Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh and the Washington Capitals have a playoff history.
The date was May 8, 2015; McDonagh was the captain of the New York Rangers when the teams met in Game 5 of the second round. With the Capitals holding a 3-1 series lead, McDonagh scored the game-winning goal 10 minutes into overtime, rejuvenating the series and keeping the Rangers’ slim hopes alive. After the crushing defeat, the Capitals failed to win another game and lost the series in seven games.
It was the third time in four years the Capitals faced the New York Rangers in the postseason. All three series went the distance and in all three clashes, Washington lost. McDonagh remembers it well. Before the Pittsburgh Penguins started causing problems for the Capitals, that was the Rangers’ job.
“Obviously, it is one of the greater memories and playoff runs that we had there in New York,” McDonagh said Thursday after Tampa Bay’s practice at Amalie Arena. “Down 3-1 in the series, the season is on the line, and they were playing well the entire series. You kind of needed to steal one when we weren’t playing at our best, and fortunately I think that was our game there.”
Three years later, the Capitals have already toppled one major roadblock in the Penguins to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1998. Now they will face Tampa Bay and old ghosts otherwise known as “Rangers South,” with five former New York players on the roster: McDonagh, forwards J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan and defensemen Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman.
“It is crazy to think how many times we’ve met up with them in New York and now there is a few of us down here in Tampa and we are playing them yet again,” McDonagh said. “But obviously, I think in the grand picture of things, it is two teams that are further along in playoffs than they have been in recent times. Both are trying to accomplish something that is hard to do and is very special.”
McDonagh and Miller were traded to Tampa Bay this February by the Rangers in a blockbuster deal for three players and two draft picks. They joined a Lightning squad that made the Eastern Conference finals two of the last three years, with this series against the Capitals upping the tally to three in the last four.
“We added two really good hockey players,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “We added depth; we added guys that contribute not only five-on-five but Miller on the power play, McDonagh on the penalty kill. They play monster minutes, physicality, you go down the list.”
Callahan — also a former captain for the Rangers — was traded to Tampa Bay in 2014. Girardi joined the Lightning this past offseason after the Rangers bought out his contract. Stralman left the Rangers in July 2014 as an unrestricted free agent and signed a five-year deal with Tampa.
“Actually it is something we gravitate to,” Cooper said of the “Rangers South” moniker. “We are all about it. Their loss is our gain, and the one thing is, every one of those players, take the hockey out of it, they are all phenomenal human beings.”
McDonagh, Miller and Girardi were all on the 2015 Rangers playoff team that killed the Capitals’ hopes of a conference final berth. Stralman, McDonagh, Callahan and Girardi contributed for the Rangers in the ousting of the Capitals in 2012 and 2013. McDonagh and Girardi were a key blueline pair for the Rangers when they reached the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals, ultimately losing in five games to the Los Angeles Kings.
“I look back now and see why the Rangers had success in that window of time a few years ago,” Cooper said. “These guys were a big part of it, and not to put a pun here, but it’s a little ‘Lightning in a bottle,’ or ‘Rangers in a bottle.’ We are fortunate to have these guys, and I think that is what has really helped our team — they are unreal teammates, and we are all about the Rangers South.”
Miller said the 2015 playoff series against the Capitals was the “most fun” series he’s ever been a part of in the postseason, with an added bonus of it being against the Rangers’ rival in Washington.
“I remember Game 7, that was the loudest I’ve ever heard the [Madison Square] Garden,” Miller said. “Obviously it was overtime, and it was a really cool experience. And I know for Mac [McDonagh] and G [Girardi], it is a series that we will remember for sure.”
And while Miller looks back fondly on the 2015 series with the Capitals, he doesn’t think it gives Tampa an advantage when it comes to playing Washington this time around. There are 10 current Capitals players who played against the Rangers in 2015, and Miller said both sides know the others’ small tendencies.
What can help the Lightning this series has been its ability to blend effortlessly with the deadline additions of Miller and McDonagh. Since the trade, McDonagh has averaged 21:17 minutes of ice time for Tampa Bay and Miller has recorded 10 goals and eight assists while averaging 18:11 minutes of ice time. Miller has scored twice this postseason to go along with five assists.
“Those couple days of travel to get here [after the trade] was pretty insane because it was last-second stuff, but to come here with the guys you know and to be on such a good hockey team made things easier,” Miller said. “Obviously as a group, when me and [McDonagh] came here, this team was one of the best teams in the league all year, and as another team looking at this team, you know how dangerous they can be.”
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