Rangers D-man Dan Boyle still has more he wants to prove -- and win

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TAMPA, Fla. -- It was vintage Dan Boyle. The veteran defenseman found himself in the opposing crease, swapping home a loose puck for the tying goal late in Game 3 Wednesday night.

It was for naught, in the end, as his New York Rangers lost in overtime. But for Boyle, it marked a strong outing, as he’s made an impact in these Eastern Conference finals with four points (one goal, three assists) in his past two games, plus nine shots on goal.

It would appear that the 38-year-old blueliner has kept his best hockey for when it matters most, which should surprise no one who knows the guy.

"I’ve been watching a bit of the Rangers series, and he’s still got that offensive flair even if he’s 38," former San Jose Sharks teammate Marc-Edouard Vlasic told ESPN.com. "His offensive game is outstanding. He probably doesn’t get enough credit for his work defensively, how hard he works because of his size. He’s one of the smallest D-men in the league, it’s tough to play against big bodies and I think he does a great job for his size.

"He doesn’t take crap from anybody."

Just what the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Boyle was doing near the opposing net sort of defines his All-Star career: always finding those seams on the ice.

"As I’ve continued to watch him, and he’s continued to grow, he’s a great player," said Boyle’s former coach in Tampa Bay, John Tortorella. "It’s a position that I think all teams need if you want to win in this league, is having a rover defenseman. Especially in today’s game, you need somebody like that. I watch him in this series now, he’s all over the ice, he’s hard to cover because you just never know where he is.

"I think that’s really important in a day and age where you can barely get a shot through, so many teams blocking shots."

Getting to this point where he feels good about his game again has been a process for Boyle. His season began with a broken hand 14 minutes into his Rangers debut back in October, but perhaps even more difficult was the adjustment of his role being cut down after he was a top-minutes man for most of his career. As for many a great player before him, learning to adjust to a diminished role is no easy feat; just ask the likes of Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano and Chris Chelios.

That, in many ways, was the greatest learning curve of all this season.

"It took a long time," Boyle told ESPN.com. "Add the injury to that, it took the first half of the season to figure it out. When I came back, I struggled with dealing with that, my confidence was not where I wanted it. More than anything it was a mental struggle, which I haven’t had in a long time. At some point I just figured it out. For an athlete to be in a situation for a long time and be asked to take a step back, it was tough, but I’d like to think I’ve done a pretty good job the last few months of going back to being who I am, just with playing lesser minutes."

When Ray Bourque was in town late in the regular season to see his son Ryan Bourque make his NHL debut, Boyle took the opportunity to speak with the Hockey Hall of Famer.

"We just spoke how about how physically I felt good, but how mentally it’s tough," Boyle said. "It was the same with him when he retired."

If you know Boyle, you know that when things aren’t going well for him, he can get grumpy.

"If he doesn’t sleep enough, he gets cranky," Vlasic said, chuckling.

But it’s that edge that has served to make Boyle the player he is. He’s always hungry to prove his doubters wrong -- even in the twilight of his career. If he didn’t have that, he wouldn’t be playing anymore.

"First word that comes to me when I think of Dan Boyle, and it’s so underrated with him, is competing," Tortorella said. "He is one of the hardest competitors that I’ve seen. When he first came to us, he didn’t have a clue how to compete. But he grew. Everyone looks at his skating and the power play and just kind of being a rover, but he competes his ass off. That’s what I think of Danny, how he grew into such a great competitor.

"We had some bumps in the road, him and I, but I have nothing but respect for him."

As Boyle made his way down the corridor toward the exit of Amalie Arena after Wednesday’s tough OT loss, a security guard warmly greeted him. He has history here. People fondly remember Boyle in these parts, as the 2004 Stanley Cup win is still the highlight moment for this young franchise.

Being here in Tampa this week, especially at this time of year, also brings Boyle back down memory lane.

"I don’t know how many players have played in this league, and so many don’t have an opportunity to win a Cup," Boyle said. "We were fortunate enough to win one. Every time you step into a building where we won it and raised the Stanley Cup for the first time, that’s a memory you don’t forget. It’s certainly special every time."

And who could forget Boyle’s house catching on fire while he was still on the ice in Game 1 of the 2004 Cup finals, the Lightning staff informing him of what had transpired afterward.

"That was pretty tough after a Game 1 loss to have to deal with that," Boyle said, chuckling. "But, another chapter in my book, man."

Boyle still has a condo in St. Petersburg, Florida, and another piece of property; he also owns real estate in the San Jose area. In retirement, it sounds like Northern California is where the Boyle family will head.

"Things change, but we’ll probably go back to live in California, but always keep the condo here too," Boyle said, looking reflective.

Plus he always has his summer visits to his native Ottawa, where his parents still live.

That he plans to retire in the San Jose area tells you how much he enjoyed living there for six years. The only thing missing during his time with a loaded Sharks team was a Stanley Cup. Like many, he’s surprised it never came to pass given the quality of those teams.

"I left there holding my head high, did everything I could, but again, it just goes to show how hard it is to win," said Boyle. "Of the six years I was there, I mean, realistically we probably could have won it four out of the six years. We just ... we were missing something every year, we couldn’t get it done. It was unfortunate."

As a free agent last summer, Boyle left money on the table, turning down more lucrative deals from other clubs to sign with the Rangers at two years for $4.5 million. Only one thing mattered to him.

"I’m 38 years old, I’m not going somewhere to win a scoring title or win a Norris Trophy," he said. "I’m going somewhere to try and win another Cup. There were a couple of opportunities out there but I felt that this was a very good opportunity for me. Sitting here today, looks like I made the right decision, but obviously we’ve got lots of work still to be done."

The fact that he’s playing in this series was in doubt after a thunderous check from the Washington Capitals' Brooks Orpik knocked a woozy Boyle out of Game 7 of their second-round series.

"The body is pretty amazing," Boyle said.

"I know Dan, there’s no way he wouldn’t have come back to play in this series," Vlasic said. "I could see after he got hit he was frustrated at himself. Knowing Dan, he knows it shouldn’t have happened. That shows his character."

Vlasic knows his former teammate well.

"I blame myself for the hit, because I don’t put myself in those situations, so I was mad at myself," Boyle said. "I just knew that I wasn’t going to miss any games. Obviously the body is going to decide that fact, but I just knew I was going to be back."

Still, it was the kind of hit that made you wonder just how much abuse Boyle is going to put himself through before he finishes his career.

"Time will tell. I’m not even looking past now," Boyle said. "Physically, I feel real good, that’s the good news. Mentally, it was a struggle early on this year. I also miss my kids, there’s stuff that’s harder mentally than physically. It’s definitely challenging at this age to deal with certain things."

He has two little pumpkins at home whom he’s finding harder and harder to leave behind for road games.

"I’ve got two girls, 4 and 6, and I just miss them so much," he said, his voice trailing off.

A Stanley Cup, I would wager, would certainly help make up his mind on that matter.