McDonagh set to return for first round

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The New York Rangers were forced to play five whole games without Ryan McDonagh during the last nine days of the regular season, but they will have their top defenseman back in the lineup when it matters most: when the team kicks off its first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night (7 ET).

The Rangers played pretty well without the 24-year-old, who suffered a left shoulder injury against the Vancouver Canucks on April 1. The Blueshirts secured six of 10 possible points without McDonagh, good enough to nail down home-ice advantage against their bitter Metropolitan Division rivals.

Now the Rangers return not only their top shutdown presence, but one of their key offensive threats as well. McDonagh led the team’s defensemen in the regular season with 14 goals and 43 points -- both career highs.

More good news?

“He’s rested,” alternate captain Brad Richards said. “With the Olympics and the minutes he plays ... I don’t know if you can say blessing in disguise, but it kinda was. He’ll be fresh and ready to go, and that will help us a lot.”

McDonagh led the Rangers with an average of 24:49 of ice time per game -- usually tough, taxing minutes against opponents’ top lines.

McDonagh and Dan Girardi are tied for second in quality of competition statistics (power forward Rick Nash leads the team in that department) and will again be tasked with a daunting project in trying to contain the Flyers’ top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

“I think they've got a great mix of speed, physicality, creativity to their game,” McDonagh said. “They’re not afraid to just throw pucks at the net and crash or pull up and wait for something to happen. First and foremost, like any line, you want to make them defend, try to make them spend time in their own zone.”

McDonagh has gained ample playoff experience in his four seasons with New York, including some epic matchups against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, and he has proved to be a performer who can deliver in the most pressure-packed situations.

Having that sort of all-purpose contributor back in the rotation is expected to provide a huge boost for the Rangers as they head into what promises to be a nasty and physical battle.

“I mean, Ryan plays big minutes against top lines, plays big minutes for us 5-on-5 and on the power play and penalty killing,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “My estimation: He’s one of best young defensemen in the league, and he’s only going to get better.”

McDonagh said he is completely recovered from the shoulder injury that held him out of play and has no concerns about his durability moving forward.

“No restrictions or anything,” he said. “At this point, there’s really no need to ask how it’s doing anymore. I’m just excited to get in a game [Thursday].”

Asked whether he expects the Flyers to make a concerted effort to chip the puck in toward his end and work extra hard to finish their checks against him, McDonagh said that’s a hypothetical he won’t waste time fretting over.

“I wouldn’t expect it to be any different than any other player out there,” McDonagh said. “If it’s a focus for them, I don’t know. I don’t really worry about it.”

While McDonagh has made some irrefutable strides to his game this season, he has the chance to take on an even bigger role during the playoffs, especially now that the Rangers are without former captain Ryan Callahan, who was shipped to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline.

McDonagh, who snagged both the team’s MVP and Players’ Player awards for his regular-season dominance, is considered by many as the favorite to succeed Callahan as the team’s next captain. And this playoffs run may be the best stage he has to show he’s capable of taking on that responsibility.

“He’s one of those players that, just by being himself, has an influence on others by the way he practices, by the way he works out in the gym, by the way he talks to coaches, assistant coaches,” Vigneault said. “He’s got a great demeanor about himself, and he’s only going to get better.”