By Larry Wigge
Athletes are always looking for a defining moment. One which the turns the tide ... of a game ... a season ... or even a career around.
Rarely does it involve an undrafted free agent defenseman coming off the bench like a free train, calling for the puck and stepping right into a slap shot that raised up over Martin Brodeur's blocker to snap a scoreless tie.
But it does for Dan Girardi.
He did it 53 seconds into the third period and that spark raised the roof of Madison Square Garden en route to a 3-0 New York Rangers victory over the New Jersey Devils in the opener of their Eastern Conference playoff matchup.
A defining moment. You better believe it.
"I came out there flying off the bench," Girardi said. "I saw Chris Kreider coming up the wall there and I was delaying to see what he was going to do. I saw no one got to the point and I kind of stepped into the shot and got it through.
"This is the best time of year, man. You want to be on the ice, you want to be a difference- maker. This is the time of year you want to be out there."
Late bloomer. A success story. A feel-good moment. Best chance to succeed. All of the above for the 6-1, 206-pound defenseman from Welland, Ontario. This is the fifth season for Girardi on the Rangers defense, but this is his best and biggest chance in the playoffs.
He had one goal and assisted on Kreider's second goal in Game 1, after finishing the season with five goals and 24 assists in the regular season. But he also three hits, five blocked shots (he leads the NHL in that category in the playoffs with 47), played a whopping 25 minutes 11 seconds and was a plus 2.
"You know he's going to do his job in front, take the hits and block the shots that need to be blocked," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist observed. "He's definitely a good guy to have in front of you."
It wasn't pretty for the Rangers for a while. If not for two plays by Girardi's defense partner, Ryan McDonagh, chasing down Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk on potential breakaways, the Blueshirts might have fallen behind in the first period.
"He's a heck of a warrior and a competitor," said McDonagh. "He's going to bounce back, he's a big-time player, he's an All-Star for us this year ... and it's no coincidence he gets that goal and a big play on the assist and just finishes the game hard defensively."
"He's the backbone of our defense," said captain Ryan Callahan.
Girardi has a storybook background. He is the only child of Mark and Carol Girardi. His father works for General Motors on the assembly line, he builds engines. And his mother is a registered nurse at Welland Hospital.
"Big guy," Girardi said of his father. "Hard-working guy."
Girardi had to work at his game, too. He was a star forward. He was a goal-scorer ... when he was 10.
"I was a real high-skilled player in Atom and Tyke," Girardi said. "I scored 50 one year in Atom -- still got the puck at home. After a while they started coming less and less. By the time I was a Pee-Wee they said, 'Um, why don't you play defense?' "
But it should be noted that NONE of the 30 first-round picks in 2002 were selected for the All-Star Game in 2012 a decade later and Girardi was. He also went undrafted two more times, even after he helped the London Knights win the Ontario Hockey League title and Memorial Cup in 2005. But Rangers amateur scout Rich Brown had closely followed Girardi throughout his junior career and finally suggested the Blueshirts bring him to training camp that fall.
So Brown called his friend Mark Hunter, co-owner and general manager of the Knights, to find out what Girardi was like off the ice; if his character was as steady as his play.
Hunter relayed a simple anecdote.
Early in the 2005 OHL playoffs, Girardi had casually mentioned some soreness in his right hand after he blocked a shot. Not much was made of it -- Girardi simply taped it up and carried his team throughout the next three rounds of the playoffs. In the afterglow of the Knights' first Memorial Cup Championship, Girardi's hand was X-rayed.
It was broken.
That told Brown all he needed to know. The Rangers signed Girardi to their ECHL team at Charlotte. He quickly graduated to Hartford of the AHL -- and the rest is history.
Girardi said he was not always a shot-blocking fiend. He developed during his years under Jim Schoenfeld with Hartford of the AHL. Schoenfeld was a top shot blocker on the Buffalo blue line during the 1970s.
When he got to the NHL, he started blocking even more. Some people will tell you there is an art to it ... and there is, to a certain extent. You need good timing. You need proper technique. But more than anything, you need toughness and desire.
Girardi is with the Rangers because of his heart -- and he's not taking this for granted.
"It's kind of almost surreal to actually be here and be part of something like this,' Girardi said. "I'm just grateful someone picked me to be here. I'm just loving every minute of it."
Isn't a little of your faith restored, too?
"That was my motivation for a while, to prove everyone wrong and show a lot of teams that they missed out," Girardi said. "That's still in my head, but it's not a main concern anymore."
It's not talent, it's pedigree. No first- or second-round pick.
"It's because he's not pedigree. There's no pedigree there. Our league is so backwards when it comes to that," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "That restores a little faith in me, that the league stepped up and where credit was deserved gave it to him. It's not just pedigree. It's what Dan's done on the ice."
Undrafted three straight years, Dan Girardi never took it personally -- although seeing several of his teammates gave him hope. "If they can do it, why can't I."
The mental toughness is what made Girardi never give up.
"It's quite the journey, coming from the East Coast League and not being drafted to being at the All-Star Game with all these elite players," Girardi said. "It's almost surreal."