LOS ANGELES -- With the New York Rangers posted up at a posh hotel right along the Pacific Ocean just a stone’s throw from the Santa Monica Pier, the players shouldn’t find it too hard to put some distance between themselves and a dispiriting loss in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
The sun and sand should offer at least a brief respite from the disappointment of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings that was very much the Rangers' game to steal.
But defenseman Dan Girardi might have a harder time than most forgetting the final play that ultimately cost the Rangers in the series opener at Staples Center on Wednesday night.
It was just a simple bounce, the type that happens so many times throughout the course of a game. But this one came at the most inopportune moment possible. Game tied at 2. The Kings forechecking hard. Just a hop over Girardi’s stick that bungled what should have been a routine clearing attempt but instead forced him into scramble mode.
With the Kings bearing down and Girardi under duress, down on one knee even, he fired the puck toward Benoit Pouliot, but the winger had already taken off. Instead, Girardi fed it right to L.A.’s Mike Richards, who dished to Justin Williams in the slot.
How many times will Girardi turn that one over in his head?
His teammates can empathize with what must be a torturous few days that lie ahead until the Rangers get back at it Saturday for Game 2.
In fact, Girardi’s defensive partner, Ryan McDonagh, remembers the feeling well, having endured a similarly devastating sequence in the playoffs last spring. During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, McDonagh drew a delay of game penalty by sailing the puck over the glass, and the Capitals scored the winning goal on the ensuing power play.
McDonagh was despondent after that game, answering questions after the game dutifully but with tears in his eyes. His teammates rallied around him then. And they will do the same for Girardi.
“Our group believes so strongly in each other. We understand that wasn't the deciding factor in the game, ultimately. We could have done a lot more to help our chances,” McDonagh said during Thursday’s media availability at the team hotel in Santa Monica. “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.”
And one costly mistake will not mitigate Girardi’s critical importance to the Rangers’ team. The 30-year-old comprises the Rangers’ top defensive pairing with McDonagh, and he finished Wednesday’s match with a whopping 27:25 in ice time and a team-leading seven hits. His sound, steady defensive play has been vital as the team has neutralized some of the top lines from opponents all spring. Claude Giroux and his linemates in Round 1. Sidney Crosby & Co. in Round 2. Max Pacioretty's trio in Round 3.
For the Rangers to beat the Kings, or even to have a chance in this series, Girardi has to be resilient. Especially considering L.A.’s considerable depth down the middle.
“Dan is a huge part of our hockey club. I know that he's probably moved way past it and he's getting himself ready to play the next game,” center Derek Stepan said. “We've all been there, like Mac said. If there's a professional that can move away from it, it is Dan.”
McDonagh said he made sure to talk to Girardi right after the play after the game to reinforce that the loss wasn't on him.
Coach Alain Vigneault didn't sound particularly compelled to comfort Girardi. He knows that others are surrounding him with support and bolstering his morale.
“I haven't talked to him yet personally. I do know a couple of my assistants have. I do know that Dan's got great teammates. I'm sure that they've all talked to him,” Vigneault said. “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 got to turn the page and move on.”