Defenseman Marc Staal led the Rangers in minutes played and takeaways last year. He was second on the team in shots blocked and the only Ranger to make the All Star Game.
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So it would make sense that with Staal yet to play a game this season, because of the aftereffects of a concussion, the Rangers’ defense would slip a little, right?
So far, New York’s defense has actually been slightly stingier, despite losing its incumbent defensive leader. The team’s forwards deserve credit for keeping its aggressive forecheck and goalie Henrik Lundqvist continues to play at an all-world level. But perhaps most importantly, virtually every member the Rangers’ defensive corps has progressed individually to help absorb the loss of Staal and keep pressure off Lundqvist.
The Rangers have only allowed 2.20 goals per game through 25 games this season. That’s the fourth-best average in the league and slightly better than their pace last season.
Dan Girardi, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2005, has emerged as the Rangers’ defensive pacesetter. He has taken over for Staal as the team leader in playing time, ranks fifth in the NHL in blocked shots and plays in all game situations. Girardi is making a case for his first All-Star Game appearance.
When Girardi was left off this year’s All-Star ballot, Rangers coach John Tortorella went on a mini-tirade in front of the New York press corps in November.
"It’s because he’s not pedigree," Tortorella said of Giradi. "There’s no pedigree there. Our league is so ass-backwards when it comes to that. It’s not just this year that he’s been underrated. This guy has been a really good player. But if you don’t have the pedigree in this league, they don’t look at you."
Twenty-one-year-old Michael Del Zotto has rebounded well from a sophomore slump that relegated him to the AHL last season, after playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old rookie in 2009-10. He has two goals and nine assists through 25 games this season and has a plus-9 rating.
Ryan McDonagh, Girardi’s partner on the top pair, has had a breakout season with four goals, nine assists and a plus-11 rating in 24 games.
The one thing the Rangers defense lacks, even with Staal, is experience. They do not have a player more than 30 years old. Bottom-pairing blueliners Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka are the group’s oldest at 28. General manager Glen Sather may want to acquire an older defenseman with a playoff track record before the trade deadline.
In the short term, New York’s defensive depth will be further tested: 24-year-old sophomore Michael Sauer listed as day-to-day after suffering a concussion as a result of a Dion Phaneuf hit in a game against Toronto on Monday.
The team added 25-year-old free agent Anton Stralman in early November. He profiles as a puck-moving defender who can play on the power play.
But as well as the Rangers’ defense has played through the first quarter of the season, Staal’s comeback would not hurt at all.
There is no timetable for his return.
Atlantic Division notes:
Al Montoya has taken charge of the Islanders’ goaltending situation. He has started the team’s past two games, while Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro both deal with groin injuries. Montoya has a 5-3-3 record so far this season, which is impressive considering the Islanders are 9-11-6. … Penguins star Sidney Crosby is on the shelf once again. The team said he was suffering from headaches after absorbing several hits in a loss at Boston, but tested negative for another concussion. Crosby sat out Thursday night’s game at Philadelphia and is expected to miss Saturday’s on Long Island as well. … Flyers C Claude Giroux is now the NHL’s leading scorer after a one-goal, three-assist performance in Buffalo on Dec. 7. He has 37 points through 27 games. … Devils captain Zach Parise is starting to rebound from his sluggish start. The left wing, who is a free agent after this season, has two goals and six assists in his past six games.