VOORHEES, N.J. – The last time the Flyers played the Pittsburgh Penguins seems like it was part of another season.
It’s been four months since surprise starter in goal Ray Emery shut down the high flying Penguins in Pittsburgh for the Flyers first three-game winning streak of the season and marking the first day the Flyers were officially out of last place in the Metropolitan Division.
Things, of course, are a lot different now for the Flyers, who currently hold down the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
One thing that has remained the same though in all the time between meetings for these division rivals (who will play three times in the final 17 games of the season by the way) is that Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has been atop the league scoring leaders and is probably the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as the league MVP.
It’s hard to knock Sid’s credentials no matter how much he is not liked here in Flyers country. Crosby has 31 goals and 57 assists for 88 points in 65 games for the team who had the best record in the Eastern Conference all year until Boston passed them by a point last night.
What has been impressive about The Pens is they have been a team ravaged by injuries – especially on the blue line – and yet have continued to be a pace setter in the Eastern Conference. It has mostly been because of Crosby’s play leading the way.
When it comes time to vote for the Hart Trophy, the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association are apt to vote the NHL scoring leader as one of the finalists for the award, if not the outright winner.
As such, Crosby seems to be a lock as one of the three finalists for the award.
Those voters who do take their time looking at the candidates though, take it a little deeper than just the scoring list. They look to recognize players who truly make their team significantly better than they’d be without them.
It was why John Tavares was an excellent finalist for the award last season. The New York Islanders made the playoffs and would not have without the brilliant season by Tavares.
In Crosby’s case, the Penguins have proven in the past there is enough talent to get by without their captain – as they did in the seasons he missed significant time with his concussion issues – however Pittsburgh would have been hard-pressed to be as good as they are this season without Sid.
Looking around the league, it’s hard to find other players making that significant an impact. Phil Kessel in Toronto is probably on a very short list and he’s a distant second to Crosby in the scoring race and is probably going to be a finalist as well.
But who is the third choice?
It’s easy to go down that scoring list and start looking at names, but it’s just as easy to come up for a reason to not include most of the players in the conversation.
For example, Ryan Getzlaf is the only other player besides Crosby and Kessel to top 70 points this season, but Getzlaf’s numbers are that much more impressive because he plays with Corey Perry (66 points).
And conversely, Perry’s numbers are better because he plays with Getzlaf. Regardless, both players are having excellent seasons and are among the best in the sport, but would the Ducks still be a good playoff team without one or the other? Probably.
The same can be said in Chicago, where Patrick Kane (67 points) and Patrick Sharp (64 points) are having excellent campaigns. Also in San Jose where Joe Pavelski (65 points) and Joe Thornton (64 points) are a dynamic duo leading the scoring on a dangerous Sharks squad.
Washington also has a superb pair in Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 44 goals, and Nicklas Backstrom (64 points) but it’s hard to imagine either of them garnering serious Hart consideration if Washington misses the playoffs, which is seeming more and more likely every day.
Kyle Okposo is having a breakout season for the Islanders and he’s flying solo now that Tavares was injured in the Olympics, but again, Okposo suffers from the Robin syndrome (second in a pairing of good players) and the fact that the Isles are at the bottom of the standings.
Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh is another second banana. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn handcuff each other in Dallas. Marty St. Louis is out of the conversation because he was traded from Tampa to the New York Rangers.
This leaves two other names to consider.
Matt Duchene is in the middle of an excellent season in Colorado, where he is the best player on a surprisingly good Avalanche team. And while there is good talent around him, Duchene is the straw stirring the cocktail in Denver.
But the name that should start getting into the conscious of the hockey writers with a vote is Claude Giroux.
This, of course, comes with the codicil that the Flyers make the playoffs, but if they do, Giroux has been the biggest reason.
Take the first 15 games of the season out of the equation, and Giroux has been among the best in the game.
Heck, since December 11, which is more than three months now, he’s tied with Crosby for the league lead in scoring with 45 points.
Not to mention, the Flyers are a top team in the NHL points-wise since Giroux scored his first goal of the season Nov. 9.
Most importantly, the Flyers wouldn’t be anywhere near the playoff conversation with 17 games to play without Giroux overcoming that slow start to be one of the most prolific scorers in the NHL.
He’s currently tied for 11th in the NHL in scoring, but there is such a log jam between No. 2 and No. 15 that he can finish anywhere in that array.
And frankly, his teammates and coaches think he belongs in that conversation too.
“Right now he’s making a difference in games and that’s what the MVP of the league needs to do,” said Jake Voracek, who gets to experience playing with Giroux on practically every shift. “The team leans on his shoulders in the most important parts of the game and he’s been doing that for us in the last 40 games or so. He’s been playing very well.
“I’ve always felt he was one of the top five players in the league and he’s playing like that right now.”
And as he goes, so go the Flyers.
In the team’s 33 wins this season, Giroux has 20 goals and 27 assists for 47 points and is a plus-21. In the losses, he has just three goals and 15 assists for 18 points and is a minus-19. Of course, a third of the losses came in the season’s first 15 games in which Giroux had just seven assists.
That shows how important a player to the Flyers he truly is. Yes, the entire team was needed to pull this team out of the depths of a doomed and disastrous season to get into the thick of the playoff conversation as a team nobody in the Eastern Conference wants to draw in the first round, but they never would have gotten there without Giroux setting the table.
“I think he’s up there in the conversation,” said coach Craig Berube. “He’s got to continue to work hard and do the things he’s been doing to help us, and if he does, his name should be part of that award talk for sure.”
Since Dec. 11, Giroux is tied with Crosby for the scoring lead in the NHL.
Here’s the top seven heading into Friday night:
(ties broken by most goals)
1. Claude Giroux FLYERS 18-27-45
2. Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh 15-30-45
3. Phil Kessel Toronto 18-26-44
4. Matt Duchene Colorado 9-31-40
5. Joe Pavelski San Jose 24-14-38
6. Kyle Okposo Islanders 17-20-37
7. Patrick Sharp Chicago 15-20-35
In that span of games, which is nearly half the season, the Flyers are a solid 20-11-4.
“Giroux is having a tremendous season,” said Mark Streit, who got to witness the Tavares campaign a season ago first hand as a teammate on the Isles. “He’s a franchise player. He’s creating a lot of offense and keeping opponents on their heels.
“The last three months the whole team is playing better and going in the right direction and he’s a big part of the reason why. It’s great to see him out there having a lot of confidence and working hard and playing hard.”
He’s been nothing short of clutch for the Flyers too with his scoring. Of his 23 goals, 12 have come in the third period and 18 have come in either a tie or one-goal game. He has four game-winners as well.
And then there’s the immeasurable. Something the writers voting don’t really get a sense of unless they ask players in the locker room – how he is as a leader, as a captain.
Scott Hartnell has talked at length in the past about the growth he’s seen in Giroux. Now he agrees that Giroux is deserving of Hart Trophy consideration.
“He leads on the ice and everyone else seems to follow,” Hartnell said. “When he plays with confidence it just seems the rest of the team does as well.”
And maybe it has a lot to do with his infectious attitude and personality off the ice.
“He’s a fun guy,” Streit said. “He’s always joking around and keeping things loose. Right now we have a good mix in the room and a good atmosphere here. We enjoy each other’s company and he’s at the front of that line making sure it all works.”
And if Giroux and his Flyers earn a playoff spot – and earn it they will if they can run the gauntlet that is their schedule of one top team after another – there’s no reason not to seriously consider him for the league’s top individual honor in a team sport.
Because it’s hard to think of another team who could afford to lose their best player less than the Flyers – and that makes Giroux an MVP, whether he’s named a finalist next month or not.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers
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