Dan Girardi (center) has received his fair share of criticism from Rangers fans this season, but his effort in Saturday’s win over Montreal was a sway in the right direction.
Dan Girardi knows. The right-handed defenseman who has been one of the cornerstones of the Rangers’ sustained excellence since 2011 is well aware he is having a bad season.
That is why he is no longer on the top pairing with Ryan McDonagh, but it is also why when Girardi plays as effectively as he did in Saturday night’s 5-2 win in Montreal, he still feels confident he can serve the purpose required for the Blueshirts to make a Cup run.
“I’m trying to stick to my bread and butter over the years: being in the right place and not making mistakes,” Girardi said Saturday at Bell Centre. “You want good puck management, playing the body. It hasn’t been a great year dealing with a lot of different things, but if I can find my game, it’ll be best for me and the team in the playoffs.”
Analytics are not required to determine Girardi, who turns 32 on April 29, is having a bad year. His frequent turnovers and hesitation with the puck on his stick have been costly. Strong skaters such as the Devils’ Joseph Blandisi and the Sharks’ Tomas Hertl have left Girardi flat-footed, isolated on goals against.
There have been many nights when Girardi looked like he needed more than one night off.
The sweeping Twitter outcry from frustrated fans sickened by Girardi’s contract and presence in the lineup, however, ignores the defenseman’s and team’s realities. It also reveals how quickly a fan base can turn against a top player even if he has given everything for the sweater he wears.
Girardi has had trouble controlling the puck on the boards this season.
For one, Girardi’s $ 5.5 million cap hit through 2019-20 may look like a burden now, but the contract – with a no-move clause through 2016-17 and modified no-trade thereafter – was well below market value when Girardi re-signed in spring 2014.
Girardi was worth way more on the open market. The Rangers got a discount on a top shutdown defenseman. It is not reasonable to rewind two seasons and revise history to claim that was a bad deal.
Secondly, Girardi has played through countless injuries while missing only a handful of games his entire career since signing as an undrafted free agent in July 2006. He had ankle surgery last summer. This is not counting all of the ailments Girardi never has disclosed but played through just the same.
Remember Girardi’s turnover in Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final before Justin Williams’ game-winning goal in Los Angeles? Girardi’s body was running on fumes in his lowest moment, but he made no excuses and held himself accountable.
He wears an “A” as an alternate captain not just because of his performance but because he is one of the Rangers’ true emotional leaders. He leads by action and also through reflection and insight.
The veteran defenseman made no excuses after his Game 1 error during the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings.
Girardi has joked that he only addresses the media after losses, which is not true, but his wise-crack does speak to how he insists on shouldering the team’s burdens when times are toughest. That is kind of how he plays at his best, too.
In Montreal on Saturday, Girardi outmuscled Tomas Plekanec at net front to block a shot. On a third period penalty kill, he forcefully separated Alex Galchenyuk from the puck in the corner for a clear. The Rangers need his best again Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a potential first-round playoff preview.
And they’ll need Girardi’s best in the playoffs, because the Rangers aren’t at their best when Girardi is not, and he is too much of a leader not to factor prominently into their plans for better or worse. Plus, really, what would winning a Stanley Cup even mean if one of the players primarily responsible for the organization’s sustained success, work ethic and class weren’t a major part of their trip to the summit?
You can ask Girardi that question – after the Rangers’ next loss.