I saw the catharsis of Claude Giroux this season.
Handed the captaincy prior to the start of the lockout shortened campaign last year, Giroux accepted the responsibility, even if he didn’t seem incredibly comfortable in his own skin when he had to answer the questions that captains have to answer.
After missing the playoffs, the pressure was intensified on him, especially with a freak hand injury suffered at a summer golf outing limiting him considerably in training camp.
Then there was the whole terrible start, the coaching change, no goals in the first 15 games, and the whispers beginning to circulate that Giroux wasn’t going to be a part of Team Canada at the Olympics.
It was a lot for him to handle, and the question was, would he get a grip on it, or would he let it eat at him and lead to a disappointing season?
You could look at the proclamation that the team would make the playoffs despite a 1-7-0 start as a seminal moment in this season and in his captaincy, and it will be one certainly remembered, written about and will become a part of the fabric of Flyers folklore for generations to come.
Considering the Flyers are just the fourth team since the playoff format was modified in 1993 to start a season with two points or less through eight games to qualify for the playoffs (more on this later) it deserves it’s place in franchise history.
And yet, it wasn’t the moment that I saw the change in Giroux….
He scored his first goal of the season in a win over Edmonton at the Wells Fargo Center on Nov. 9. It wasn’t a majorly important goal in the scheme of the game – it was basically the icing on the cake in the third period – but for Giroux it was huge. He was smiling, on the ice, for the first time all season. You could sense him breathing easier.
After all, there was a players only meeting two nights earlier following a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils and while the contents of that meeting remain private, the captain couldn’t be too happy with his performance to that point.
Just seven assists in 15 games and a minus-11.
At the time, I spoke to a former teammate of Giroux’s who was observing his game.
“He’s trying to do everything,” the player said. “He does that sometimes. He wants to win so badly and he thinks because he’s the captain that he’s got to take on that responsibility by himself. He needs to recognize that he’s such a good player and such a talented player that if he just plays the game a certain way where he lets his teammates take on some of the responsibility he can lead this team to where it needs to go.”
Scoring the goal against Edmonton wasn’t that moment… but it was closer.
On December 9, the Flyers trailed Columbus 3-0 after two periods when they started mounting one of their usual third period comebacks. But after getting with a goal, the Jackets went back up 4-2. With time dwindling down in the third period, Erik Gustafsson got the Flyers back within a goal.
Then, Giroux took over.
He scored the tying goal on sheer determination with a little more than four minutes remaining and then potted one of the highlight goals of the year in the NHL with a no-look, top shelf, backhander from the right circle.
It was when it was becoming apparent that this Flyers team was relentless. They were never going to be out of a game. They believe they are always within striking distance – and there was the captain, refusing to lose, scoring two of the biggest goals of the season.
But that wasn’t the transitional moment I’m talking about either.
No, the moment when I knew Giroux had figured it out came at another innocuous moment. It was at a practice in late January. The Flyers had just had their clocks cleaned at the Wells Fargo Center by the Boston Bruins a couple days earlier.
The team had fallen to 25-22-6 and were not in a playoff position any longer having dropped seven-of-nine. The Flyers had played those nine games in 14 days and looked spent. The schedule wasn’t getting any easier either. There was a five-game stretch against Detroit, the California three-step and Colorado on the docket. Then after the Olympic Break, there was an absolutely brutal schedule waiting against a lot of playoff teams.
It wasn’t looking good for the Flyers.
Almost apologetically, I grabbed Giroux after his daily media scrum and asked him if the recent struggles were linked to the compacted schedule.
“I have to be honest, the schedule is tough on the body,” he said.
Then it happened. The moment when I knew Giroux was prepared to carry the Flyers on his back and into the playoffs that were still 11 weeks away.
“Don’t use that as an excuse,” he started. “Everybody has the same schedule. We’ll get the rest we need during the Olympic break. It’s coming at the right time. We just got to push through these next six games (he included the last game before the break against Calgary) and then we’ll be able to re-charge the batteries.
“After the break we have a lot of home games but we play a lot of good teams and if we want to be a good team we have to beat those teams. We don’t have time to waste.
“It’s go time starting tomorrow.”
It wasn’t the most prophetic statement. It wasn’t beautiful prose. It was athlete speak for sure, but there was something about the way he said it. I don’t know, call me crazy, but the unspoken dialogue – the body language – was that of a dauntless general getting ready to lead his troops into a crucial battle.
He was confident. He was focused. You can sense his determination. It wasn’t another one of those bold predictions like the one in October that was caught on camera for the whole world to see.
Instead it was a one-on-one conversation. It was meant as a pointed statement from an ever-improving leader.
The sting of being left off Team Canada, was gone. There was a new singular focus for Giroux and it was totally team-oriented.
“It’s go time,” he said. And it needed to be.
Since then the Flyers have gone 16-7-3 and clinched a playoff berth against one of the toughest schedules in the league.
Giroux led the way with 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points in the 26 games. They only enhanced the other numbers that he’s posted that have been staggering.
- Like leading the NHL in scoring since Dec. 12 (Giroux has 60 points to Sidney Crosby’s 59).
- Like posting 19 multi-point games in the last 48 contests.
- The Flyers are 20-2-1 when Giroux scores a goal.
- The Flyers are 35-14-2 when Giroux registers at least one point and are 7-15-7 when he doesn’t.
And now, the Flyers are in the playoffs. There are still a few games remaining to determine who their playoff opponent will be and where and when it will all begin.
But until that dust settles, there are two guarantees: The playoffs will happen and Giroux will remind us all that it’s go time again.
And those two assurances sure beat the heck out of the alternative… and death and taxes.
Ever since the NHL got away from the playoff format that allowed for four teams from each division to qualify for the playoffs and went more toward a conference approach, only three teams prior to this season earned two points or fewer in their first eight games and went on to qualify for the playoffs.
These Flyers are the fourth.
The 1993-94 San Jose Sharks, the 1993-94 Buffalo Sabres and the 1998-99 Sharks were the only three to do it.
The 93-94 Sharks were a bit fortunate. There were only 12 teams in the Western Conference at the time and they sneaked into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed with a record of 33-35-16 for 82 points after starting 0-7-1. So, it’s not like they got hot like this season’s Flyers and turned it around.
Nevertheless, they upset the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the first round before dropping a heartbreaking seven-game series to Toronto in the Western Conference semifinals.
The 93-94 Sabres, like the Flyers, had a strong turnaround from a 1-7-0 start. They finished 43-32-9 for 95 points, riding the incredible goaltending of Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek. The Sabres finished as the No. 6 seed and almost pulled off a stunning upset of the No. 3 seed New Jersey Devils, losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Finally, the 98-99 Sharks were again just a mediocre bunch. After starting 0-6-2 they finished 31-33-18, but the 80 points was enough to earn the No. 7 seed (must have been a down year out West) but were bounced in the opening round in six games by the Colorado Avalanche.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers