GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Will Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh be back for Game 3? With the best-of-seven playoff series tied at 1-1, that’s the major lineup question for Tuesday night’s swing game against the Penguins.
McDonagh hasn’t played for two weeks since blocking a shot with his right hand and missing five games during his recovery period, which is on the verge of ending. His appearance at Monday’s full practice surprised coach Alain Vigneault, who told reporters Sunday that “if I were a betting man,” he wouldn’t be skating.
After practicing on a defense pairing with Raphael Diaz, who was recalled from Hartford, McDonagh was not made available to the media. Vigneault, however, did not rule out the possibility of No. 27 suiting up Tuesday night to bolster the blue line against the Penguins.
“At this point, I would say I’m doubtful, but stranger things have happened before,” said Vigneault, who was told that McDonagh felt better after a skate on Sunday’s off day and was cleared to practice by the team’s medical staff. “They thought that it would be a good idea to get a practice in and we’ll see how he responds.”
Vigneault said the feedback was “it went well,” but he would not say which defensemen will start in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.
If McDonagh plays, he will step in with the other two natural lefthanded defensemen, Marc Staal and Keith Yandle. For Vigneault, the right side will be Kevin Klein and Dan Boyle and either Dylan McIlrath, Diaz or lefthanded rookie Brady Skjei, who filled in during McDonagh’s absence.
“We’ll have some decisions to make,” Vigneault said. “When Skjei was sent back to Hartford and Diaz was hurt, [Skjei] played the right side. So that gives us some scenarios we can use. I think so far in the two games, he’s played well.”
Predictably, players were cheered by the appearance of McDonagh, who had 34 points in 73 games and was a team-leading plus-26.
“He’s the captain, he plays real ly hard out there and he has experience in the playoffs as well, so we’ll see when he plays, but it’s a good sign,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “That’s the best part. We know he’s close.”
With or without McDonagh, the Rangers — who will start the same four lines — will need a big response against a team that beat them twice at the Garden this season. The Penguins will be desperate not to fall behind in a rugged series that will continue with Game 4 here Thursday night.
“I don’t think we made it hard enough on their ‘D’,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said after practice in Pittsburgh. “We have to be physical. When you’re a foot away from a guy, don’t veer away.”
Marc Staal, who had a few run-ins with Kunitz, said players remember the battles. “Long series, long games, you don’t forget them,” he said. “Guys are coming in and playing physical and chippy. Playoff hockey.”
Lundqvist will start for the Rangers, and based on interviews after the Penguins’ practice, it appears as if goalie Jeff Zatkoff will play his third consecutive game. “My mindset is I’m preparing to play,” Zatkoff said.
Evgeni Malkin, who played his first game in a month Sunday, did not skate with Sidney Crosby at practice but as a center on a line with Eric Fehr and Conor Sheary.
Speaking of the Rangers’ 4-2 win in Game 2, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, “The scoring chances were even, but we played more of an east-west game. We’ve got to make sure we put the puck behind them and retrieve it. That’s when this team is at its best.”