By Sean Hartnett
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For more than a decade, Rangers alternate captain Dan Girardi has played through the most grueling injuries and seems nearly indestructible. Season after season, physical hardships haven't prevented the durable right-handed defenseman from suiting up in the playoffs.
Girardi played through the final four games of the 2015 Eastern Conference finals with a grade-1 MCL sprain, and after the playoffs were over he underwent surgery to remove a bursa sac on his left ankle that from memory was larger than a golf ball. Last April, two significant injuries limited his 2016 postseason to two games.
Throughout much of the 2015-16 season and playoffs, Girardi played on a cracked right knee cap. While serious, that kind of injury wasn't going to stop the ironman defenseman in his tracks. What ended up pulling him out of the lineup was late-season concussion symptoms that re-emerged when the Rangers needed him most.
"I felt good going into Game 1, but throughout the game I didn't really feel like myself, I didn't feel great," Girardi said last April. "I finished the game and talked to the doctors, and some of the symptoms came back. So, they stopped me from playing. You saw me skating every day, but I was still having headaches and stuff. Right around Game 4, I started feeling a lot better on the ice and felt good enough to play Game 5."
At age 32, Girardi has logged a lot of hard miles over an 11-year career. There's been a different approach this season in how the Rangers have managed his health. Girardi has missed 19 games so far, which is uncommon for a player who had only missed four games through the first nine seasons of his career.
When Girardi suffered a groin injury in mid-October, the plan was to be cautious and to allow the defenseman the proper time to recover.
"When Danny suffered that groin injury, the decision was made with the medical staff to be prudent with back-to-backs and that's what we're doing," head coach Alain Vigneault said at the time. "It's preventative. We discussed that with back-to-backs, we were going to be a little bit careful for the short-term. I told Danny after the game. Like any player, nobody likes to sit out. But he understands."
During a Feb. 7 home game against the Anaheim Ducks, Girardi tracked bloody footprints into the Rangers' dressing room at the second intermission after sustaining a deep right ankle gash. The laceration eventually caused him to miss 12 consecutive games, the longest injury spell of his career.
Time missed due to the ankle injury has forced Girardi to prepare differently ahead of the playoffs. He has played three games since recovering from the injury, but at the same time has been playing catch-up.
"I think I feel pretty good about it," Girardi said following Sunday's 4-3 home victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. "I think overall here, I'm pretty happy with how I feel physically. Mentally, I feel pretty good. I'm just trying to do whatever I can here in the last three games to make sure I'm ready for a big playoff push."
The Rangers reached the 2014 Stanley Cup Final with Girardi logging 24 minutes a night on the first pairing alongside Ryan McDonagh. The Blueshirts made a repeat visit to the Eastern Conference Final in 2015 with Girardi averaging 21 minutes per game. But last spring against Pittsburgh in the opening round, they were toast without a healthy Girardi.
There has been a noticeable decline in Girardi's performances, but much of it should be attributed to the injury pileup taking a toll. It appears that if the Rangers can properly manage Girardi's minutes, he can be a positive come playoff time. When Girardi has been healthy in the postseason, he has been able to shut down the Penguins' superstar duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Washington Capitals' scoring ace Alex Ovechkin.
Certainly, a healthier Girardi would be a far better option than the player who clearly wasn't himself last spring.
"Having that ankle issue was maybe a little blessing in disguise," Girardi said. "You never know, right? Obviously, I feel better than I did last year at this time. Missing maybe 15 (or more) games this year, that's really uncharted territory for me. In the long run, hopefully it's going to help me. I feel really good right now. I've been able to work out a lot and do a lot of cardio. I feel good. Hopefully, we're ready for a good push here."
Once the playoffs get underway, we'll learn how much Girardi has left in his tank.
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