Giroux outshines Crosby, Malkin as Flyers advance
PHILADELPHIA — Some games define players, or introduce them, or just harden them in hockey’s firmament, and perhaps Claude Giroux was due.
He had already been the best player in Philadelphia’s first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins; he had already completed a season as the league’s third-leading scorer.
In Game 6 against the Penguins on Sunday, Giroux delivered a defining game, and a defining moment. Before Philadelphia’s series-winning 5-1 victory, he demanded to start. And off the faceoff, the soft-spoken, 24-year-old from Hearst, Ont., — listed generously at five-feet-11 and 172 pounds — drove right at Sidney Crosby and levelled him, shoulder to shoulder, clean and hard, in front of the Pittsburgh bench.
On the same shift Giroux stole a pass from Steve Sullivan inside the Penguins’ blue line, lost Sullivan with an ice-spraying swerve, got Marc-Andre Fleury leaning to his left and ripped a wrist shot to Fleury’s right for a 1-0 lead. The Flyers talk about how badly Giroux wants to win, and this was a 32-second combination of his skill, which is always obvious, and his hard edge, which is not.
“His game tonight was monstrous. 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,” said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. “He wanted to get out on the ice, he wanted to make a statement.”
“Yeah, well it wasn’t planned to hit Crosby,” Giroux said. “It’s just sometimes when you have a chance to hit another player you just have to go out there and do it.”
“He was ready to go,” Crosby said.
It was only the beginning of the game, but in the end a Pittsburgh team that most pundits had tabbed as the Stanley Cup favourite — a team with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal — is going home in the first round.
And it is because Philadelphia was better, in net, on special teams, and at the very top of its roster. In Game 6, after blowing two chances to eliminate their powerful rivals, the Flyers put together a complete performance. In a series defined by offence, and with a patchwork defence corps, they protected goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov like he was their teenage daughter. Philadelphia was given credit for 40 blocked shots, and the 31 shots Pittsburgh squeezed through were not especially threatening.
They did it without the concussed Nicklas Grossmann, without the long-lost Chris Pronger, with Erik Gustaffson playing 22 minutes and Andreas Lilja playing 16:47, both nearly double their Game 5 totals. And they muffled Pittsburgh in a thicket of sticks and well-positioned shinpads.
“I’m proud of how we responded today, when the pressure was building up,” said Flyers centre Daniel Briere, who scored Philadelphia’s fourth goal. “I’ll remember this series for a long, long time.”
Still, the Wells Fargo Center was a nervous place before the game began, and the roaring began with Giroux. He added a primary assist on Philadelphia’s second goal, was given a second assist on their third, and totalled 14 points in the final five games of the series.
“He was the best player on the ice today, but I don’t think we were surprised by that,” said Pittsburgh defenceman Brooks Orpik. “Maybe two years ago we’d be surprised.”
Two years ago, for the record, the man Jaromir Jagr calls “Little Mario” was compiling 21 points in 23 playoff games as a third-line centre. He is a first-line guy today.
“He was possessed, plain and simple,” Briere said.
“To me,” Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen added, “he’s the best player in the league right now.”
But if Giroux’s beginning set the Flyers on their way, Pittsburgh’s goaltender took them home. Fleury helped steal Game 5; he returned the stolen goods in Game 6.
Six minutes into the second period, with a 2-0 lead, Gustaffson skated forward in innocuous fashion and let go a what-the-hell wrist shot from two strides inside the blue- line. The puck hit Penguins defenceman Zbynek Michalek’s stick, but to Fleury it was as if it disappeared; he barely flinched as it sailed past his arm and glove. It was the kind of goal that can murder a team, and did.
“I figured I’d just put it on net,” said Gustaffson. “I was tired. I wanted to get off.”
Thirty-four seconds after Malkin made it 3-1, Fleury lost a puck in his crease and bumped it in with his behind, and you could see the air leak from the Penguins. Their season ended with the Philadelphia fans howling and singing, and to Pittsburgh’s credit the handshake line was dignified.
“We felt like we’d get it back to Pittsburgh,” said Crosby, who went pointless and was a minus-3. “I don’t think both teams had a ton of chances. It was pretty tight . . . when you put yourself in the position we did, you don’t have room for any of those bounces.”
Behind a disintegrating defence Fleury allowed 26 goals in six games, and in Game 6, four goals on 22 shots. Pittsburgh’s third-ranked penalty kill in the regular season allowed 12 power-play goals in six games. The offence failed at the end too, but right now Fleury seems like the weak point in Pittsburgh’s marvellous foundation.
After speaking with reporters Jordan Staal was a statue, turning a crinkling ball of clear hockey tape over and over, staring right through it. Crosby leaned on a shelf and gulped back a drink in a Gatorade cup, then another, looking at the floor. Malkin flitted in, and vanished into another room. Letang sat down next to Fleury, slapped his thigh pad, and murmured in French to his inconsolable friend.
Down the hall, when he had completed his final interview in French, Giroux joked with the Quebec reporters, “Vous autres avez choisi Pittsburgh, n’est-ce-pas?”
In a playoff season that seems more wide open by the day, the Penguins are gone.
The Flyers, meanwhile, traded captain Mike Richards and former 40-goal scorer Jeff Carter before this season, lost Pronger in November, and employ the volatile Bryzgalov in net. And they’re moving on.
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