NEW YORK – "This is the best time of year, man. I feel great out there." Dan Girardi said that as he sat in the dressing room Monday night, sipping an energy drink, looking like hell.
He had a scruffy playoff beard covering his gaunt cheeks. He had some old scars on the bridge of his nose, some freshly closed cuts above his left eyebrow and a brand-new bloody bruise on the side of his left eye. He had played 25 minutes and 11 seconds, more than any other skater in the game. He had blocked five shots, tied for the team high. He had thrown three hits and taken some hits, too.
But this is the Eastern Conference final, these are the New York Rangers and this is Dan Girardi. And if you're a hockey player – a hockey player's hockey player – you live for stuff like this: Girardi, a gritty defenseman who rarely scores, broke a scoreless tie early in the third period, then drew a penalty and assisted on the next goal as the Rangers earned a 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils in Game 1.
"You want to be a difference-maker," Girardi said. "This is the time of year where you just got to want to be out there. You can't be tired."
Oh, you can. Most normal people wouldn't just be dead tired, they’d be dead.
The Rangers went through another taxing training camp under coach John Tortorella. They opened the season by traveling to Europe and across North America. They played 82 games of grinding hockey, then survived two seven-game series. No team has played a full 14 games in the first two rounds and gone on to win the Stanley Cup since the playoffs expanded in 1968.
While the Rangers had only one day between series, the Devils had five days to rest. "It's always tough to come from a Game 7 – so emotional and everything around it – and start over," said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. It might be tougher against a team like the Devils, whose in-your-face forechecking style is more grueling than the passive style of the Rangers' previous opponent, the Washington Capitals.
"I didn't really know what to expect from this game, honestly, coming from seven games, seven games against Washington," Lundqvist said, before smiling. "But it pretty much turned out the way I hoped."
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 Rangers might have fallen behind in the first.
If not for some saves by Lundqvist, especially three in rapid succession on Parise during a New York power play, the Rangers might have trailed after two. (Note Lundqvist was the one player the Rangers did make an effort to rest in the regular season, playing him in only 62 games, his fewest in six years. Might be paying off.)
Madison Square Garden was oddly silent for long stretches. Even though this is the first conference final matchup between the cross-river rivals since 1994, you could hear the scrapes of skates, the clicks of pucks on sticks and the thuds of pucks on pads all the way up in the rafters.
But then came the third. Just when the Rangers should have run out of gas, they stepped on the pedal. Rookie Chris Kreider won a race to the puck in the New Jersey zone and waited patiently. Girardi hopped off the bench, and while the Devils weren't looking, slipped into shooting position at the right point. Kreider passed him the puck, and he stepped into it. Fifty-three seconds in, it was 1-0. MSG was silent no more.
"We were a different team after that," said Rangers winger Mike Rupp. "You realize what was going on. We knew we were outplayed for the first two periods. Now we've got a lead in Game 1 in the third. I think that gives everyone a little kick in the rear end, a little hop in your step. I thought we responded well after that."
Girardi drew a boarding call on Steve Bernier. He earned a secondary assist when Kreider made it 2-0 at the 12-minute mark. The Rangers stuck with their game plan, but now they had the energy to execute it, forechecking, cycling. They outshot the Devils in the third, 10-4, with Artem Anisimov capping the victory with an empty-net goal.
"We don't use playing two Game 7s as an excuse coming back to the next series," Girardi said. "We don't feel tired at all."
Well, they don't let themselves feel tired, especially a guy like Girardi, an undrafted free agent who fought his way from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL, a guy who willed himself to become a team leader and an all-star. Girardi scored only five goals in 82 regular-season games. He now has two in 15 playoff games. Girardi averaged 26:14 of ice time in the regular season, fourth-most in the NHL. He's averaging more in the playoffs – 27:29.
"It's all mental," Girardi said. "You just can't tell yourself you're tired out there. You get caught out there for two minutes, it doesn't matter. You've still got to do what you've got to do, get the puck out, just battle through the mental tiredness."
It's reasonable to think fatigue will be a factor for the Rangers, at least eventually – maybe even by Game 2 on Wednesday night, if they lose some momentum from the previous series and the Devils regain their legs. Tortorella has put his team through so much.
But the Rangers will tell you fatigue won't be a factor precisely because Tortorella has put them through so much. "We play a certain style, and it keeps us in shape and ready to go," Rupp said.
And looking at Girardi in Game 97 of his season – bruised and battered, still playing hard, still making a difference, still hungry for more – you tend to believe them. At the very least, you want to try whatever energy drink Girardi was sipping.
"With some of the experiences we've gone through, I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our conditioning and, more importantly, in our mental makeup," Tortorella said. "If we're tired this time of the year, there's something the matter. We still have a month to play."
The last possible day of the Stanley Cup final is June 15.
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Celtics know they're in for a fight after Sixers even series | Photos
• Video: Little League umpire's hilarious over-the-top call
• Y! News: New Jersey town bans texting while walking