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Makeshift defence pair turns into gem for Rangers

New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi (5) checks New Jersey Devils left wing Zach Parise (9) during the first period of Game 1 of their NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference final playoff series at New York's Madison Square Garden, Monday, May 14, 2012.

Kathy Willens/AP

It's right there in his scouting report, listed under assets.

"He plays through injuries."

One look at Dan Girardi's face, 15 games into these playoffs, will tell you the same.

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The heart and soul of the New York Rangers' blueline, Girardi has a latticework of scars, scabs and cuts from the bridge of his nose, up between his eyebrows and dangerously close to his left eye.

Which, by the way, appears to be turning purple.

Much of that damage came courtesy of Henrik Lundqvist's goal stick, which caught his teammate in the head in the second round.

So the man who has averaged the most ice time in these playoffs – 27 minutes 29 seconds a night heading into Wednesday's Game 2 against the New Jersey Devils – fits the part, and all he has to show for it is a crumpled black fedora the team passes around from win to win to its MVP.

"It doesn't fit many of our heads," netminder Marty Biron explained.

Still, as a symbol, hanging in Girardi's locker on Tuesday after practice, it's a good one. So, too, are his equally weathered shin pads, which are beefier than usual given all the abuse he takes getting in front of 100-mile-an-hour shots.

What had already been a dream season – with an appearance in the all-star game – for the undrafted 28-year-old from Welland, Ont., has hit a new level in these playoffs.

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Monday's 3-0 win was his first night wearing the so-called Broadway Hat, with his winning goal and an assist putting him into a share of the NHL scoring lead among defencemen with nine points in 15 games.

Girardi's rise likely wouldn't have even happened had his former defence partner, Marc Staal, not suffered a concussion and missed the first half of the season, leaving the Rangers in a bind in September.

Looking for a fit, Rangers coach John Tortorella shifted youngster Ryan McDonagh alongside Girardi and the pairing seemed to click from Day 1.

"You never know how this works out," Tortorella said of creating line combinations. "I'm not sure if I'll ever split those two guys up."

Playing big minutes, against top lines every night and often starting in their own zone, the duo emerged as one of the top shut-down units in the league this season, something even their teammates admit was a surprise.

Missing Staal for any length of time was supposed to hurt more than this, especially when McDonagh – acquired from Montreal in the trade for Scott Gomez that grows more lopsided by the day – had all of 45 games NHL experience coming into training camp.

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Fast-forward to Monday and the relatively unheralded 22-year-old Minnesotan was chasing down and nullifying two of the top talents in the game in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.

"I think at the beginning of the year, if you looked at our roster, you'd say you didn't know about the D, as far as experience," winger Mike Rupp said. "They've been the strongest part of our season. And [Game 1]was a good example of that. They're getting the experience now."

Tortorella added: "With Mac, the amount of time he got so quickly in key situations because of that injury [to Staal]has accelerated his [development]process. That may [have come]a year down the road if we didn't have an injury."

At the centre of that process has been Girardi, who grew up idolizing Mark Messier only to now follow in his footsteps in trying to lead the Rangers past the Devils in the Eastern Conference final.

For a team that has been winning in the least flashy way possible – standing and lying down in front of pucks – he is a fitting frontman.

Even if the job comes with a lot of stitches.

"I think that's just part of being a hockey player," Girardi said. "Having cuts and bruises and different kinds of injuries."

"I've obviously learned a lot from him," McDonagh said, "how mentally tough he is. The grind that he goes through, the hits that he takes and the way he blocks shots. He's such a leader."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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