May 3, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; New York Rangers right wing Marian Gaborik (10) celebrates with Rangers left wing Carl Hagelin (62) and Rangers defenseman Marc Staal (18) after scoring the game-winning goal against the Washington Capitals in the third overtime of game three in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center. The Rangers won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Staal, Girardi, and McDonagh - Or The Importance Of Defense

May 2, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi (5) and Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) battle for the puck in front of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) during the first overtime of game three in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center. The Rangers won 2-1 in triple overtime. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Everyone in New York knew the Rangers had a very good defensive group. To coaches and players around the league this probably was common knowledge as well. However, I don’t think the media nor fans gave the defense the Rangers have built enough respect. Many feel that Marc Staal is overrated and only gets by because of his last name. Some laughed at Dan Girardi being chosen for the All-Star game this season. And while Ryan McDonagh certainly is viewed as a good young defender I don’t know if anyone outside of Pierre McGuire truly realized exactly how great he is. In fact, Jared Crozier of Senshot told us that the “general feeling around Ottawa” as the playoffs started was that the Rangers’ defense that they felt could be exploited most easily of any area on the team.

That was all prior to last night (this morning?) and the triple overtime game against the Capitals.  Lundqvist and Gaborik got their due respect and praise for their contributions to the win but it was our top defensemen that were at the center of the hockey universe. John Tortorella was hounded with questions about Ryan McDonagh and his 53 minutes of icetime and how fresh he looked despite it, not to mention the huge hit he took from Matt Hendricks. Dan Girardi was called “the best defensive defenseman in the NHL” by the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson. And Marc Staal played easily his best game of the season, leading everybody in even strength minutes and shadowing Ovechkin for much of the game.

At the trading deadline the New York Rangers were the most discussed landing spot for a top six forward. Rick Nash was of course the top name discussed, but ultimately the Rangers came away with nothing (unless you count John Scott as something). And some declared the offense the achilles heel and reason for the inevitable downfall of the Rangers in the playoffs. After all, how could we possibly keep up with teams like the Penguins and Bruins who score seemingly at will?

Of course, both the Penguins and the Bruins, ranked one and three in the NHL respectively, saw first round exits. In fact, of the top seven teams in goals this season, only one, the Philadelphia Flyers, is still standing in the playoffs. Meanwhile, four of top five teams in goals against average (Blues, Rangers, Kings, and Coyotes) are still fighting for the Stanley Cup.

This isn’t to say that offense is of no importance; of course it is. No matter how well the defense performs, it’s impossible to win if pucks aren’t put into the other net. That being said, those who claimed that the Rangers could not possibly succeed without a great offense were being unfair from the beginning and look just stupid now.

And that is in large part to our defense, and specifically Staal, Girardi, and McDonagh. This is not to undermine Henrik Lundqvist, who is the backbone of the team. Or Del Zotto and Stralman, who have been very good for us as well the length of the regular season and so far in the playoffs. And of course our forwards deserve so much respect to. Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle do it nightly and John Mitchell might have saved the game for the Rangers twice last night with defensive zone plays. But those three are in the spotlight right now and deserve every single photon of it. Would it be nice if the Rangers had a bit more scoring? Absolutely. But is it a serious concern? Not at all. I’ll take Ryan McDonagh over James Neal. I’ll take Marc Staal over Milan Michalek. I’ll take Dan Girardi over Alexander Semin. When you have three #1 defensemen on your team – three guys capable of shutting down Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin for 50 minutes while showing no ill effects from any hits or blocked shots – you’re in a position to win every game and make something special happen. So all of those people who were whining about the team’s lack of scoring can go enjoy the Penguins and Bruins golf adventures this weekend. I’ll stick with this Rangers team that is being led by three of the best defensemen in the NHL and is two wins away from the Eastern Conference Finals.

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Tags: Dan Girardi Defense Marc Staal New York Rangers Playoffs Rangers Ryan McDonagh Washington Capitals

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