Through two games, the 2014 Eastern Conference Final has gone just about as badly as it possibly could for the Montreal Canadiens. Blown out in Game 1, defeated in Game 2 and minus their franchise-calibre starting goaltender, the Habs now face the prospect of trying to even the series up on the road without a credible option in net.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the player leading the offensive charge for New York is none other than Ryan McDonagh, the Canadiens’ first-round draft pick in 2007. McDonagh is either leading or tied for the Rangers’ lead in goals (two), assists (four), points (six) and plus/minus (plus-three) in the two games against Montreal.
It has now been nearly five years since then-Montreal general manager Bob Gainey made the fateful decision to send McDonagh to New York in a seven-player trade focused on acquiring Scott Gomez. It was a deal made in desperation that now stands as easily one of the worst in franchise history (in 2011, CTV Montreal ranked it behind only the Patrick Roy trade as the worst in franchise history).
At the time, Gainey was just thrilled to be landing Gomez. As Postmedia’s Mike Boone noted in his retrospective on the trade, Gainey had long hoped to land a No. 1 centre, first targeting free agent Mats Sundin and then chasing a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning for Vincent Lecavalier. With both pursuits ending in vain and the team in free-fall after a brutal centennial season, Gainey went out and landed Gomez.
“We are extremely pleased to have acquired an impact centreman in Scott Gomez,” Gainey said in an official release at the time. “He is an outstanding playmaker and an excellent skater. Having won the Stanley Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils, he brings a lot of playoff experience to our team. Scott is an elite player who will certainly contribute to the success of our team for years to come.”
It was not to be. Gomez would eventually be bought out by the Canadiens after a disappointing tour of duty with the club, and the players acquired with him (Tom Pyatt and Mike Busto) never had much of an impact. Rangers GM Glen Sather got four players back (McDonagh is the only one still with the team) but in a conference call at the time made it clear he had added another asset: Room under the salary cap.
“It gives us a lot more options, more availability to do other things,” Sather said then. “We're not up against the cap now. We have lots of cap room.”
The next day, Sather inked free-agent winger Marian Gaborik to a massive contract. Gaborik has moved on since, first to Columbus and then Los Angeles, but the deal that sent him out of New York brought back Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore—all of whom are playing against Montreal.
But while the ripple effects tend to favour New York, there is no need to look at the deal’s larger context to know how bad it was for the Canadiens. McDonagh’s play makes it all too clear; with six points in just two games, there has been no shortage of strong moments.
McDonagh earned even-strength assists in the first game by being willing first to pinch in to support an attack and then with an outlet pass that led to a Chris Kreider breakaway goal. His tying goal five-on-five in Game 2 came via a simple willingness to get the puck on net in a hurry and hope for the best.
McDonagh has also been making New York’s power-play run in Round 3, putting up three points on the man advantage, including this bullet of a goal in Game 1:
The points have been welcome (particularly after a cold stretch through the first two rounds), but they are not the only attribute making McDonagh so valuable.
Rather, it is McDonagh’s success in tough assignments that differentiates him. McDonagh and regular partner Dan Girardi lead the Rangers defence corps in quality of competition (a metric that measures how capable a player’s opponents are) and McDonagh has also been asked to take on significant defensive zone starts, freeing up offensive zone shifts for the less-able third pairing.
McDonagh has been asked not just to play tougher minutes, but also more of them than anyone else. He leads the Rangers in time on ice at even strength, while short-handed and while on the power play. Overall, he has played over two minutes more per game than No. 2 rearguard Girardi.
Montreal needs to find a way to make McDonagh look bad, not for the sake of appearance but because the Habs are not likely to win this series if they can't find a hole in a the guy who plays more minutes for the Rangers than anyone else. There were some encouraging signs in that regard in Game 2, as McDonagh wasn't airtight defensively, but unfortunately for the Canadiens New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist was up to the challenge.
If the Canadiens' forwards can outplay McDonagh it won't change the fact that five years ago Bob Gainey made a terrible decision. But it might be enough to keep the team alive for another round.