By Sean Hartnett
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Dylan McIlrath had by all measure a very good rookie season, yet he was the odd man out when the Rangers began their first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.
This needs to change because veteran defenseman Dan Girardi looked completely overmatched during the Blueshirts’ Game 1 loss.
The 31-year-old’s decision-making, puckhandling and lack of speed are longstanding issues that have required fixing. At this point, even burying Girardi as a third-pairing defenseman might not do the trick. The Rangers need to remove him from the lineup entirely; otherwise they’re going to keep getting burned when he’s on the ice.
How much longer can Alain Vigneault tolerate Girardi’s positional gaffes and mistakes with the puck? Well, the Rangers’ head coach strongly prefers lefty-righty defensive pairings. There’s no reason to take the solidifying presence of Kevin Klein out of the lineup and, despite his age, 39-year-old Dan Boyle generates offense and serves an important role on the power play.
Brady Skjei looked very comfortable and assured in his playoff debut on Wednesday. There’s no doubt that the 22-year-old is destined for great things on Broadway. He’s an outstanding skater, a smart puck-mover and is capable of providing reliability at both ends of the rink. In reality, the Rangers need a lot more of Skjei and 23-year-old McIlrath and less of the struggling Marc Staal-Girardi pairing.
This is where AV must infuse a spark into the lineup in the form of McIlrath. Although Girardi has built up plenty of good stock for his part in the Rangers’ successes over the past decade, the drop-off in his game has been alarming. He handles the puck like a grenade and gets caught in all kinds of bad positions in his own end.
As the final minute ticked away in the first period on Wednesday, Penguins winger winger Patric Hornqvist dumped the puck behind the Rangers’ net. For whatever reason, Girardi stopped skating — likely because he thought icing would be called. As Girardi coasted, Pittsburgh winger Conor Sheary hustled to win the puck, threw it off Henrik Lundqvist’s arm and Hornqvist poked it through Lundqvist’s five hole.
During a third-period power play, Girardi allowed Phil Kessel to set up in the blue paint. Kessel’s traffic in the crease caused trouble and freed Hornqvist to jam in a loose puck past Antti Raanta, who replaced Lundqvist at the start of the second period after the Rangers’ starter suffered an apparent right eye injury. Lundqvist was checked out by medical staff at Consol Energy Center and was to be reevaluated on Thursday.
Whether it’s Lundqvist or Raanta starting between the pipes in Game 2 on Saturday, the Rangers are going to need some help. If given a chance, McIlrath can do a lot of good with his crisp passing and physical presence.
It’s time for a change and an infusion of youth on the blue line. Skjei and McIlrath can supply it.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey