HARD HITS: Former Rangers having impact for Lightning


When Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller were traded to the Lightning at the very end of the trade deadline, they went from a hopeless situation on Broadway to a pressure packed one in Tampa.

No stranger to deep runs in the postseason, McDonagh has recovered nicely from a injury which held him back at the end of the regular season. The former Rangers captain has found a new home with familiar faces on a supremely skilled Lightning who enter Sunday’s home match against the Bruins looking to advance in Game 5 with a win to the Eastern Conference Final.

Following a disappointing Game 1 in which both he and partner Anton Stralman struggled mightily along with key Bolts trio Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point, McDonagh has been a big part of three consecutive wins to move within a game of the fourth Conference Final of his career. The first three coming with the Rangers including the bitter conclusion against his new team in 2015. First, there’s the matter of getting that fourth game from a tough Boston team who won’t just roll over despite losing key skating offensive defenseman Torey Krug to a ankle injury for the remainder of the series.

In their third straight win which was aided by a missed hooking call on Nikita Kucherov that led directly to Tampa captain Steven Stamkos’ tying goal, McDonagh had a strong game going plus-two with two hits and three blocked shots in 29 shifts logging 23:58 of ice time. It was like old times with number 27 reunited with old familiar number 5, unlikely overtime hero Dan Girardi. They were not only superb throughout five-on-five in their end zone but combined to for the winning goal. Even though he didn’t get an assist, McDonagh kept the play alive with a great pinch to keep the puck in. His aggressive play along the boards allowed Alex Killorn to carry the puck down low and find enough real estate to get it to Girardi for the one-handed tip in at 3:18 of sudden death.

For Girardi, it was a pretty sweet moment. A year ago, he took a lot of heat along with McDonagh for the Rangers’ failures to protect late leads in a second round defeat against Ottawa. Here he is a year later playing a important role for coach Jon Cooper in the top four. Something some doubters didn’t think he could still do. Wonder how they look now after Girardi’s big Game 5 that included the OT winner along with the usual grit from the ultimate warrior who finished with four hits, four blocks along with a plus-two in 29 shifts (21:12) including 19:09 at even strength.

Sometimes, situations become stale. A change of scenery is needed. That could also be the case for soon to be released former Met pitcher Matt Harvey. Of course, he also needs a attitude adjustment. Something Girardi or McDonagh never needed. They’ve been through the playoff wars before. Both still searching to climb the highest mountain and win a Stanley Cup.

The same can be echoed for old warrior Ryan Callahan. Somehow, even after all the setbacks, he’s still able to play the same meat and potatoes game that made him a very popular player in Manhattan. Not even all the wear and tear or Brad Marchand’s cheap shot or despicable licking can stop Callahan from playing the physical game he’s known for.

Playing on a good fourth line with Cup winner Chris Kunitz and overlooked grinder Cedric Paquette, Callahan has fit right in on a effective checking line that’s caused havoc for the Bruins. So it’s no surprise that in 20 shifts (14:57), Callahan delivered four hits and sacrificed his body making two blocks. They might not contribute much offensively but their forecheck and attention to detail have been vital, allowing Cooper to roll four lines.

Since departing New York, Miller has fit in on the Bolts’ top line featuring lethal combo Kucherov and Stamkos. A strong skater who mixes it up, Miller is used to get in on the forecheck and take players off the puck behind the net. He is a good complement due to his playmaking abilities. His postseason hasn’t been great but the goal with five assists in Tampa’s first nine games is a improvement from his Rangers days.

On the unpenalized Kucherov takeout of Charlie McAvoy, Miller recovered the loose puck and made a perfect pass into Stamkos’ wheelhouse which tied Game 4. He still has frustrating moments during shifts where he overthinks the game. Instead of shooting on a quality chance, he back passed to no one for a turnover. That was part of the problem under former Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. Cooper responded similarly by having Point take the next shift on the first line in place of Miller, who retuned to that line the rest of the game.

It would be nice if he improves upon his ugly goal output in his playoff career. He enters today with only two goals in 49 postseason games. That would mean being more aggressive and thinking shot more. Not always deferring to his more gifted linemates.

The fifth ex-Blueshirt is Stralman. A valuable part of two runs to the Conference Final in ’12 and ’14, the low key 31-year old has been a even better player with the Lightning. If only the Rangers had kept him. Stralman plays mostly with Victor Hedman on the top pair. Though he switched with Girardi in the first round working instead with McDonagh. A solid puck moving right D who is effective defensively, Stralman also can play with edge when called upon.

It’s still a bit hard to believe the Tampa Blueshirts are part of what could be a special team. They all are playing their parts well. If it continues and they eliminate the Bruins later, they’ll be back in the Final Four. A place not unfamiliar for the five ex-Rangers. Of the five, Stralman has lost in two Stanley Cups doing so in back-to-back years in ’14 with the Blueshirts and ’15 with the Lightning. Former Ranger and Bolt Brian Boyle also shares that dubious distinction. He was eliminated as a Devil by these Lightning in the first round.

So, how will it finish? Do the five former Rangers finally get their names etched on the Cup? Only time will tell. They still have a job to do. Close out the Bruins. There’s a lot of work left. It’ll be interesting to follow.

BODY CHECKS

-Given how poorly they played in a huge home Game 5 in a humiliating 6-2 loss to the very tough Winnipeg Jets, you can say the Predators are feeling the heat. They’re expected to win the Cup this time. Even if the second round match-up against the Jets, who were three points less during the season seems unfair due to the format. Can they go into Winnipeg again in the loudest environment and win Game 6? The defense will need to be a lot better.

-This isn’t a Pekka Rinne problem. It’s a P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis issue. That’s the strength of the team. It would be hard to recognize it with poor coverage resulting in Rinne being chased twice at home. The forwards also share responsibility.

-Winnipeg is really good. They finally got a breakout performance from rookie Kyle Connor, who scored twice and made a brilliant pass across for a Mark Scheifele goal. Scheifele has been brilliant with nine goals and five assists so far. He’s a superstar. It’s time to recognize how special he’s been. Still, Dustin Byfuglien has been the most important Winnipeg Jet in the series. With a goal and assist on Saturday night, Big Buff is up to four goals and three assists in the series. His seven points have all come in the three wins.

-So does Peter Laviolette reinsert vet Scott Hartnell to slow down and distract Byfuglien? It worked in Game 4. A defensive oriented 2-1 win that evened the series.

-By delivering a great third period in which they outscored the Pens 4-0 to overcome a brutal second in which penalties put them in trouble, the Caps are now a win away from finally getting past their kryptonite. Alexander Ovechkin went from potential goat to hero when on the same shift he forgot to cover Brian Dumoulin, Braden Holtby bailed him out with a huge save to start a transition that led to Ovechkin making a terrific play waiting to the last possible split second to pass to rookie Jakub Vrana for the game-winner with 4:38 left. It’s the best hockey of Ovechkin’s brilliant career. His team now has two chances to get the all important fourth game off Sidney Crosby and Co. It won’t come easy. If they actually close out the two-time defending champs, it’ll be a huge hurdle climbed and mark Ovechkin’s first Conference Final appearance. We’ll see if they have the guts to finish the Pens.

-That they did it minus Nicklas Backstrom is impressive. He only took two brief shifts in the third before exiting with a unknown injury. Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped up with the tying goal on a breakaway 52 seconds in when Kris Letang screwed up the coverage. Letang also blew the assignment on Vrana by puck watching Ovechkin instead of taking the goalscorer. A rough night for Letang. T.J. Oshie made a great defensive play diving to steal the puck away from Phil Kessel. He then scored a empty netter. Valuable checking pivot Lars Eller added a well deserved second empty in the waning seconds for a 6-3 victory in Game 5.

-The Bruins must try to stave off elimination in Tampa today without Krug. A big loss to a blueline without much team speed. Zdeno Chara has struggled with the faster Bolts and rookie McAvoy has had issues. Kevan Miller isn’t particularly good. Matt Grzelcyk is a good skater but suspect in his end. Former Ranger Nick Holden enters a elimination game subbing for the injured Krug. He’s barely played. Hard to believe Rangers GM Jeff Gorton got a third round pick and defenseman Rob O’Gara for him.

-I will always like Rick Nash. A good character player who handled himself well despite only scoring 40 once while dealing with injuries. He is a good three zone player who can play power play and penalty kill. The return on him for Boston as a Spring rental has been disappointing. Three goals and two assists with a minus-five rating isn’t what the Bruins needed. Not for what they gave up. He’s just never been a big playoff performer. Maybe Boston should have rented Summer Rental. John Candy at least wouldn’t have disappointed. He never did.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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