For a decade, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi has given his heart and soul along with a few body parts to the cause. Outside of elder statesman Henrik Lundqvist, who was splendid in turning aside the Canadiens in a gratifying six-game first round win, the 32-year old Girardi is the oldest remaining skater.
Somehow, the proud veteran who originally was signed as an undrafted free agent by former architect Glen Sather has survived. He went from partnering with Fedor Tyutin to Marc Staal and eventually current team captain Ryan McDonagh. Make no mistake about it. He’s been through the playoff wars. Number 5 has been a common denominator in three Rangers’ deep runs that included its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1994. His leadership and intangibles have never been questioned.
Girardi always leaves it out there. These days, it’s more about the health of a core player who most believe could be playing his final games with the only team he’s known. It would seem with three years remaining on a contract that averages a hefty $5.5 million cap hit thru 2020, he could be a likely buyout candidate this summer. If not, then perhaps it will be the other veteran Staal, who’s signed thru 2021 with a $5.7 million cap hit.
No wonder both elevated their game in the series victory over the Canadiens. Sure. Staal got victimized pretty badly by Habs rookie Artturi Lehkonen on a wrap around goal in Game 5. But he did get steadier and edgier as the series went on. It doesn’t help that he’s partnered with Nick Holden, who is mistake prone. But the 30-year old was a key contributor following a poor start.
As for Girardi, maybe the best thing that happened was an ankle injury that kept him out a month. It allowed him to recover and get healthy. There were still questions surrounding how effective the gritty right defenseman could be. He played in seven games prior to the first round. Coach Alain Vigneault rotated him with Kevin Klein to figure out what was the best way to go. It was obvious that Girardi was healthier than Klein, whose back remains an issue for the future. He might already have played his final game.
When Vigneault decided to go back to Girardi with McDonagh on the top pair, there was criticism by some who had doubts. Sure. It wasn’t a given that he would play well. How much more did he have to give? He was a convenient scapegoat for the Stanley Cup loss to the Kings. A series he struggled in. But far from the only defenseman.
Sometimes, when you lose players get blamed. In Montreal, there are ignorant fools pinning it on Carey Price. A franchise goalie much like Lundqvist who performed well. It was a tight checking and low scoring series. Max Pacioretty has received most of the blame for failing to score a goal. A fair criticism. At the end of the day, you win and lose as a team. Ultimately, the Rangers were better top to bottom.
Girardi was a big part of why they prevailed. The old Danny G returned. Playing with an edge like the past, he delivered some vicious hits including a big one that injured key Hab pest Andrew Shaw which kept him out of Game 6. That hurt them. Shaw has always been a key performer in such big moments. Just ask the Blackhawks, who are golfing after being unceremoniously swept by Nashville after finishing with the most points in the West. There also was this message delivered to Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher at the end of the second period:
It wasn’t just the hitting. With Girardi, you always get a hard nosed player who will do whatever it takes to help the team win. Take for example, this diving block of a Lehkonen shot that led directly to Derek Stepan’s series sealing empty netter with 17.8 seconds remaining.
In a tight checking series where goals were at a premium, Girardi excelled. He averaged 22:13 a game while renewing old chemistry with McDonagh, who stepped it up big time the last three games. All wins. When the Habs came after the captain, he got mean and went back after them becoming even more effective. A trend started by key acquisition Brendan Smith, who was nasty in his battles with the Canadiens. Rookie Brady Skjei, who scored twice in the series, was hitting everyone.
For the series, Girardi led the Blueshirts with 21 blocked shots and delivered 17 hits. He also was credited with a team high 18 giveaways. But sometimes, stats can be misleading. He played the tough minutes with McDonagh against Montreal’s top scorers. That meant more defending in his zone. It didn’t take into account the physicality and tenacity he played with. The edge was back.
He and McDonagh each finished plus-two and were only one for one goal against at even strength. The Alexei Emelin first period goal on Saturday in which Alex Radulov outhustled Stepan behind the net to set it up. So, it wasn’t either’s fault.
We even saw an active Girardi making several key pinches to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. He had some looks in the series registering eight shots. His play was strong in the neutral zone. Overall, it was a real good start for a player that has become an easy target for a spoiled fan base.
He remains the best option to play with McDonagh. Something the Adam Clendening proponents can’t seem to get out of their heads. Sometimes, having that experience helps. In the Rangers’ case, they certainly got what they needed from Girardi, who’ll continue to be a key moving forward. Whether it’s Ottawa or Boston in the second round, he must keep it up.
The Blueshirts will need better performances from Stepan and Chris Kreider. Neither of who were factors against Montreal. They’ll probably need to score more goals. And of course, the King in net.
Girardi proved he still has something left. Corsi be damned. Now, they wait for the next opponent. It only gets more fun from here.