Sunday, April 22, 2012

With Giroux, Flyers just play "follow the leader"

Peter Laviolette called him the best player in the world.

Kimmo Timonen said he was the best player in the league right now.

Danny Briere, no playoff slouch himself, called his first shift "the sign of a great leader."

Yes, Claude Giroux brought his A game for the series clincher against the favored Penguins, and it was something to behold.

This surely isn't the first or only paean to Giroux that you'll read following the Flyers' first round victory. Trust me when I say that every last word is more than deserved. There is something about watching greatness blossom, about seeing potential fulfilled to its utmost, that provokes an almost visceral emotional reaction. That's what we watched through the first six games of these playoffs.

In a series that featured reigning best-player-in-the-world Sidney Crosby and likely 2012 MVP Evgeni Malkin, it is no small feat that Giroux was the best player on the ice, every time he was on the ice. But perhaps even more impressive than his dazzling individual performance was the way that Giroux seemed to bring his teammates to another level.

He asked Laviolette to let him take the opening faceoff, and told Briere to watch his first shift. Within 32 seconds, he had leveled Sidney Crosby and scored his league-high sixth playoff goal. The tone was set.

From there, the Flyers played game six with conviction, confidence, and intensity. This from a team that was threatening to blow a 3-0 series lead to an extremely dangerous Penguins squad. Giroux wouldn't let that happen.

Laviolette and Scott Hartnell have both mentioned Giroux's level of competitiveness and will to win, and how it's among the best they've ever seen. That showed in spades in the Penguins series, as Giroux repeatedly imposed his will with both his physicality and his deft scoring touch. That performance, the kind that can only be delivered by a player with the complete package, clearly trickled down to his teammates.

After the game, Jim Jackson called Giroux's performance the best he has seen in his 18 years in the Flyers' broadcast booth. Better than Eric Lindros in 1997. Better than Keith Primeau in 2004. And better than Danny Briere in 2010.

It's been years since the Flyers have had a leader of Giroux's caliber, a player who can simultaneously be the best player on the ice and also set the tone for his team. It's a role that Mike Richards could never quite grow completely into, and which Chris Pronger couldn't stay healthy enough to assume.

This series marked Giroux's absolute ascension to that position. It wasn't his first dominating playoff performance--after all, he had 38 points in 40 career playoff games prior to this season--but it was the first one in which he clearly took the lead and dictated the tempo for the rest of the team.

Giroux doesn't wear the "C" yet, but you have to imagine that it'll adorn his jersey starting next season, particularly if Pronger is unable to return healthy. He's proven so far in these playoffs that he's more than worthy of the honor.

You get the sense that it's going to be a long time before he gives it up. You get the sense that there's an MVP-caliber season--or two, or three--in those soft hands and quick wrists. And you get the sense that no matter how this postseason ends, it won't be Giroux's last crack at a Stanley Cup.

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