SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Although Dan Girardi made the final mistake in the Stanley Cup finals opener, his fellow New York Rangers realize their stalwart defenseman hardly deserves the blame for their defeat.
The Rangers rallied to Girardi’s defense Thursday, confidently declaring he’ll bounce back from the turnover that led to Justin Williams’ goal in the Los Angeles Kings’ 3-2 overtime victory.
"We understand that wasn’t the deciding factor in the game ultimately," said Ryan McDonagh, Girardi’s defensive partner. "We could have done a lot more to help our chances. It’s unfortunate that it happens to us at that point in the game, but he’s a guy that has been through so many ups and downs in his career. We know he’s going to bounce back and be a huge part of our Game 2 here."
The Rangers didn’t make Girardi available to the media at their oceanside hotel, but his teammates and coach Alain Vigneault made it clear Girardi’s errant pass was just the last miscue in a rough finish at Staples Center.
Despite blowing an early two-goal lead and getting outshot 20-3 in the third period, the Rangers were hanging with the Kings before Girardi stumbled to his knees and passed the puck straight to Los Angeles’ Mike Richards, who fed Williams for the winner 4:36 into overtime.
Vigneault’s assistants checked in with Girardi after the turnover, making sure the defenseman wasn’t hung up on his mistake heading into Game 2 on Saturday.
"I do know that Dan has got great teammates," Vigneault said. "I’m sure that they’ve all talked to him. It was a bounce. It was a bounce that unfortunately didn’t work out. He couldn’t put the handle on it. Stuff like that happens. You’ve got to turn the page and move on."
Indeed, McDonagh and Girardi had already dissected the play on their own after the game. McDonagh recalled his own mistake in a playoff game against Washington last year, putting the puck over the glass during overtime and setting up a winning power-play goal for the Capitals.
"(Girardi) doesn’t sulk (or) think about the what-ifs," McDonagh said. "He just tries to correct it, see what he can do better, and we’re there supporting him."
The trouble started when the puck jumped on Girardi, who whiffed on a clearing attempt. Girardi chased it down and made a hasty move under pressure, trying to clear the puck up the wall — or maybe sending an outlet pass to Derek Brassard.
"It looks like a terrible mistake, but bouncing pucks happen all over the ice," McDonagh said. "When you’re back there, you just try and do your best to get ahold of the thing before it gets out of control."
Richards, who nearly went off on a change, stepped right into the pass and got it ahead to Williams, who beat Henrik Lundqvist high to the stick side.
"Maybe I’ll go higher next time, or go to the corner and eat it," Girardi said after the game. "But I’m not going to dwell on it. You’ve got to have a short-term memory. I’m just going to forget about it and come out the next game hard."
McDonagh realized he played a role in the mistake by leaving the defensive zone too quickly, attempting to counter the Kings’ line change by joining the Rangers’ counterattack. McDonagh and Girardi usually work well together because of their contrasts: McDonagh is the Rangers’ leading scorer in the postseason, while Girardi often stays at home in back.
"In those situations, especially at that point of the game, we’ve got to understand that when a guy is in trouble, maybe it’s not the right time to leave the zone," McDonagh said. "I was one of those guys that left the zone, anticipating a play that we were going to get it out. But at that point in the game, we just need to help him and be supportive and be close there in case it happens."
Girardi had five goals and 19 assists in the regular season, and he has seven points in the playoffs while logging more than 23 minutes per game. Only McDonagh averages more ice time than Girardi, who has spent his entire eight-season NHL career with New York.
Said forward Derek Stepan: "If there’s a professional that can move away from it, it is Dan."