By Sean Hartnett
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Say what you'd like about Dan Girardi's first half, but it wasn't pretty.
But season after season, the veteran defenseman finds a way to raise his performance in the second half and get his game on track before the playoffs.
Girardi was in vintage form throughout Wednesday's 3-0 victory in Pittsburgh, shutting down Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.
For much of his 20:47 total ice time, Girardi was matched against the Crosby line and Pittsburgh's captain finished the game with only one shot attempt, which was blocked. Crosby entered the game with goals in a career-high seven straight games, but the rugged blueliner cooled off number 87 with physicality and positional smarts, taking him out of the rush on multiple occasions.
It was the kind of performance Rangers fans have come to expect from Girardi, who typically delivers when the pressure is on. He's made a habit of shutting down Crosby and some of the Penguins' other stars in key regular season games and under the playoff spotlight.
The Blueshirts' alternate captain finished Wednesday's game tied with a game-high five blocked shots and recorded three shots on goal. Throughout much of the first half, Girardi looked a step slow, inefficient with the puck and turnover-prone. It wasn't the Girardi the fans were accustomed to seeing, as for a decade he has served as a key component of the New York's back-end success.
"(Girardi) is a stalwart back there," center Dominic Moore said earlier this season. "He's so consistent with what he does. He plays smart, he plays an effective game every game. That durability is remarkable given the style of game that he plays -- blocking shots, playing physical, being such a complete defenseman. It's a testament to him. He's a huge part of our d-core's success."
Girardi logs hard miles and absorbs a ton of punishment on a nightly basis. A cracked right kneecap suffered in mid-December was slowing him to the point where it forced a five-game absence. A right hand laceration caused him to miss a game in mid-January. But it's about the games he doesn't miss, the ones where he's pushing himself through gut-wrenching pain because of his responsibility to the organization and his teammates.
"He's an absolute animal," defenseman Keith Yandle said of Girardi earlier this season. "He doesn't play easy minutes. Whenever there's a scrum, or a shot to be blocked or a tough position to be in, he's the guy the team's counting on to do it. He does it night in and night out. He obviously has the respect of everyone around here and throughout the league. It goes without saying that he's one of the biggest warriors I've played with."
Girardi skated in his 699th career NHL game on Wednesday night, passing franchise legend Mark Messier and Steve Vickers for sole possession of 11th place on the Rangers' all-time list.
On tying the great Messier, Girardi said prior to leaving for Pittsburgh, "I didn't think about that, I saw that in the pregame notes. Obviously, it's a big deal. He's one of the greatest Rangers of all-time. Hopefully, I'll keep on that list and be here as long as I can. Obviously, it's a big honor. I'm pretty fortunate to be where I am right now."
The thing with Girardi is his whole career has been about proving doubters wrong. He was not selected in the 2003 draft, and earned his way into the league the hard way. He was never the guy with the jaw-dropping skill set, the cannon shot or lightning speed, so he's always had to squeeze the most out of the physical tools he does have.
"I think you have to use what God gave you," Girardi told WFAN.com earlier this season. "Sometimes you have to rely on your smarts and be in the right places at the right time. I don't think I'm the fastest guy on the team by any means, but I feel I can get to the spot where I need to be and be physical. I think if you use your abilities to your advantage, you're going to have a long career. It's been working for me so far. I've never been complacent. I've always tried to get better, figure out ways to get stronger and do different things during the season to stay healthy and stay strong. Every day is a learning day."
"Over the years, you learn to read your body," he continued. "It's a balancing act. You've got to be ready, but still make sure you're rested and feeling good from a long playoff run and surgery. It's the same mentality every summer. You make sure you come into camp rested but also in the best shape you can be. The more years you play, the harder it gets on your body. So, you've got to make sure you're doing the right things in the summer."
Simply put, Girardi has been through the wars. He knows how to manage his body and answer the bell when the Rangers need him to deliver. It wouldn't be surprising to see him prove his doubters wrong by getting even better as the season winds down.
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