McDonagh making most of Staal's absence

Did we witness the emergence of a new Captain Clutch Thursday night?

Pocket your "small sample size" rebuttals for a while and just consider that Ryan McDonagh has three career NHL goals -- two of them have been game winners. In addition to Thursday's buzzer beater against the Flames, McDonagh bagged the decisive tally in last season's regular season finale against the New Jersey Devils, a win that ultimately put the Blueshirts into the playoffs. Not bad, eh?

Alright, I grant you that it's a stretch to anoint the young D-man as a prime-time performer just yet, but the end of last season and Marc Staal-less start to 2011-12 have seen McDonagh shoulder a much bigger load for the Rangers. And he has performed pretty well when called upon in key situations.

When the Rangers' push for the playoffs reached its most urgent stages last March and April, McDonagh sported a plus-9 rating over the season's final 17 games. This season, skating on the top pairing in Staal's absence, he flaunts a plus-3 in five games. Not to mention he's put up two goals and two assists while skating over 25 minutes a game, the second-highest average ice-time on the team.

And it shouldn't be dismissed that the competition McDonagh's faced during those minutes is stiffer than ever before. Based on the advanced metrics of Gabe Desjardins at Behindthenet.ca, McDonagh leads the Rangers in terms of Quality Competition, a stat that measures the talent a player goes up against when he goes over the boards.

In short, all signs appear rosy as far as McDonagh's development goes. And with Staal's return still uncertain, that's a very good thing. Moreover, if/when Staal does come back, this early-season trial by fire may end up making the Blueshirts' blueline even more formidable.