April 11, 2018 | 6:50pm ET
BY David Strehle, The Fourth Period

GIROUX’S HART AND SOUL YEAR SAVED FLYERS

 
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PHILADELPHIA, PA -- As chants of “MVP” reigned down upon Philadelphia Flyers star Claude Giroux Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the captain – eternally desiring to deflect any individual attention cast upon him and always the ultimate team guy – said he wasn’t aware.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t hear them,” Giroux stated. “I didn’t hear them, but it’s great.”

The vast majority of those covering the NHL have followed suit, and apparently have missed out on a truly special performance by the Flyers’ Most Valuable Player.

Poll after poll from the “experts” have either totally ignored the Heart, Ontario-native’s Hart-caliber campaign, or barely acknowledge him in the footnotes.

Giroux had to admit he heard the deafening chants Saturday after notching his first regular season NHL hat trick in a 5-0 blanking of the arch-rival New York Rangers on the campaign’s last day, in a game Philadelphia needed at least one point to clinch a berth in the postseason. “Yeah, it was hard to miss,” the captain conceded with a chuckle. “[The fans] were great tonight, they gave us a boost...”

Having been snubbed from the 2014 Canadian Olympic squad and given little consideration in past MVP-type seasons – Giroux finished fourth (with zero first-place votes) in 2011/12 balloting after recording 93 points, and third in 2013/14 (two first-place nods) after an 86-point campaign brought his club back from the dead and into a playoff spot – Dave Hakstol was asked if the hat trick validated Giroux as one of the league’s ‘elite’ players.

“Well, for me, he’s never needed the validation,” the head coach said. “But if this, as the exclamation point tonight that he put on his season in the most important game of our season, doesn’t say that to the outside world, I don’t know what would. He doesn’t need that kind of validation inside of our dressing room or amongst his teammates, but he’s done it all this year, and he’s done it under pressure, and that for me, that says a lot about him and who he is and what he’s all about.”

As the team prepares to square off against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in Round 1 of the playoffs Wednesday in Pittsburgh, it’s hard to imagine Philadelphia would have been able to situate themselves anywhere near a spring invite without the captain’s contributions.

With 102 points, Giroux became just the sixth Flyer ever to hit the 100-point plateau, and the first since Eric Lindros did it way back in 1995/96. He set new career-highs in goals (34), assists (68, which was tied for the league lead with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler), and of course points (102). Giroux’s +28 rating was also by far his high-mark, with his previous best being a +20 in 2010/11.

Still, even after ranking second only to Edmonton’s Connor McDavid 108 points in the NHL’s scoring race, there has been more talk regarding the amount of Giroux’s secondary assists excluding him from the Hart Trophy conversation than how his value to his club may have been at the very top of any list.

After an injury-plagued 2016/17 campaign saw him pick up just 14 goals and 44 assists for 58 points with a -15 rating, this years’ performance is made even more remarkable by the fact that many had branded the 30-year-old as being on the downside of his career. Some of the local sports writers had even published arguments last season as to why the time was now for Ron Hextall to trade the captain.

The difference in Giroux’s play from last year to the just completed campaign is more compelling than the night-and-day argument. Due to serious injuries a year ago, he had no jump, mustered little offensive creativity other than while on the power play, and unlike 2013-14, 2015-16 and this season, had no long stretches of grabbing his teammates, collectively, and carrying them on his back all the way past the finish line.

Few could foresee such a tremendous comeback season, one in which received a huge kick start when Hakstol asked the career centerman during training camp if he would consider a move to the wing. The coach shifted Giroux to the left side, promoted Sean Couturier to be the top line pivot, along with long-time Giroux linemate Jake Voracek on the right.

The trio dominated in the first 16 contests – Voracek posted four goals, 17 assists, 21 points, to go along with a +7, Giroux 9 goals, 11 assists, 20 points, +7, and Couturier 10 goals, 9 assists, 19 points, +14 – and they were absolutely crucial to the team’s offensive output as the secondary scoring became rare as they progressed through the schedule:

  • After recording an opening night hat trick and getting off to the best start of his career, usual 30-goal scorer Wayne Simmonds suffered several severe injuries that knocked him out of the lineup and limited his effectiveness after his return
  • Fresh off an 11-goal, 28-point rookie campaign, Travis Konecny was being counted on to give the second line a big boost. He managed just four goals and six assists for 10 points over the course of his first 36 games of the season
  • Rookie Nolan Patrick was already slow coming out of the gates after summer surgery, then suffered a concussion in his ninth game when crushed face-first into the end wall by a hard but clean check from then-Anaheim Ducks defender Chris Wagner
  • Several other members of the forward group that were being counted on to deliver supplemental scoring failed to do so, as production from Jordan Weal and the entire line of Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl – who appeared to give the Flyers four lines they could roll without missing too much of a beat – all but dried up. Also continuing to be a problem were issues with finding a fit for square peg Dale Weise, who has basically seen his only bit of productivity in a small sample size when placed on a line with Couturier and the since-departed Brayden Schenn late in 2016-17

In mid-November, Philadelphia went into a tailspin that lasted 10-games (0-5-5) stretching into December. Their record as of December 3 was a sickly 8-11-7, which ranked them 28th out of the NHL’s 31 teams.

This team had somehow been able to drag themselves out of self-induced disastrous early-season beginnings in two of the previous four years, but even the most optimistic of observers had all but finished pounding the final nail into the Flyers’ coffin.

With Giroux leading the way, Philadelphia went 34-15-7 over their final 56 contests, which included two separate streaks of 12 and 8 games without a regulation loss (10-0-2 from February 3-26, and 5-0-3 in eight games from March 17 through April 1). The Flyers finished the regular season on a 7-1-3 run over their final 11 games.

Giroux ended the campaign on a five-game goal scoring streak (which included eight goals) and with points in his last 10 contests, which included eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points and a +11 rating, during a stretch when he ensured the club wouldn’t miss a beat in their pursuit of a playoff spot. If he had not gone without a point on March 17 in Carolina, Giroux would have closed out the year on a 19-game point streak, as he had points in each of his previous eight contests.

In his final overall 29 outings, Giroux posted 19 goals and 25 assists for 44 points – about a 120-point pace in an 82-game regular season.

Some make the argument that the Flyers have a greater supporting cast than those who are being promoted for season-ending Awards, but Philly finished 13th-overall in goals scored (251); that’s far less than Nikita Kucherov’s Tampa Bay Lightning (296, tops in the league), Evgeni Malkin’s Pittsburgh Penguins (272), and less than Nathan MacKinnon’s Colorado Avalanche (257). The Flyers were almost even with Taylor Hall’s New Jersey Devils (248), while only Anze Kopitar’s L.A. Kings (239) and McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers (234) scored significantly less. 

There are some among that group that deserve to be included, but Giroux’s exclusion remains one of the more puzzling developments, especially when considering the “supporting cast” argument and the inclusion of:

  • Kucherov, who ended up third in scoring with 100 points, but tailed off greatly at season’s end – recording only two goals and three assists for five points and a -3 rating in his final eight contests – with superstar teammate Steven Stamkos ailing
  • Malkin, who has quite the stable of ‘mates – the consensus “Best Player in the World” in Sidney Crosby, who ended up with 89 points, as well as Phil Kessel (92 points)

Giroux helped Couturier to a career-high in all categories with 31 goals, 45 assists and 76 points and a +34 rating, which obliterated his previous bests of 15, 28, 39, +18, respectively.

After playing well but struggling to find his way onto the score sheet early, Konecny finished with 20 goals and 17 assists for 37 points in his last 45 games, most of which came alongside Giroux and Couturier. The blossoming of the 21-year-old, along with Patrick, as well as the development of top pairing rear guards Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, are some of the key factors in helping to balance out the scoring throughout the lines, which had been such an issue for the first 30 games.

One thing is for certain, for the Flyers to have any chance of upsetting the heavily-favored Penguins in the opening round, they will need a continued Herculean performance out of Giroux.

He’s done it in the past against Pittsburgh in the postseason, posting six goals – including his only other NHL hat trick before Saturday’s – and eight assists for 14 points in a six-game victory in Round 1 of the 2012 playoffs. If you’ll recall, Giroux sent a message on the very first shift of that tilt by leveling Crosby with a clean check, then proceeding to beat Marc-Andre Fleury less than a half-minute after the opening faceoff.

Most just refer to it as “The Shift.”

If Philadelphia is able to dispatch of the reigning champs, maybe – just maybe – those outside of this city will start to take notice and appreciate the fact the oftentimes unheralded captain is not only the very heart and soul of his club, perhaps they would also realize the glaring oversight regarding this year’s Hart conversation.

 
 
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David Strehle is a Columnist for The Fourth Period.
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