Rangers come to Dan Girardi's defense

Rangers come to Dan Girardi's defense
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi battles Kings captain Dustin Bown for position alongside the crease in the third period of Game 1 on Wednesday night at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The New York Rangers circled around defenseman Dan Girardi on Thursday after the reliable protector of goalie Henrik Lundqvist made the turnover that set up the overtime loss to the Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

"Our group believes so strongly in each other," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said, as selected players — not Girardi — met with reporters at the team hotel in Santa Monica. "We understand that wasn't the deciding factor in the game, ultimately.


"We know he's going to bounce back and be a huge part of our Game 2."

Girardi, 30, leads New York in hits (70) and blocked shots (51) in the postseason, and led all skaters with a plus-four goal differential in the Rangers' Eastern Conference championship series against the Montreal Canadiens.

He played 27 minutes and 25 seconds in Wednesday's 3-2 loss that ended 4:36 into overtime on a goal by Kings forward Justin Williams.

Deep in his end, Girardi was positioned to pass the puck up ice, but whiffed and slipped to his knees, slapping desperately at the puck that was then intercepted by Kings center Mike Richards. He quickly fed Williams, who beat Lundqvist.

McDonagh said he too deserved some blame for allowing the goal.

"We've got to understand that when a guy is in trouble, maybe it's not the right time to leave the zone," McDonagh said. "I was one of those guys that left, anticipating a play. We just need to help him and be supportive there in case it happens … be 100% on our plays."

Need for speed

The Rangers' speed advantage might have been enhanced by their five off days before Game 1 and the Kings having only two after their seven-game epic Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks.

New York — after racing to a 2-0 lead and getting its best Game 1 scoring chances on breakaways — clearly wants to continue pressing for the track meet style of play that helped players such as Carl Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot win races to the puck and break in on Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.

"We need to find a way to play to our strengths," Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault said. "They're the best opponent we've met. For us to win, we're going to have to find a way to play to our strengths. And speed is definitely one of them."

Moore returning

Rangers defenseman John Moore is expected to return Saturday in Game 2 after sitting out a two-gamesuspension for his hit to the head of Montreal's Dale Weise in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Moore has 16 penalty minutes in the playoffs and is plus-four in goal differential. New York defenseman Raphael Diaz played 10:15 in Moore's place Wednesday.

"Johnny's played some good hockey for us," Vigneault said. "Left-handed [defenseman], easier to go 'D' to 'D.' John has been one of our consistent six defensemen we've rolled all year, so if we do go that way, I'm sure he'll be ready for that."


Gretzky praises Kopitar

Wayne Gretzky stopped by the press box before Game 1 to do a quick TV hit with "Hockey Night in Canada" on Wednesday night at Staples Center, and the legend gave some serious props to Kings center Anze Kopitar.

The Great One talked about Kopitar's continuing improvement and said the Stanley Cup Final could revolve around him. Everyone always debates rankings and Gretzky added the considerable weight of his opinion, saying he felt Kopitar was the third-best player in the NHL behind only Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.

On Thursday, Kopitar was asked if he liked the ranking or thought he was undervalued.

"I'll take any compliment from that guy," Kopitar said. "If he said I was fifth in the rankings, I would have taken it. It's obviously very nice to hear things about that. I heard it for the first time right now."

Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.