McDonagh looks back at Leafs-Lightning series, talks new challenge with Predators

TORONTO — Ryan McDonagh was sitting in the same locker room where, eight months earlier, he celebrated another playoff series triumph — one that resigned the tortured team down the hall to another soul-searching spring.

The veteran defenceman and his Tampa Bay Lightning came back from a 3-2 deficit in that first-round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs in dramatic fashion last May, winning Game 6 in overtime at home before a hard-fought Game 7 victory at Scotiabank Arena.

The narrative coming from the other side was Toronto had been agonizingly close — that the core led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander deserved a chance to run it back despite a string of post-season flops.

The defeat felt different inside and outside the organization, even if the result was the same for a storied Original Six franchise that's failed to make the second round since 2004.

Traded to the Nashville Predators in a salary cap move after the Lightning came up short in their bid for a third straight Stanley Cup in June, McDonagh agreed the Leafs were right there.

And, for long stretches in that back-and-forth tilt, gave Tampa fits.

"Really tough series," the 33-year-old said this week. "There was a structure to their game, but they had a lot more read and react, and unpredictability, that was hard for us to break through.

"Played a different version of hockey than we'd seen in the past."

That wasn't enough, of course, but it's looking increasingly likely the Leafs will get another crack at their Atlantic Division rival in April with juggernaut Boston sitting comfortably in first place, and Toronto and Tampa occupying the next two spots without much threat of moving up or down.

"Leafs are playing really well," McDonagh said. "A group of guys that have been together for a while."

The blue-liner was blindsided by the Lightning's need to move him for cap reasons this summer, even though he had a no-trade clause as part of the seven-year contract extension worth more than US$47 million he signed in 2018.

The St. Paul, Minn., native eventually landed in Music City, but unlike the trade that brought him to Tampa from the New York Rangers four years earlier, he had no previous connection with any Predators.

"Big change for me, especially not seeing it coming," McDonagh said. "Going in a little bit blind, a unique situation.

"It was a little bit of an adjustment."

Drafted 12th overall by Montreal in 2007 and dealt to New York as part of the Scott Gomez trade two years later, McDonagh is now comfortable as part of a Nashville group happy to have him on their side.

"Almost a one-man penalty kill when he's out there," Predators centre Matt Duchene said. "Puck goes to his side and you're not getting anything.

"He's just smart. He's made adjustments over the course of his career to stay as an elite defenceman."

McDonagh scored his first goal with his new team Saturday — a silky smooth winner against Washington where he picked the perfect time to join the rush late in regulation.

"You think of him as a defensive guy, which he is and outstanding at,” Duchene continued. "But he's got a real sneaky offensive side.

"Really fun being out there with him ... you're probably not going to get scored on and you're going to get the puck a lot."

Nashville head coach John Hynes said McDonagh's value has been felt everywhere.

"Does a lot of the things that don't show up on the score sheet," Hynes said of the two-time Cup winner. "He's committed to play the game that gives you a chance to win.”

That's a place McDonagh got to after living through some difficult times professionally.

He lost the 2014 final to Los Angeles with New York and then endured Tampa's disastrous opening-round exit in 2019 when the Lightning won the Presidents' Trophy only to be swept by Columbus.

Those moments are something he said teams looking to get over the hump — like Toronto — can use as fuel moving forward.

If the players so choose.

"Definitely helps having that group adversity hit you," McDonagh said. "It's a real gut-wrenching, look-in-the-mirror moment for your group. If you decide to change your ways and put the team first, so to speak, it gives you a better chance.

"That was a lesson we learned."

The Leafs will find out if they've taken the right notes this spring.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press