TAMPA — Every time Ryan McDonagh tried to make powerful and quick first strides, an abdominal injury held him back.
Hastily reaching top speed meant pain. Skating became a chore for a defenseman who describes it as his greatest strength. The injury forced him to play conservative more often than he wanted.
This was McDonagh's reality when he came to Tampa via trade from the Rangers late last season. It's his reality no longer. He's healthy this season.
"You can see the difference in his skating," FOX Sports Sun analyst Brian Engblom said. "He just eats up ice. He's fast for a big man. He's really fast."
McDonagh's new speed is only one different element of the overall difference-maker he has become for a Lightning team that broke a franchise record with 51 points through 33 games. Improved play from a cast of characters across the board has made it possible for the Lightning to reach that number without goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman for extended periods of time.
But it's McDonagh's elevated play and role in his second season with the Lightning that has provided a stabilizing force unlike any other player in that dressing room. He might just be the biggest difference, and he might be the difference needed to push the Lightning to a Stanley Cup.
"The body's healthy, and now you get to really appreciate what an unbelievable talent and defenseman he is," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
McDonagh's plus-19 ranks best in the league. He frequently faces then stops the NHL's best forwards most nights. His average time-on-ice while on the penalty kill ranks second only behind Stralman among Lightning skaters.
Comfort and confidence fuel all of that. Sure, comfort comes into play because McDonagh doesn't have to deal with any discomfort from an abdominal injury or a broken hand like he did when he arrived. Instead, it's comfort with his situation.
He spent seven seasons with the Rangers. He had to drop everything and head to Tampa late in the season. And New York is not Florida. Far from it.
There's also comfort with a new team and way of playing hockey. Now that he had a full offseason and training camp in Tampa, McDonagh could become truly comfortable with his new team and city. And that comfort breeds confidence.
"Not just in myself and my ability, but confident in the system and with the guys and knowing where you are supposed to be," McDonagh said.
With McDonagh confident in what he is supposed to be doing, he can more easily help others, something the Lightning has needed with mixing and matching of d-pairings on a Lightning team that has had its blueline depth tested. See Erik Cernak.
The rookie defenseman has filled in well for Stralman while often playing next to McDonagh, the former Rangers captain. That's not by accident.
"During the games, if he sees something that can help me or how I can do better, he will tell me the right way," Cernak said. "He is trying to help me a lot. It's a good thing he is talking to me a lot."
NHL Hall of Famer Phil Esposito has watched this unfold from the radio booth and likes the way McDonagh, someone he describes as a quiet leader, has shown the rookie the way.
"Those types of players are few and far to get," Esposito said. "Some guys will get up and scream and (complain) and stuff, but it's the ones who say, 'Just follow me boys. Follow me.' And that's what I think McDonagh's doing. I absolutely think it's a world of difference with Ryan McDonagh this year compared to last year."
It's those differences that would have McDonagh in serious contention for the Norris Trophy awarded to the NHL's best defenseman if not for his low-scoring output.
The Lightning already has one of those trophies, though. Hedman won the award last year. What it doesn't have from this group: A Stanley Cup.
McDonagh's elite play might just be enough to push them over the top.
No abdominal injury to slow him, or the Lightning, down this time.
Contact Nick Kelly at [email protected] Follow @_NickKelly