As the Rangers practiced at CONSOL Energy Center, one thing is clear. Dan Girardi won’t play in Game 2 tomorrow. The struggling 31-year old defenseman is out for the all important second game with the Rangers trailing the Penguins 1-0 in the best-of-seven first round series. Coach Alain Vigneault revealed the obvious to reporters.
Of course, you can’t tell from that statement if he’s referring to Girardi’s injuries. He returned for Game 1 after missing the final two games of the regular season with an “upper body” injury sustained on a Brian Boyle shove that sent him flying into the back boards. Curiously, Vigneault used Girardi with Marc Staal on the top pair matching them up against Sidney Crosby. The end result was foul ups from both vets on Pens goals from Patric Hornqvist and Crosby. Hornqvist had his first playoff hat trick and Crosby burned the Rangers for a breakaway goal and two assists.
During practice, it was McIlrath who paired with Keith Yandle. Someone he’s familiar with from teaming up during the season. The 23-year old rookie defenseman played in 34 games posting two goals and two helpers with 64 penalty minutes, a plus-seven rating and 93 hits. He certainly has the size and strength to clear the front of the net. An area that’s been a sore spot. But Vigneault remained non-committal.
A concern is the Pens’ speed. The cohesive second scoring unit of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel are dangerous. The Rangers did a good job containing them on Wednesday. However, they got burned by Crosby and Hornqvist. With Evgeni Malkin practicing between afterburner Connor Sheary and Ryan Rust, Pittsburgh could be even more dangerous. Malkin also practiced on the Pens’ top power play unit.
Vigneault hinted that the Rangers could call up a defenseman from Hartford, which can only mean Raphael Diaz. Diaz, is also a right-handed D who has is a better skater than McIlrath. However, he hasn’t played a game for the big club all year. Injuries limited him to 36 games with the Wolf Pack and 21 points (6-15-21). The 30-year old vet is smaller than McIlrath, which means no physical presence. It’s why I believe they should go with McIlrath. Give him a chance. How many times do we have to see opponents left wide open for easy goals?
Ultimately, it’s the coach’s decision. The same one who thought it was a good idea to have Staal and Girardi together against a very fast opponent. Deployment has been an issue all season. With Girardi a no go Saturday, Staal is paired with Kevin Klein. Rookie Brady Skjei remains with Dan Boyle. Hopefully, it means Yandle and McIlrath stay together.
Undoubtedly, not having captain Ryan McDonagh hurts. He would match up against Crosby and could pair with Klein, leaving Staal on the second pair. Instead, players must step up. Staal needs a bounce back game. It’ll be odd to see a lineup without Girardi in a big spot. He’s been counted on for so long. Vigneault’s quote, “It’s the whole thing,” was basically an indictment. It’s the right call.
Will it lead to a victory and split with Games 3 and 4 at MSG? The Rangers will provide that answer starting at 3 PM tomorrow on NBC.