Rangers defensemen have been front and center

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Dan Girardi acknowledges the crowd after the Rangers Dan Girardi acknowledges the crowd after the Rangers beat the Devils, 3-0, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. (May 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

John Tortorella reminded everyone Tuesday that there is only one sort of success in the NHL, and it's not the individual kind.

"This isn't golf," he said. "This is a team sport."

And the team concept extends beyond the ice, beyond even the Rangers. The accolades have poured in for Tortorella's group of homegrown defensemen, all of whom were front and center in the Rangers' 3-0 Game 1 win Monday.

Dan Girardi scored the key goal to break a 0-0 tie, plus he played his usual 25-plus minutes. Ryan McDonagh broke up two breakaway chances in the first period, by the Devils' two most dangerous players, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Michael Del Zotto had an assist and did some work. Even Stu Bickel did his part in his small parcel of playing time.

The unifying factor for those four, along with Marc Staal, is that they all spent at least a little time in Hartford, learning under the guidance of a former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman who has been as important to the development of the Rangers' defense as anyone.

"We're in the teaching business, but we're also in the winning business," J.J. Daigneault told me Tuesday afternoon. "Seeing the young guys you coached do well is satisfying. But it's satisfying to see the Rangers do well. We all try to do our part."

Daigneault's part is crucial, along with that of fellow Connecticut Whale assistant Pat Boller, coach Ken Gernander and on up to assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld, who coached Daigneault with the Coyotes in 1999 along with Tortorella, who was Schoenfeld's assistant back then.

Schoenfeld brought Daigneault in as an assistant with the Rangers' AHL team in 2006-07; among the defensemen there was an undrafted 22-year-old named Dan Girardi.

"He was disciplined, a hard worker, he practiced hard and did the drills right," Daigneault said. "When you do all that, you have a good chance to get at least a look at the next level."

The next level for Girardi has been logging more minutes than all but a handful of NHL defensemen and one of the unlikelier All-Star selections this season. Plus, Girardi now has two game-winning goals in this postseason, and is tied with Del Zotto for the NHL lead among defensemen with nine points.

So, naturally, his old position coach saw it all coming six years ago.

"Absolutely not," Daigneault said. "He's worked incredibly hard. I try to tell these guys when they're here that I can help them, but it's going to take a lot of work and sweat. And they're the ones doing the work and the sweating. I stopped sweating it out a long time ago."

The Rangers are three wins from a Stanley Cup Finals, and they have shown in each of their two previous playoff rounds that they are only as good as their entire team effort.

It's a lesson that has been instilled in all of them by Tortorella, the one running this team. But it started -- or, in the case of Del Zotto during his lost 2010-11 season, was reinforced by -- a coaching staff in the AHL that has provided a seamless transition for as heralded a group of young defensemen as any.

And we haven't even discussed Michael Sauer, Daigneault's most prized pupil, who went from three seasons in the AHL to a promising, second-pair defenseman before losing almost this entire season to a concussion. Or Tim Erixon, acquired last summer and benefiting from a nearly full season with the Whale under Daigneault's tutelage.

"That's the fun part of coaching these kids -- the sky's the limit," Daigneault said. "They're making me very proud."

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