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March 21, 2014 | 12:42pm ET
Giroux stepping up with Hart-caliber performance
By David Strehle,

PHILADELPHIA, PA -- After the Philadelphia Flyers got off to a brutal 1-7-0 start to the current regular season, they had a week-long break in the schedule to take stock of the mess they had made.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren had already pulled the trigger on a head coaching change just three games into the new season, and many hockey insiders predicted a massive overhaul to a roster that had not yet regained the cohesion they exhibited during the 2011-12 campaign.

With trade rumors swirling and the franchise appearing to be in a total state of disarray, Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux calmly assessed the situation following a practice midway through the hiatus.

"We're not far at all," he said on that late-October day. "How many points are we off, six? To think that with the start we had, we're that close. We've never thought that we're not going to make the playoffs. We'll take it here game-by-game, and we will make the playoffs."

It was a rather bold prognosis from Giroux. He was correct in that it was still very early and there was still plenty of time left to make up ground -- coupled with the fact that the Metropolitan was the worst overall grouping in the league, and a chance of recovery was better than in any other division -- but it was more in the way that the team was losing that made it seem a far-fetched prediction.

Turnovers in the defensive zone were rampant and with a league-low 11 goals scored in the first eight contests, the club could not figure out a way to put the puck in the net at the other end of the ice. Even with playing well for partial stretches of some early games, Philadelphia had yet to put together a solid effort for a full 60 minutes.

Though things initially seemed to get worse as the team learned Craig Berube’s new system, the Flyers have certainly managed to turn things around in a big way since that time. They’ve posted a 35-18-7 mark since the 1-7-0 start, and own a 32-15-6 record since late-November.

After missing out last year part of the late-season push to make a return trip to the annual spring tourney -- despite a rigorous schedule that sees the Flyers playing many of the NHL’s top teams on multiple occasions -- has included three consecutive wins in which Giroux has played an integral part.

The Hearst, Ontario, native had a pair of two-assist performances against the perpetual arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins in a Philly sweep of the home-and-home set over the weekend, then assisted on Scott Hartnell’s game-tying goal against the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday night. But the centerman was saving the best for last late in the overtime period.

Giroux’s mad dash to beat both the clock and Chicago goaltender Antti Raanta with just 4.2 ticks remaining in the extra session was one of the defining moments of the 26-year-old’s ever-improving season. Giroux crossed the blue line and snapped off a laser of a wrist shot from the top of the circle that sailed past Raanta and into the far top corner just under the crossbar, helping the Flyers add two more crucial points to their total as they continue their pursuit of securing the second seed in the division.

“I knew when I went on the ice there was 15 seconds, maybe 20 seconds,” Giroux said of his late-contest heroics. “I knew there wasn’t a lot of time, so I was just trying to shoot as hard as I can to the net and didn’t really aim, to be honest. I just shot it on net.”

Just as each and every person in the sell-out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center that night, his teammates saw it a bit differently than Giroux’s humble description.

“It’s pretty incredible,” said Vincent Lecavalier after the game. “I saw him skate up the ice and there’s 10 seconds left, so you’re thinking it’s probably going to go to the shootout. But what a great shot. He’s done it all year; big goals, and he’s clutch for sure.”

“You could tell that he wanted it,” added Scott Hartnell. “He was skating pretty hard. It seems like he finds a way to get the shots through most of the time, and he absolutely let off a rocket there. The goalie didn't even know it went in. He went down, and it was by him.”

“Sitting on the bench and we’re all yelling ‘10 seconds’, what a great shot that was,” marveled Matt Read.

Like Lecavalier, even the coach was making plans for what he figured would become the inevitable conclusion to what had been a playoff-type intensity level for most of the contest.

“I knew there wasn’t very much (time) left from that faceoff,” Berube admitted. “I was honestly ready to pull out my lineup card for the shootout. (Giroux’s) a determined guy, obviously he felt he had enough time to get down there and take a shot. And it was a great shot.”

Giroux’s latest offensive exploits have gone a long way to not only furthering his club’s playoff hopes, but also throwing his name squarely into talk when discussions arise regarding the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP. He has had put together some incredible numbers for some time:

  • A four-game scoring streak, with a goal and six assists for seven points over the span.
  • Five goals and nine assists for 14 points in eight games played in the month of March.
  • 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in 27 games since January 4, which was the first game after the last time he was held scoreless in two consecutive games.
  • Looking a bit longer at what Giroux has done since his early-season struggles; he’s been one of the top point producers in the league since the 15-game mark, at which point he had managed only seven assists. Since that time, he has amassed 24 goals and 40 assists for 64 points in the last 53 games.

That gives Giroux a grand total of 24 goals and 71 points in 68 contests, good enough for fourth place overall in NHL scoring behind Sidney Crosby (91 points in 68 games), Ryan Getzlaf (74 in 65), and Phil Kessel (73 in 70).

But Giroux’s contributions have gone well beyond just the numbers he’s putting up on the scoreboard, with many of his peers pointing to the effort he gives each and every day.

“He’s been a tremendous leader as of late,” Read added. “Since the Olympic break he’s the hardest working guy everywhere you go. He’s the first one here every day, and in his mind it’s win, win, win at all cost. And any mistakes you make you hear about it on the bench from him. He just wants ‘perfect’ from everybody, and his game has shown a lot. He’s working harder than everybody out there, and it’s fun to watch how talented he is. He’s being a true leader right now, and that’s what we need in this last push here.”

Read also offered up his explanation for what he believes may have triggered the additional fire that has caused Giroux to take his game to the next level.

“Maybe not getting picked for the Olympic team, I think that was kind of a shot to the heart,” Read said of Giroux’s omission from the Team Canada roster in Sochi. “Since then he’s proven he’s one of the best players in the NHL. It’s fun to watch him every night, he (always) does something amazing.”

“I think he’s always been a little vocal, but (now) you can just tell,” Read said. “The passion in his voice, he wants it more than ever right now. Something about it right now, you can just see it, it’s fun to be around and witness as a teammate, but he’s playing great right now and hopefully our team can rally around him and keep it going here.”

While that may have something to do with Giroux’s all-encompassing passion, that aspect has been blatantly apparent to first-year teammate Lecavalier since his arrival during the offseason.

“I think all year really,” Lecavalier said of how long it’s been since he’s noticed Giroux’s elite-level competitiveness. “I don’t think it’s anything lately or the last week or two weeks, but it’s been all year. I wasn’t here in the past, but he’s very vocal and obviously he’s leading by example on the ice. That’s what your captain needs to do, and he’s been doing it. “

Giroux’s coach was in total agreement with the former-Tampa Bay Lightning captain’s assessment in Tuesday’s post-game press conference.

“He’s been playing like that for longer than that,” Berube concurred when asked if he thought Giroux had lifted his level of play in the past two months. “I mean, he’s really been playing hard, really skating, attacking, he’s leading our team.”

“I think it starts on the bench,” Berube added. “He’s vocal, he’s really into it all the time, does a very good job of keeping everybody going.”

And while he continues climbing the list of NHL scoring leaders, Lecavalier noted there is so much more to Giroux’s overall play.

“What impressed me this year was how hard he works defensively, as well,” Lecavalier said. “He back checks, back pressure. There’s a lot of goal-scorers in the league, or point-getters, who don’t necessarily do that. He plays a complete game.”

Players sometimes have certain things they feel must be said during times of crisis for their respective clubs. Some may have viewed Giroux’s late-October comments as just that, some well-intentioned lip service from the captain of a team that was watching its season quickly sink into the abyss.

Giroux has proven any such naysayers to have been totally off base as Philadelphia sits in second place in the Metro as of March 20, a point ahead of the New York Rangers, and three points in front of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. The team has put in the 60-minute efforts that were lacking in the early going, and have been moving as a finely tuned, single-minded cohesive unit.

There are still an inordinate amount of grueling tests to come over the next three weeks, but the Flyer showing a high level of Hart will be looked upon to continue leading the way with his shining example. And that’s an example that Lecavalier says makes it impossible for Giroux’s teammates not to try and emulate.

“You look at your leaders to lead on the ice, and he’s been doing that,” Lecavalier said of Giroux. “And when you see him do it... you can say whatever you want in the room, but when he goes out there and when he does it, you’ve got that extra step there. Guys follow him, and that’s what makes him who he is right now.”

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.

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