Familiar Faces, Different Jerseys, Back At The Garden

By Matthew Blittner
Special Contributor to MSGNetworks.com

For Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, Friday night’s game at The Garden will be a homecoming.

The trio of former Rangers are returning as visitors for the first time in their careers. And, they will be joined by Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman, who have been through this before.

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With this, the Rangers’ final home game of the season, you can bet the Blueshirt Faithful will be pleased and interested to see their former favorite players skating at The Garden once more, although in a different uniform.

As for the quintuplet of Rangers-turned-Lightning players, they can expect a video tribute and hardy ovation from the crowd.

Now without further ado, allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane.

RYAN CALLAHAN, RW
(Rangers Stats 2006-14: 450 GP; 132 G; 122 A; 254 PTS)

Who could ever forget the Rangers’ former captain?

During an era when the Blueshirts were starting to come into their own, Callahan was the heart and soul of the team.

And if you ever doubted the moniker, “Black and Blueshirts,” you should have seen Callahan after a game.

The guy was a walking bruise-magnet. Of course, most of his teammates were, for that was the style of play favored by then coach, John Tortorella.

As an example, Ryan accumulated 1,470 hits and 416 shots blocked in his time as a Ranger.

His willingness to put his body on the line not only endeared him to his teammates but to the fans as well.

And while Captain Cally was never a superstar, he did record three 20-goal seasons on Broadway.

Alas, a contract dispute ended his time with the team midway through the 2013-14 season, as he was shipped to the Lightning for their captain Martin St. Louis and draft considerations.

On a personal level, my fondest memory of Callahan took place shortly before he was traded.

On Feb. 4, 2014, six games before Ryan was dealt, the Rangers played host to the Colorado Avalanche.

At that point, it was a well-known fact The Captain would be gone — even if the fans held out hope for a contract resolution.

Sitting in the lower-bowl of Madison Square Garden with my dad, I watched as the crowd serenaded Captain Cally with cheers of “Please don’t go!,” and “Captain Cally!”

So what did Callahan do?

He went out and delivered two goals in the first period. And while he didn’t complete the hat trick, he did add an assist later in the game.

I remember, when Ryan scored his first goal of the evening, the crowd erupted into cheers. When he scored his second, the crowd was ready to blow the roof off the place.

While Callahan had many other highlights during his time on Broadway, that game is the one that stands out to me most of all.

RYAN MCDONAGH, D
(Rangers Stats 2010-18: 516 GP; 151 G; 187 A; 238 PTS)

The Rangers’ most recent captain was as loyal and hardworking as they come. And he filled Callahan’s shoes as a primary member of the “Black and Blueshirts.”

McDonagh’s style of play often drew comparisons to Blueshirts legend, Brian Leetch. And he did his best impression of Leetch when he tallied 10 points in the Eastern Conference Final victory over the Canadiens in 2014.

However, injuries hindered Ryan over the past couple seasons, dimming the shine of his early career exploits.

Alas, his status as an unrestricted free agent after next season caused the team to deal him at the trade deadline this past February.

Now let’s go back to the most memorable moment of Mac’s career.

Do you remember where you were on May 8, 2015? Ryan McDonagh sure does.

The 2014-15 Rangers won the Presidents Trophy as the best team in the league.

But a second-round matchup with the Capitals threatened to end their season far too early.

Down three-games-to-one in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Blueshirts had their backs to the wall when they hosted Game 5.

A scoreless duel between Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby had The Garden Faithful on the edge of their seats. Then, with 10:54 gone in the third period, Washington’s Curtis Glencross beat Lundqvist for the game’s first goal.

With their season on the brink of extinction, the Blueshirts needed a rally.

As time wound down, it appeared the Capitals were finally going to vanquish their playoff demons.

But with 1:41 remaining in regulation, Chris Kreider fired a blast from the left face-off circle past Holtby; tying the game in dramatic fashion.

The Blueshirts had gotten their rally, but could they complete the job?

With 9:37 gone in the first overtime, McDonagh joined the rush. With the puck on his stick, he wired a shot from just above the hash marks into the back of Washington’s net; setting off the celebration.

The Rangers were still alive. But it would take another hero to finish the story.

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DAN GIRARDI, D
(Rangers Stats 2006-17: 788 GP; 46 G; 184 A; 230 PTS):

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Girardi was a key member of the “Black and Blueshirts.”

It seems as if every Rangers player in recent memory was a member of the B&B Club.

But Girardi was no ordinary member. He was the founder.

From the time he made his Blueshirts debut as an undrafted free agent — until his unfortunate, yet necessary buyout following last season — Girardi led the New Yorkers in hits and blocked shots. No wonder he seemed to age in dog years.

Dan was the player who embodied the everyday working man, and that’s what endeared him to the fans.

As such, another stroll down memory lane.

Five days after McDonagh saved the Blueshirts’ season, the “Warrior” Girardi played a pivotal role in finishing their epic comeback against the Capitals.

The Rangers had come back to force a do-or-die Game 7. If that’s not dramatic enough, the game went into sudden-death overtime.

At the 11:24 mark of the first overtime, Girardi fired the puck on goal but Holtby didn’t control the rebound. Instantly, Derek Stepan found the puck on his stick and promptly deposited the disc into the net; sending the Blueshirts to the Eastern Conference Final.

Girardi’s assist on Stepan’s series-clinching goal is one of the many highlights of his career. Here’s a look at another.

Assists are nice, and no doubt important, but goals are what ultimately determines who wins and loses.

I take you back to the night Girardi broke the Islanders‘ hearts; April 13, 2013.

The Rangers and Islanders were embroiled in a playoff race; made all the more complicated by the lockout that cost the NHL half of the season.

With Lundqvist manning the pipes opposite Evgeni Nabokov, you knew the game was going to be exciting … and it was.

Lundqvist and Nabokov carried their respective shutouts through the end of regulation. Both were desperate to secure the always important “second point” for their team.

Jeff Z. Klein of the NY Times wrote, “Girardi was set up for the goal by a pretty backhand pass from center Derick Brassard. Girardi broke in and sent his wrist shot perfectly into the top corner on the long side, past Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov.”

Klein continued, “Girardi was mobbed behind the Islanders net by his jubilant teammates, including goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who skated the length of the ice to join the pileup after recording his first shutout of the season.”

“We’re a good team; we’re a good team,” said then Blueshirts bench boss, Tortorella. “We stuck together. We found a way to get it done.”

And throughout his tenure on Broadway, there was nobody who held the team together more than the “Warrior” Dan Girardi.

J.T. MILLER, C
(Rangers Stats 2012-18: 341 GP; 72 G; 100 A; 172 PTS)

Would you be surprised if I told you the Rangers only had two first-round draft picks from 2011-16?

With the Rangers being perennial playoff contenders from 2011-16, the team often traded picks to obtain players that could help the team in the present.

The only two times the Blueshirts actually kept their first-round pick, they selected Brady Skjei (2012) and, of course, Miller (2011).

J.T. was a hotly-hyped center who had poise and a skill set well beyond his years. But somehow, he never quite reached the heights many fans expected.

Arguably his most memorable moment came under the bright lights of the NHL’s annual Winter Classic.

On New Year’s Day 2018, the Rangers and Sabres did battle at Citi Field. If the fans that sat through the game’s Arctic conditions thought they were cold, they should have taken a look at Miller.

J.T. proved he had ice in his veins when he scored the game-winning power-play goal at 2:43 of overtime; sending Blueshirt fans home happy.

J.T. Miller describes his emotions after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime in the Winter Classic against the Sabres.

ANTON STRALMAN, D
(Rangers Stats 2011-14: 182 GP; 7 G; 31 A; 38 PTS)

The often forgotten man on the Blueshirts’ back line, Stralman was Mr. Dependable.

After failing to impress the Devils during training camp in 2011, Stralman was released from his PTO (professional tryout) and wound up signing with the Rangers on Nov. 5, 2011.

However, once he debuted for the Blueshirts, he never looked back.

While Stralman wasn’t the same type of offensive threat that, say, Ryan McDonagh was, he was still a steady stickhandler and that allowed him to make one of the biggest “saves” in recent history.

The 2013-14 Blueshirts rode a wave of momentum straight to the Stanley Cup Final. However, once there, the Kings disposed of the Rangers in five games.

But in Game 3, with the Rangers down two-games-to-none in the series, Stralman had his “Rangers Moment.”

Steve Serby of the NY Post wrote, “It was 1-0 for the Rangers with the Kings on the power play, when an Alec Martinez screamer wound up sliding toward the net, and Jeff Carter, planted in front of the net, whiffed on it. The puck, with a mind of its own, began moving toward the red goal line at a snail’s pace behind Lundqvist, seemingly an inexorable crawl to Blueshirt hell.”

Serby continued: “Finally, the hockey gods who had been so cruel to the Rangers decided to smile on them in their hour of need. With the second sweep of his stick, Stralman swept away nightmare visions of a sweep.”

“It’s one of those things where you need a little luck,” said Stralman. “Carter was going to jump on it because he’s right in the slot there with me. I tried to get his stick out first and just keep it there, to buy myself some time to do that second effort to keep it out.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

That said, Happy Homecoming to the ex-Rangers — until the opening faceoff.

[Watch Rangers-Lightning Friday on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.