The photographers circled Dan Girardi’s locker. Sunday night’s hero was grinning under the Broadway Hat, awarded by Rangers teammates to the game’s key player.
Another camera flashed.
“Keep that one,” Girardi said. “It might be my last.”
At 32, Girardi knows his limitations. He no longer is the young shutdown defender who can play 82 games on the first defensive pair, season after season, bruise after bruise. Injuries have taken their toll.
But he insists he can contribute, and in a game in which the Rangers were sloppy and struggled — often par for the course in the second of back-to-back games — Girardi returned after missing three games with a groin strain and scored the winner early in the third period in the Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes.
With the score tied at 2-2, Girardi and Brady Skjei saw the Coyotes changing lines on the fly. Skjei drove up the left side past defenseman Luke Schenn and sent the puck through the crease. It caromed off the boards and right to Girardi, who fired a one-timer from below the right point and beat Louis Domingue at 1:55 of the third period for his first goal of the season.
“I just bury my head and try to get it past the screen [by Coyotes forward Jordan Martinook] and it kind of dipped on him [Domingue],” Girardi said. “I’m just trying to get it on net and get a rebound or something and it just happened to go in.”
Scoring is not Girardi’s strong suit, and the pairing with the smooth-skating Skjei, 22, might work.
“I think it helps his game with him able to take a little chance and get up the ice and use his speed,” Girardi said. “I’ll just let him do his thing. I’ll stay back and be the safety belt. It’s kind of like when Mac [Ryan McDonagh] and I played a bit when he first came into the league. Hopefully, I can stay that way the whole year.”
Injuries, such as the cracked kneecap that hobbled Girardi last season, and coach Alain Vigneault’s desire for puck-moving defensemen to jump-start breakouts could alter that plan. But the two points helped the Rangers end the weekend with two wins and a 4-2 record. They rallied to beat the Capitals on Saturday night.
For the second straight night, the Rangers allowed an early goal. Radim Vrbata redirected Connor Murphy’s shot over Henrik Lundqvist (27 saves) at the 33-second mark. But Josh Jooris scored his first goal to tie the score at 12:13, scooping up a loose puck and tucking it behind a sprawled Domingue.
Playing without leading scorer Chris Kreider (neck spasms), the Rangers slogged through an uneven effort that required 28 blocked shots. “We gave them their offense,” Jooris said. “We had to clean it up.”
With Jakob Chychrun off for hooking, J.T. Miller sneaked to the right post and tipped in McDonagh’s low shot at 5:45 of the second period for a 2-1 lead. Vrbata tied it with his second at 16:18, setting up the third period.
“He’d [Girardi] been working really hard to get ready for the season,” Lundqvist said. “Then right away he has to sit out a few games. That’s never easy, but I just love the way he competes out there.”
Girardi blocked two shots and delivered three hits in 19:15.
“I felt pretty good, didn’t have much practice,” he said. “Luckily, I’ve been here a long time. It’s just part of the routine.”
Like wearing a safety belt.