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X-Factor: Rangers rely on Girardi for shutdown play

by Tal Pinchevsky

On a New York Rangers roster featuring its fair share of NHL stars, defenseman Dan Girardi is one of the more unassuming names. But his contributions at both ends of the ice could potentially swing New York's Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As they have the entire season, the Rangers will rely on Girardi to combine with defense partner Ryan McDonagh to shut down Pittsburgh's top offensive weapons. Considering the Penguins' top two lines are centered by two of the world's best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Girardi could have his work cut out for him.

Whichever one he's matched up against, Girardi should be up to the challenge. In his eight NHL seasons, he has never shied away from the opportunity to sacrifice his body to make a play. He ranked eighth in the NHL this season with 174 blocked shots and blocked 21 more in New York's first-round victory against the Philadelphia Flyers, the fourth highest total of the postseason.

In their back-and-forth series with the Flyers, the Rangers' success paralleled Girardi's performance much of the time. The defenseman's best all-around outing came in Game 3 in Philadelphia, as Girardi collected a goal and an assist while blocking five shots and dishing out three hits. He earned minutes on both the power play and penalty kill and the Rangers won 4-1 in arguably their best game of the series.

Girardi then struggled mightily in Game 6. With a chance to eliminate Philadelphia, Girardi was on the ice for three Flyers goals and struggled with their attack. He was particularly exposed on the second goal, when Brayden Schenn outmuscled him along the boards before feeding linemate Wayne Simmonds for an easy score. Girardi's toughest night of this postseason resulted in a 5-2 loss that was easily the Rangers' most humbling of the series.

Throughout the series with Philadelphia, there appeared to be a direct corollary between Girardi's performance and the final score. New York lost each game in which Girardi posted a negative plus/minus and won each game in which he had a positive rating. Bottom line, the Rangers win when their emotional leader performs and lose when he doesn't.

That trend could continue against the Penguins.

What makes Girardi especially important against a team like Pittsburgh is his versatility. His partner, McDonagh, has more raw talent, but Girardi also has an array of valuable skills. He's New York's best defensive defenseman, but also has a strong, accurate slap shot. He's also been relied on much of the season to play major minutes in all kinds of situations.

Any offensive contributions Girardi makes against Pittsburgh will be an added bonus. He'll be relied on mostly to help shut down the Penguins' high-powered offense. If he can do that while providing his signature toughness and leadership, and maybe the odd goal here or there, the Rangers have a chance to advance.

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