Commentary

Accidental pairing pays big dividends

Updated: May 16, 2012, 3:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Fate or just dumb luck?

If the New York Rangers end up celebrating their first Stanley Cup championship since 1994 next month, they will look back on the moment that defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi began playing together this past fall and wonder whether that was indeed the defining moment.

Whether they came together via happenstance or not, you could hardly find two more inexorably linked yet unique pieces of the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup puzzle.

Taken as singular elements, they represent an impressive range of assets including speed, grittiness and high hockey IQ, but as a two-man unit coming from wildly disparate backgrounds, the two have come to represent something altogether impressive, something far more significant to a team now seven wins from a Stanley Cup championship.

"Everything's impressive to me, to be honest," Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, a member of the last Rangers team to win a Cup, told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

McDonagh and Girardi have quickly become the foundation of a very good Rangers defense. Usually young defensemen reveal their potential before they reveal their actual capabilities. Not with McDonagh, 22, and Girardi, 28, who seem to have accelerated their maturation process exponentially.

"These guys were both thrust into those roles," Leetch said. "That's pretty impressive to see their consistency at this age."

Here's the thing: For something that has turned out so well, no one -- not even the man who decided to pair the two, head coach John Tortorella -- had any idea how this would turn out.

Marc Staal, arguably the Rangers' most important defenseman coming into the season, was recovering from a concussion, and Tortorella didn't think Michael Del Zotto was ready to take on such responsibilities at the NHL level. This pretty much left McDonagh to move into a top-pair role with Girardi.

"You never know," Tortorella said Tuesday. "It's funny how it works out when you end up with injuries. We always talk about when there's injuries, another guy gets an opportunity. You never know where it's going to lead you. I'm not sure if I'll ever split those two guys up. That's just the way it works.

"If any coach tells you that he knows this will work, he's lying. Because we don't. You try it and you make a judgment, and hopefully your judgment is the correct one."

Strong defensive play has dominated this spring, and McDonagh and Girardi were significant factors again on Monday as the Rangers took the opening game against the New Jersey Devils by a 3-0 count.

Girardi, who endured a rare off night defensively, scored the winning goal 53 seconds into the third period, breaking a scoreless tie. It was his second goal of the postseason. He logged 25:11 in ice time, more than any other player in the game -- which isn't surprising given that he has spent more time on the ice this spring than any other NHL player.

McDonagh, meanwhile, served up another impeccable defensive performance, tracking down speedy New Jersey captain Zach Parise in the first period to negate a great scoring chance and then knifing in to cut the angle on New Jersey sniper Ilya Kovalchuk as he broke in down the left side.

He was on the ice for 24:27 on Monday and ranks second among all players in ice time this spring.

Two peas in a pod? Not exactly.

Girardi, the more physical of the two, enjoyed a successful junior career in Ontario, winning a Memorial Cup with a powerful London Knights team in 2005. Undrafted, Girardi signed a two-way deal with the Rangers and began the 2005-06 season in the ECHL with Charlotte.

Every time Jim Schoenfeld, the GM of the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford, Conn., heard from the coaching staff in Charlotte, there were rave reviews about Girardi. The defenseman was eventually called up to the AHL that season. Then he was called up by the Rangers in January 2007 and stayed with the big club for good, missing only two games since.

"I don't think at that time we knew he could attain these heights," said Schoenfeld, who is also the Rangers' assistant GM and an assistant coach.

"The thing that caught our eye at the time was that he didn't make very many mistakes."

Schoenfeld added that Girardi does so much without fanfare that it's sometimes easy to miss how effective he is.

"He's just continued his development," the former NHL player and coach said. "But he had it. He has real good hockey IQ. He learned how to work real hard. So now you have the complete package."

McDonagh, on the other hand, is the quintessential American prospect. Hailing from St. Paul, Minn., McDonagh helped his high school to its first state hockey championship -- about as big as it gets in the state of hockey.

He was named the top senior high school player in the state the next year, and the Montreal Canadiens made him the 12th overall pick in the 2007 draft.

During his three years at the University of Wisconsin, players and coaches often would watch McDonagh speed down the ice and say, 'Oh, there goes McDonagh shot from a cannon again,' head coach Mike Eaves recalled on Tuesday.

Two years after they drafted him, the Canadiens inexplicably included McDonagh's rights in a deal that sent Scott Gomez to Montreal.

It took some time for McDonagh to make the adjustment from college hockey to pro hockey, Schoenfeld said, but his speed and strength have allowed him to blossom very quickly.

"Leaps and bounds" is how Schoenfeld describes McDonagh's evolution this season.

Now, Schoenfeld expects McDonagh to start taking his game in a more offensive direction.

Eaves shares Schoenfeld's view of McDonagh's upside: "His confidence and patience with the puck has taken a quantum leap this year. His decision-making with the puck is as good as it's ever been."

McDonagh and Girardi spend a lot of time together away from the rink, especially when the team is on the road.

"Especially this year, he's coming over to my house a little bit more, playing with my son and stuff like that," Girardi said. "And I think that's kind of part of why we're doing well. We're good friends off the ice, and it makes our job easier on the ice.

"I think sometimes it works between guys and sometimes it doesn't. And it just seemed to jell. I really couldn't tell you why. I think it's just kind of read off each other from the beginning and talking on and off the ice about different things we could do, and it's been good so far."

It's clear Girardi's maturity and work ethic have had a significant impact on McDonagh.

"It's been great. I mean, I make some mistakes, and Danny's great at recovering and blocking a shot or disrupting an odd-man rush," McDonagh said. "And he just gives you that much more confidence to join the rush and create and make your plays that way.

"And obviously learned a lot from him, 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 in that aspect, and it's something that I'm trying to get involved in in my game."