PHILADELPHIA – If you outshine the two best players in the world, what does that make you?
The title comes and goes. The argument never ends. But Giroux made his case the way he led the Philadelphia Flyers to a 5-1 victory Sunday, eliminating Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins – the favorites to win the Stanley Cup – in the first round.
It wasn't just his goal and three points in the game. It wasn't just his six goals and 14 points in the six games, one short of the franchise record for a playoff series, set by Tim Kerr in 1989.
The Flyers took a 3-0 series lead. After they lost Game 4, 10-3, Giroux declared it unacceptable. After they lost Game 5, 3-2, he smashed his stick over a crossbar. Before Game 6, he had a request for coach Peter Laviolette.
"When the best player in the world comes up to you and tells you, 'I don't know who you're planning on starting tonight, but I want that first shift,' that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there," said Laviolette, knowing full well what he was saying about Giroux himself. "He was so adamant that he wanted that first shift that the line matchups didn't matter at that point. He wanted to get out on the ice. He wanted to make a statement."
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Wells Fargo Center was full of nervous energy. Even the standard anti-Crosby chants seemed a little unsure. What if the Penguins scored an early softie on quirky, leaky goalie Ilya Bryzgalov? What if they kept rolling? What if this went to Game 7?
What if the Flyers blew this?
Giroux lined up for the opening faceoff. Seconds later, he crushed Crosby right in front of the Pittsburgh bench. Thirty-two seconds in, he ripped a wicked wrist shot inside the left post. The Flyers led, 1-0.
They were not going to blow this.
Giroux assisted on the next two goals as the Flyers built a 3-0 lead. He logged a lot of ice time, as usual. He even blocked a couple of shots, as the Flyers blocked 40 in front of Bryzgalov, leaving nothing to chance.
He led; his teammates followed. Danny Briere said he was "possessed." Max Talbot said "he's got a thing in his eyes." Jaromir Jagr cracked that he doesn't look in Giroux's eyes, but Giroux is the Flyers' "top guy" and no one should be surprised.
"We were talking about getting a good start, and obviously that was a great start," said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen. "To me, he's the best player in the league right now. He's our motor and engine. When he goes, we go."
And so the Flyers are going to the second round.
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Giroux grew up in Hearst, Ont., a lumber-mill town of about 5,000 some 10 hours northwest of Toronto. It is blue-collar Canada, where people work hard and love hockey. His father, Raymond, was an electrician. His hero, Steve Yzerman, was the captain of the Detroit Red Wings and a Stanley Cup champion.
"He wasn't my idol because of the stats," Giroux said. "He played with a lot of heart. He's the definition of a winner, I think."
Giroux wasn't picked in the 2005 Ontario Hockey League draft. Although he starred in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he wasn't picked until 22nd overall in the 2006 NHL draft. Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke, then the Flyers' general manager, forgot his name on the podium.
He was too small then. He should be too small now, listed at only 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds. But he's skilled, smart and tough, and it all has come together because of one particular quality he has in abundance.
"He's probably the biggest competitor that I've ever played with," said Flyers winger Scott Hartnell. "He wants to win so bad. I could tell right when I got to the rink here this morning that he was fired up and ready to go."
Crosby was widely considered the best player in the world before he suffered a concussion midway through last season. Malkin is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player this season. He had 109 points, a dozen more than the next-best man, the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos.
But Giroux ranked third in scoring, and if you're measuring value, consider this: Flyers GM Paul Holmgren traded captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter last summer. He did it largely because he wanted to change the culture of the dressing room. He could do it largely because he had Giroux, who had improved steadily each season, performed well in the playoffs and seemed ready to take the next step.
Now consider this: Holmgren made the Richards and Carter deals also knowing he had Chris Pronger, the veteran defenseman, the Stanley Cup champion, the unquestioned leader. Pronger assumed the captaincy. But Pronger suffered a concussion early in the season, and the Flyers announced that he would not be back.
Giroux, who turned 24 on Jan. 12, filled the void on the ice and in the room. He clicked with Hartnell and Jagr, the old superstar who had returned to the NHL after three years in Russia – and didn't know who Giroux was when he first considered signing with Philadelphia. He set career highs in goals (28) and points (93). He started barking directions before faceoffs, between periods.
"He'll just let you know if you should be playing a little better," said Flyers rookie Eric Wellwood. " 'Don't do that. Do this.' You get that feeling coming off of him that he wants to win."
The Flyers kept winning with young players they snagged in the deals Giroux had made possible – Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds. Giroux, who once lived with Briere, started living with Schenn, going from mentee to mentor.
"I'm his roommate, so we talk about things," Schenn said. "He just knows what he has to do to be better. He brings his game up to another level. If he needs to throw a hit, he'll throw a hit. If he needs to block a shot, he'll block a shot. He just does whatever.
"He wants to win so bad. I think that's what you need out of your leader."
* * * * *
The Flyers never reassigned the ‘C’ out of respect to Pronger, and they have veteran leaders like Briere and Timonen who could wear it comfortably. But Giroux is playing like a captain. He is acting like a captain.
Asked during the series how he wanted to be remembered someday, Giroux said: "You don’t want to be a guy that never won anything. I just want to make sure that I give everything I have to make sure I win that Cup."
And after it was over, after he had become the first NHL player to post 14 points in a series since Crosby did it in the first round in 2010, Giroux played down a comparison to Crosby and Malkin.
"Anything you do, you want to be the best at it," Giroux said. "If that's to score goals or do hits or block shots, whatever it is, I'm going to try to do it. You saw Scott Hartnell diving on his two knees to block a shot, and it was kind of close to his private areas, but he still did it."
The Philly media laughed at that. Richards, a brooder with whom the press had battled, had never had such a rapport with them, even in good times like these. Giroux went on to praise more teammates, even mentioning defenseman Pavel Kubina, who had played only 4:31. He praised the fans.
Down the hall, even the Penguins were praising Giroux. Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik said simply: "He's just the best player on the ice." But Giroux? He called his embattled, too-quotable, afraid-of-bears, in-need-of-confidence goaltender "the best player on the ice."
As Giroux stepped off the podium, Bryzgalov stepped up to face the questions, microphones and cameras. Giroux gave him a fist bump, a slap on the shoulder and a word of advice.
"Keep it short, eh?"
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