Defenseman Dan Girardi believes it's time for the New York Rangers to do a little soul searching.
The Rangers have lost four regulars on defense to either injury or suspension and two straight games entering their matchup against the offensively charged Detroit Red Wings in the "Wednesday Night Rivalry" game at Madison Square Garden (NBCSN, 8 p.m. ET).
Captain Ryan McDonagh (left shoulder separation) and Kevin Klein (foot contusion) were the latest to join Dan Boyle (broken hand) and John Moore (suspension) on the outside looking in.
"It's a big gut-check time for us moving forward with the guys we have out and with new guys coming in," Girardi said.
Dan Girardi is logging big minutes for a depleted New York Rangers team entering their "Wednesday Night Rivalry" game against the Detroit Red Wings. (Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI)
It's quite a turn of events from last season when the Rangers were in relative good health the majority of the season on the way to making an impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final, so coach Alain Vigneault would appear to have his work cut out for him.
The old adage "next man up" might be the appropriate phrase at this stage for the Rangers and they know it. Reinforcements were added when Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath joined Girardi, Marc Staal, Michael Kostka and Matt Hunwick along the blue line in a 4-3 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues on Monday, New York's second straight setback in the tiebreaker.
No matter how the lineup looks, it's no secret Girardi and Staal are going to log plenty of minutes. They again finished first and second in average ice time on Monday; Girardi with 32:58 and Staal with 26:33. Girardi became the first Ranger, in fact, to skate in at least 30 minutes in consecutive games since Staal did it back-to-back in January 2011.
Each seems up to the task of containing a Red Wings team that thrives on sustained puck possession in the offensive end for long stretches. Detroit forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Justin Abdelkader, Pavel Datsyuk and Gustav Nyquist rank among the top four in team scoring.
"Obviously [Girardi and Staal] are going to play big minutes, but we do have to monitor not just time but where we utilize them and where we can fit in the other guys because there comes a point where any player can only play so many minutes," Vigneault said.
Ice time is something that has never fazed Girardi, who played a career-high 34:50 while taking four shots and blocking seven, in a shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. He leads the Rangers in average ice time (26:01) and blocked shots (31), and ranks second in hits (29).
"I don't mind the added ice time," Girardi said. "Me, Staal, Klein and McDonagh have been playing that way the past couple of years now. It has to be done with the guys we have out. But I like taking on that pressure, being put in every situation and having that responsibility."
Staal was also a workhorse on 36 shifts in perhaps his finest performance this season against the Jets when he averaged 29:33 of ice time. The 27-year-old first-round draft pick (No. 12) in 2005 knows being selective and exhibiting patience is important when asked to remain on the ice to account for an injury-depleted lineup.
"It changes your mindset a little bit when that happens," he said. "You're a little more conscious of when you're exerting energy and making sure you're doing it the right way, and trying not to get caught out there."
Vigneault decided to split up the Girardi-Staal pairing against the Blues and may need to stick to the same plan against the Red Wings.
RED WINGS VS. RANGERS
Depleted Rangers host Red Wings
The New York Rangers, playing without defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Dan Boyle and John Moore, welcome the Detroit Red Wings to Madison Square Garden. READ MORE ›
"We've got four games this week so we have to do a good job there of making sure that the minutes are well managed and we're going to do that," Vigneault said. "We know we've got to be very supportive. Our forwards understand the job they have to do to help them out and that's what we're going to try to do."
Girardi said the Rangers are not using injuries as an excuse but knows everyone must be clicking on all cylinders to have any measure of team success.
"I think right now is really a critical time for us with the guys we have out," he said. "We're hovering around that .500 mark so we need to get some wins and start climbing up in the standings and get ourselves in playoff position again."
Does Girardi, 30, consider himself a mentor to the young players on defense?
"Maybe, if I can help them out, I will," he said. "McIlrath and Allen are really good young defenseman and maybe I'll try to show them a few things. Sometimes you don't want to give them too much at once and just let them get out there, get their feet wet. If you see anything, just let them know."
Girardi has certainly exceeded expectations from the moment the Rangers signed him to a free-agent contract in July 2006. His steady improvement over the years has enabled him to become one of the NHL's top distributors and stay-at-home defensemen.
The Rangers gave Girardi a six-year extension worth a reported $33 million last February. It's a pretty remarkable feat when you consider he sat through the 2002 and 2003 NHL Drafts spanning 583 players without one of the 30 teams announcing his name.
Girardi's game has always been predicated on hard work in the trenches. He's ranked among the top 10 in blocked shots in the League every season since 2009-10.
What's the secret to his shot-blocking success?
"It's kind of just something you react to and do," he said. "You can't think about it or think about if it's going to hurt. You just have to find the lane and know where you are on the ice. It's going down at the right time because if you go down too early the guy will walk around you, and if you don't go down early enough he'll just shoot it by you.
"But you have to be willing to do it."
A willingness to do whatever it takes is something Girardi has mastered over the years.