The Tampa Bay Lightning have been on a mission all season and for defenseman Ryan McDonagh, that preparation has continued, even after the team locked up the Presidents’ Trophy. While the Bolts have played out the string, they’ve tried to keep focus on the little things: even a recent loss to Montreal was a teachable moment on what the Lightning still need to improve upon. And for a guy who wants to get back to the Stanley Cup final, those are valuable lessons. Because when the Bolts are on, they’re on.
“We take pride in practising good habits,” McDonagh said. “That has allowed us to stay consistent in our game. You play in sync out there and it becomes instinct, not read-and-react, and that’s a good sign for us. We’re playing at a high pace, passes go tape-to-tape and we can be creative.”
Since coming over to Tampa Bay in last year’s blockbuster trade that also saw J.T. Miller come over from the New York Rangers, McDonagh has been an integral part of Tampa Bay’s defense corps, where his complete game is an obvious asset. These days, the focus on the Minnesota native is even more pronounced, since Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman was put on the shelf with an upper-body injury against Washington last week. Hedman may not be available until the playoffs and that puts an onus on the rest of the ‘D’ corps to sharpen up.
But one of the reasons Tampa Bay has been so dominant this year is depth and McDonagh has tried to make lemonade out of the Hedman injury by using an increase in power play time to hone his puckhandling skills.
Since joining the Bolts last year, McDonagh has seen a lot that makes him believe in this squad.
“There’s a lot of confidence in this group,” he said. “Not a lot of changes to our roster from last year and that gives us even more confidence, knowing we were consistent again in the regular season and set ourselves up for another great opportunity for a deep run. We’ve got a good attitude in here.”
Now it’s a matter of execution. Sure, Tampa Bay will have home ice throughout the playoffs, but they just got dusted at home by the Washington Capitals, the same team that knocked them out of the hunt in the Eastern Conference final last season. While many of the Bolts helped take this team to the 2015 Cup final, where they lost to Chicago, McDonagh was still with the Rangers at the time. He still has his own Cup final experience thanks to New York’s run in 2014 and while his Rangers lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games, it was a crucial learning experience for the blueliner.
“Just how important every play is, every shift,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the situation: power play, penalty-kill, 5-on-5 – every situation you have to know where you’re supposed to be and where your teammates are supposed to be and how important communication is on the ice, because there are no small plays. One or two mishaps, or guys out of sync could be the difference in the game. You really want to make sure you’ve got all the details covered and we’ve really bought into getting everything covered here.”
The Bolts have also benefited from some ace front office work. Back in 2017, then-GM Steve Yzerman sent star goalie Ben Bishop to Los Angeles in a package that included prospect defenseman Erik Cernak. The big Slovakian kid (nicknamed ‘Drago’ by his teammates for his likeness to the “Rocky” character) made his NHL debut this year and has become a vital part of the lineup, often pairing with McDonagh. And the veteran has a lot of praise for the physically punishing youngster.
“He trusts his strengths,” McDonagh said. “He’s a big guy and he can skate really well for his size. He doesn’t make the game hard on himself, he keeps himself in good position to stay on top of his man. He’s growing more confident with the puck on his stick too, jumping up and reading plays. The way our team plays, the defense has to be very involved offensively, getting up in the breakout and getting involved in the offensive zone. In order for our team to be successful, he understands that he has to be involved there and he has grown really confident throughout the year.”
Needless to say, Cernak has been quite happy to partner up with a player of McDonagh’s caliber.
“If you’re a rookie and you get a ‘D’ partner like Ryan, it’s amazing,” Cernak said. “He’s a big leader, a really good player and he sees the game really well. I’m trying to learn a lot of things from him and I'm enjoying the ride.”
Tampa Bay fans hope that ride ends with a parade. And if McDonagh and his fellow defensemen can keep doing their jobs, the Lightning will have a fantastic chance of getting the franchise’s second Stanley Cup title. The wait has been long for all involved, but that would just make a victory all the more sweet.