By Sean Hartnett
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Will the real Dan Girardi please stand up? If the Rangers are to live up to expectations, they’re going to need a return to form from their 31-year-old shutdown man.

For the bulk of the first half, Girardi has struggled with puck management and has appeared slow-footed. The latter could be attributed to a cracked right knee cap, which has caused painful swelling. After a five-game layoff, Girardi returned to game action as the Rangers began their post-holiday schedule with a 5-3 road defeat to the Nashville Predators.

Let’s make this crystal clear. Alain Vigneault and the Rangers’ organization as a whole view Girardi as an instrumental piece to their winning formula – and why shouldn’t they? He’s earned that trust through performing at crunch time in the most pressured playoff games.

“He’s an absolute animal,” defenseman Keith Yandle said of Girardi earlier this season. “He doesn’t play easy minutes. Whenever there’s a scrum, or a shot to be blocked or a tough position to be in, he’s the guy the team’s counting on to do it. He does it night in and night out. He obviously has the respect of everyone around here and throughout the league. It goes without saying that he’s one of the biggest warriors I’ve played with.”

Girardi and 28-year-old Marc Staal are the two longest-tenured Rangers defensemen, and they were pillars of their run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. They haven’t played up their standard so far this season, and each has logged heavy, physically demanding minutes. Even captain Ryan McDonagh’s game has lacked the consistency of years past.

According to War-On-Ice.com, Girardi’s five-on-five on-ice Corsi differential of minus-181 is the worst of all NHL skaters. McDonagh is 15th-worst among defenseman at minus-100 and Staal is 17th-worst among blue liners at minus-95. But advanced statistics only paint part of the picture.

There’s a school of thought that Girardi has already hit the decline and his presence on the top defensive pairing drags down the play of McDonagh, who has performed noticeably better with Kevin Klein on his right side.

Again, the key word is trust. Since arriving in New York, Vigneault has put his faith in his veterans to play their way into form. Perhaps as the swelling in his knee goes down, Girardi will return to his A-game. Say what you’d like about his first half, but he typically finds a way to raise his game in time for the playoffs.

Through no fault of his own, 23-year-old defenseman Dylan McIlrath is set to be a healthy scratch for a second consecutive game. McIlrath leads the Rangers with a five-on-five on-ice Corsi For percentage of 53.5. Despite playing just 17 games, his plus-31 five-on-five Corsi differential only trails team leader Keith Yandle’s plus-33. McIlrath has largely put in steady performances, and you don’t want to see a kid’s progress halted by a spell in the press box. Somehow, someway, Vigneault needs to find a way to get him back in the lineup.

One player who needs to earn back Vigneault’s trust is Kevin Hayes. Heading into Wednesday’s game in Tampa, much of the chatter is revolving around Vigneault directing pointed comments at the second-year forward. Vigneault did not hold back his criticisms of the 6-foot-5 forward and confirmed to reporters in Nashville that Hayes will be a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s game at Amalie Arena.

“At this time, unless something changes, he’s definitely not going to play,” Vigneault told The Record’s Andrew Gross following Tuesday’s practice in Nashville. “I think we all have our tipping points and I think Kevin has had an extra long leash, especially considering (Derek) Step(an) was out for quite some time. But there’s just nothing going on.

“And at the end of the day, we’re at the point now where we’ve got to make some decisions in the best interests of the team. When you go through a season, there are phases where you’re trying to develop. You’re trying to work as you’re trying to win. Obviously winning is always the final component to everything. But in the area beyond that, you’re trying to find out about people.

“In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him, and what we felt he could do were very high. Obviously he hasn’t lived up to that. Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know. Time will tell. But I do know what we’re seeing now is not good enough.”

After a standout rookie season which earned him plaudits for his poise and maturity, Hayes is underperforming in year two. He has collected 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) through 37 games and is goalless in his last 16 games.

Maybe this kind of wake-up call is what Hayes needs at this stage of his career. A growing number of writers have criticized his effort level and there’s been times when Hayes has glided back on odd-man rushes. In the case of many promising youngsters, there comes a time when they need to learn a hard lesson about what it takes to earn their place. Given his mature nature, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hayes take AV’s comments seriously and strive toward meeting expectations.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey

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