|Dan Girardi has come up big for the New York Rangers during the postseason with 31 hits -- a team high -- and nine blocked shots.
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In fact, when Rangers coach Tom Renney was asked of Girardi's progression, he offered a glowing report.
"The sky's the limit for Dan," Renney said. "He's a real even-keel player who, over time, will do even more because of his assets as a passer, a skater, a shooter and a defensive player who can process the game well."
And to think, Girardi, who signed a free-agent contract with the Rangers in 2006, sat through both the 2002 and '03 Entry Drafts without one of the 30 teams -- that's 583 players -- announcing his name. Good defensemen are hard to come by in any draft and the fact the Rangers were able to discover a blue-chip prospect that has suddenly developed NHL star power is pretty significant in today's defense-first approach to the game.
"We were fortunate no one else drafted him and that no one else made him a contract offer before we did," Renney said. "I don't know whether we can take credit for getting him in here as a free agent before signing him to a pro contract, but we're glad he was available."
Girardi's 10 goals and 82 games played this regular season were both career highs, including time spent in the Ontario Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League. He finished the season with 28 points.
"I don't think it was the fact I was given a green light to chip in offensively more than just going out there with more confidence," Girardi told NHL.com. "Last season I didn't score a goal and I didn't expect to put in 10 this year, but I'll take it. But it's not like I'm out to prove myself offensively. I know my role on this team. Taking care of my defensive zone is my main objective and if I get a goal along the way, great."
Concentrating his efforts in the defensive end is what has made Girardi the steady force he has become. In the Rangers' five-game elimination of the New Jersey Devils in the quarterfinal round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Girardi led the team with 25 hits and was second with seven blocked shots.
"So long as I finish my checks I know I'll be fine," Girardi said. "I don't really go out of my way to look for somebody to hit, but when it's there I have to finish it and make it hard for them out there. The coaches want me to do that and I trust my partner (Fedor Tyutin) will be there to back me up if ever I'm out of position."
Actually, being "out of position" is a rare occurrence for Girardi, who turns 24 on April 29. He credits much of his development to those knowledgeable veterans leading the way for the Rangers this postseason.
"I think it all stems from the veteran guys; they do a good job in leading all the young players and putting them in the right direction," he admitted. "We're just trying to play our roles, do our jobs and play 100 percent all the time. The veterans take care of the leadership responsibilities and just show us the way."
Renney, however, has witnessed a renewed confidence in Girardi's game.
"Danny is a much bigger and stronger man than he was four or five years ago," Renney said. "While he could always move the puck, he didn't have the same battle level he has today."
Girardi's development took flight during his time with the Guelph Storm and London Knights of the OHL from 2002-05. In 2005, his London team won its first Memorial Cup following a 4-0 decision over Sidney Crosby's Rimouski Oceanic team of the Quebec Major Junior League.
Rangers rookie winger Ryan Callahan was a teammate of Girardi's for three seasons at Guelph. Today, he shares a stall alongside Girardi in the Rangers' dressing room.
"Dan's biggest asset, in my eyes, is how calm he is out there," Callahan said. "When I first saw him in Guelph, he looked so relaxed and it seemed like nothing really bothered him. His first pass is always on the tape and he's just a well-rounded overall defenseman. With our style of play, our defensive corps must be strong and Dan is definitely a big part of that with his size and the way he throws his body around."
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Girardi has been regarded as a rugged, hard-nosed defenseman.
"Danny's just another one of those young fellows who has worked for everything he has gotten," Renney said. "That's another attribute that these fellows have and he's been very steady and doesn't get himself so wound up that he can't perform. He doesn't dwell on things that might be debilitating."
At no other time was that more true than in Game 5 against New Jersey on April 18 when, with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead, Girardi dragged down Jersey's John Madden with a sweeping dive that awarded his opponent a penalty shot. Following a stick save by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist on the ensuing attempt, Girardi returned minutes later to assist his defensive mates in a 5-3 series-clinching victory.
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.