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Girardi says playing for Lightning against Rangers will be weird

Defenseman to face former team for first time

by Corey Long / NHL.com Correspondent

BRANDON, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi isn't exactly sure how he will feel when he faces his former team, the New York Rangers, for the first time at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SUN, MSG, NHL.TV).

"You'll have to ask me after the game because I don't know what to expect," said Girardi, who played 788 games with the Rangers before signing a two-year, $6 million contract with the Lightning as an unrestricted free agent July 1 after New York bought out the final three years of his contract June 14.

Girardi said he has spoken to former Rangers teammate Derek Stepan, who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes on June 23 and played his first game against New York on Oct. 26 at Madison Square Garden.

"He was telling me about the emotions," Girardi said. "I think that game will be different when I go back there, but [Thursday] is still going to be weird."

Girardi, who is fifth in Rangers history in games played by a defenseman, is not only with a new team this season, but he has a new role.

Girardi, who averaged 22:14 of ice time over his 11 seasons with the Rangers, is down to 16:29 through the first 13 games, playing with Braydon Coburn, 32, on the third pair.

"Definitely, it's kind of a different role," Girardi, 33, said. "They want me to still come in and play my game, but I'm not leaned upon to be the top guy. I'm paired with Coburn and we're still playing some hard minutes against top lines, [but] my job is to be really good defensively and if I can contribute on offense it's great.

"They wanted to shore up the defensive zone and we've done a pretty good job of that so far."

The role seems to be a fit for Girardi, who has a plus-6 rating and leads the Lightning (10-2-1) with 27 blocked shots.

Girardi, who has one assist this season, said being physical is a big part of the energy he was asked to bring to the defense and it fits with the kind of on-ice leader he likes to be. As for Girardi's mentality when it comes to blocking shots, he tries not to think about it.

"You've got to be willing to get in that shot lane and be in the right spot," Girardi said. "It's not a fun thing to do but it's definitely part of the game these days."

Lightning forward Ryan Callahan played with Girardi for eight seasons in New York and their friendship goes back to their days in the American Hockey League. He said Girardi is as tough to play against now as he was 10 years ago.

"I think he's been great," Callahan said. "I think sometimes when you get under that microscope, everybody tries to pick apart your game as much as possible. Sometimes you get away from that and relax a little bit. He still plays the way I remember, blocking shots, making the first pass, [and] very good defensively. So I haven't noticed him losing a step."

Girardi knows the Rangers (4-7-2) will be hungry to build off a 6-4 win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday and any pleasantries that are exchanged before the game will be forgotten when the puck drops.

"I will go see the trainers and say hi to them, they have been a big part of my life for 11 years," Girardi said. "They are trying to find their game, so they are going to be playing hard. We're playing well right now. I'm going to try to get all my hellos in [Thursday] morning and come game time try to get back to business."

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