If you closed your eyes and listened to the sound reverberating throughout Madison Square Garden, you were transported to a time that has since been relegated to the National Hockey League’s history.
The roar was equal parts bloodlust, vengeance, revenge and appreciation for a job done, thirty-nine seconds into the Flyers-Rangers resumption of hostilities on Valentine’s Day.
There was Dylan McIlrath, paired with newly-minted Rangers villain Wayne Simmonds. Simmonds had earned the disdain of the Rangers and the fanbase for landing a gloved punch to the jaw of Ryan McDonagh 10:36 into the Blueshirts’ 3-2 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia on Feb. 6, leaving the Rangers captain concussed.
The rematch at the Garden would be the Rangers first chance to exact the frontier justice promised by Tanner Glass and others.
Buzz grew during warmups as McIlrath and Simmonds engaged in a not-so-friendly discussion. Neither was on the ice for the opening face-off, but after a stoppage of play, both hopped over the boards.
Anticipation morphed into reality. Gloves were dropped, punches were thrown, Simmonds was bloodied and McIlrath implored the 18,006 in attendance to use their voices to shake down the heavens. Twenty seconds later, Glass decisioned Ryan White, and the Rangers were on their way to a 3-1 win over their hated rival.
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“There is no doubt that guys were sticking up for [Ryan McDonagh] with what happened in [Philadelphia],” Alain Vigneault said after the game. “I can’t say I’m displeased about seeing that, but I am most pleased about how he played and the fact that we won the game. There is no doubt that what [McIlrath] and [Glass] did there was a big part of the emotion that was in the game.”
The fights were a brief moment in time, but the reaction to McIlrath could be viewed as the birth of the latest love affair between a player and the worshipers that pack the pews every night.
It has been a long time coming for the 10th overall pick in the 2010 Draft. The selection of the defenseman from the Moose Jaw Warriors has been criticized as Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler and St. Louis Blues sniper Vladimir Tarasenko were still on the board when the Rangers selected the kid nicknamed ‘The Undertaker’ in the tough Western Hockey League.
Factor in a dislocated knee cap, forcing an extended gestation period with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford, and the word ‘bust’ was linked to McIlrath, even as organizational decision makers swore he was progressing.
He proved them right during training camp and the preseason, where he earned a job as essentially the seventh defenseman. McIlrath has a slash line of 2-1-3 and 51 penalty minutes in 26 games while providing the kind of physicality the Vigneault-era Rangers are not know for.
“I wanted to send a message. I wanted to stick up for my teammate, our captain, our best player. I can respect [Simmonds] for squaring up with me, and I’m just happy how it all worked out,” McIlrath said of his fight. “You could see the crowd got into it right away. I think our team got into it. [Glass] followed it up with another great scrap. I think it was important to get a good start and I think that definitely helped it.”
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman.