow, deep within the jaws of a major injury, McDonagh wiggled his way out. And now, as is his wont, the Norris Trophy candidate has his sights on a quick return.
“I am pretty confident that I will be able to [return to action] before the playoffs, that’s my goal at least,” he went on to say. “I wish I could be out there with the guys right now, but hopefully I get the chance to be back out there before the playoffs begin. I’m going to play as soon as I can, as soon as I feel confident. I want to get back out there.”
The pluck is characteristic of McDonagh, as is the hunger to compete. And it’s reassuring for Rangers fans to hear him talk with such familiar spunk. It certainly doesn’t seem as if the defenseman is hiding something.
But the Rangers need to be careful. Having averted disaster once, they must take all the necessary steps to make sure lighting doesn’t strike twice. That means ensuring McDonagh is no less than 100 percent before he returns to the ice, no matter what he may believe himself. Like any great competitor, McDonagh always thinks he can play, and so with four games remaining in the regular season, the Rangers must protect him from himself.
Because the truth of the matter is the four upcoming games pale in importance to what lies ahead. The Rangers are likely to clinch a playoff spot in one of their next two contests (their magic number is two), after which home-ice advantage is all that’s left for them to pursue. And with a four-point lead on Philadelphia for second place in the Metro, the Blueshirts have the inside track on that latter goal as well.
Might McDonagh help them in locking up the two seed in their division? Of course, but the team is in a fine position to do it without him. John Moore returned to the lineup in Colorado and played well, while Raphael Diaz continues to impress on the bottom pairing with Kevin Klein. The Rangers are long on defensive depth right now, and should welcome McDonagh’s injury as a chance for him to rest before the playoffs.
They shouldn’t thank Alex Burrows, by any means, for barreling into their best defenseman late in the game Tuesday night, but the Rangers should take the result as a blessing in disguise. McDonagh plays over 25 minutes a night for the Rangers, and will benefit immensely from taking a few games off. He won’t admit that, of course, and he’ll certainly press Alain Vigneault and Co. to let him play, but the Blueshirts would do well to proceed cautiously.
McDonagh makes a number of good decisions on the ice, a defenseman as poised and confident as they come. The Rangers like the game on his stick. But when it comes to matters off the ice, the team must take the decision out his hands.