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Undrafted Girardi is now Rangers' defensive stalwart

by Mike G. Morreale

PHILADELPHIA -- There's no better way to celebrate a birthday than by eliminating a division rival from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the midst of a hostile environment.

That's precisely what New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi will have in mind when his team visits Wells Fargo Center to battle the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference First Round series on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS, MSG, CSN-PH).

Girardi, who turns 30 on Tuesday, hopes his team can officially close out the Flyers. The Rangers hold a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.

"It would be a good way to celebrate your 30th birthday; a series win," Girardi told "But we all know it's not going to come easy. They're going to be coming with everything they got, as if their lives are on the line. We just have to make sure we match their intensity from the start, and hopefully exceed it."

Girardi has certainly exceeded expectations from the moment the Rangers signed the 6-foot-1, 203-pound right-hand shot 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.

It's pretty remarkable when you consider he sat through the 2002 and 2003 NHL Drafts spanning 583 players without one of the 30 teams announcing his name.

"I honestly wasn't bothered by it," Girardi said. "I just kept playing and working and knew eventually something would have to give and I'd get a tryout somewhere. I got that with the Rangers and it's been a great ride ever since.

"I just never gave in to [not being drafted]. I never said, 'OK, this might not be for me.' I stuck with it and always saw the dream."

On Feb. 28, the Rangers rewarded Girardi with a six-year, $33 million contract extension that will likely keep him with longtime defense partner Ryan McDonagh through 2020-21. It's something McDonagh doesn't take for granted, either.

"I make some mistakes and Danny's great at recovering and blocking a shot or disrupting an odd-man rush," McDonagh said. "He just gives you that much more confidence to join the rush and be creative. He's also mentally tough. The grind he goes through, the hits that he takes and the way he blocks shots. He's a leader in that aspect."

Girardi led the Rangers in hits (191) and blocked shots (174) in 81 regular-season games, while ranking second among their defensemen in goals (five), assists (19) and points (24). But he would be the first to admit he's no offensive juggernaut from the point; his game is in the trenches.

"I'm at my best when I'm hitting and blocking shots," Girardi said. "When you're hitting and getting hit with the puck, you're more involved in the game. Shot blocking has been our identity the last few years and even this year, with the coaching change, it's still been the same thing. That's kind of been my strength, so when I'm doing that I'm being successful out there."

There's one other thing that sets Girardi apart, and that's his durability for a guy playing such a tenacious role on a daily basis. He's missed just five of 574 regular-season games spanning eight seasons, and has played in all 69 playoff games for New York.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he knew very little about Girardi when he came to New York, other than the fact he logged plenty of minutes and was an avid shot blocker.

"Having coached him for a year, he's a really important player on our team and he needs to continue to play the way he has been in order for us to be successful," Vigneault said.

Girardi is second on the Rangers behind McDonagh in average ice time (23:02) in five playoff games. He is tied for the team lead in hits (18) with Brian Boyle and is tops in blocked shots (14).

"The things he does for us are important, and he plays so many minutes," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "He's physical and strong on the puck, blocks shots and also has a good shot. He has all the tools."

Girardi's development took flight during his time with the Guelph Storm and London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League from 2002-05. In 2005, his London team won its first Memorial Cup following a 4-0 win against Sidney Crosby's Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"At the end of the day, it feels great when you look back on it, knowing I was undrafted and now I'm playing a role like this for the Rangers," Girardi said. "I'm pretty lucky to be in this situation. I've never taken anything for granted, so that's really helped, and I'm just excited about how my career has gone so far. To have another shot in the playoffs and another chance to move on to the next round is special."


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