Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux (28) celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Giroux is making a case for himself by guiding the team back from a 1-7 start to a playoff position. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Sancya
Claude Giroux told teammate Daniel Briere to "watch this shift."
The Philadelphia Flyers had lost two straight to the Pittsburgh Penguins going into Game 6 of the 2012 playoff series when Giroux stepped in to take the opening faceoff and six seconds later steam-rolled Sidney Crosby with an open-ice hit. One more faceoff and 26 seconds later, he scored a goal to set the tone for the series-clinching victory.
"He's clutch like that," Flyers linemate Jakub Voracek said. "Not many players have that."
Two years later, Giroux is in his second full season as Philadelphia's captain, and perhaps more than any other player in the league his success or lack of it drives his team. Going into this weekend's home-and-home series against the arch-rival Penguins, the Flyers are eight games under .500 when Giroux doesn't record a point and 25-13-3 when he does.
"He's just kind of that guy who thrives under the challenge of being the go-to guy who wants the puck on his stick in all situations, wants to be out there to make a difference," Toronto Maple Leafs winger and former Flyers teammate James van Riemsdyk said. "That's probably his best attribute aside from all the skill that he has."
Teammate Scott Hartnell called Giroux's personality "infectious" and that of a born leader. Wayne Simmonds termed him a "gamer" for all the effort he puts in, even when the results don't follow.
"He's the best player on our team, so I think it's only natural if he's going the rest of us are going," Simmonds said. "I think he's a perfect example of a captain in this league. He leads by example, and everyone in here follows."
Giroux followed a slow start of seven assists in 15 games with 23 goals and 35 assists in the past 50, dating to when he scored his first of the season Nov. 9 against the Edmonton Oilers. Following Giroux's lead, the Flyers have gone from a 1-7-0 start and dead-last in the Eastern Conference to a playoff position with 17 left to play.
Giroux is tied for 11th in the NHL in points, but he could get into the Hart Trophy discussion because of his immense value to the Flyers—naturally only if they make the playoffs following that hideous start. Alex Ovechkin won it last season by going from nine goals in his first 25 games to 25 in his final 23 in leading the Washington Capitals to the playoffs.
This year, barring injury, no one's touching Crosby. And it's tough to argue against the Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, but like the Leafs' Phil Kessel, Giroux could have a case given his direct impact on the Flyers' wins and losses.
"Very skilled player, smart player, plays the big minutes for them," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "He's their catalyst, he's their guy. A lot of their offence is driven around Giroux."
Giroux has been in on 35.3 per cent of the Flyers' goals this season, just slightly more than Kessel and the Leafs and trailing only Crosby and the Penguins (42.7 per cent) among players who could be considered for the Hart. Ovechkin contributed on 37.7 per cent of the Capitals' goals last year.
The Hearst, Ont., native sure won't feed any of the MVP whispers, himself.
"There's a lot of good players having great years right now," he said. "Obviously Crosby's up there by himself in the point column and his team's doing very well, so I'm not too worried about it."
What Giroux is worried about is making sure Philadelphia doesn't miss the playoffs for the second straight season, which would be the first time that happened to that franchise since the early 1990s.
Based on this season's track record, the Flyers will only get there if Giroux carries them. They're 8-12-4 in games he doesn't register a point, and in a competitive Eastern Conference that likely wouldn't get the job done.
Fortunately for the Flyers, Giroux enjoys that responsibility.
"In big games, you want to be able to play your best games," the 26-year-old said. "That's what it's all about. Any time there's a little bit of pressure, I think that's when guys want to do more and want to kind of challenge themselves."
The challenges have come fast and furious for Giroux since last summer, beginning when the Flyers said he suffered torn tendons in his hand from a freak golf accident. That hand wasn't fully healthy very early on in the season and he doesn't even know when it became 100 per cent.
"Obviously it was a lot of rehab at the start of the year," Giroux said. "I'm not going to take that as an excuse."
Even after Giroux found his game, along with the rest of the Flyers, Team Canada passed him over for the Sochi Olympics. That left him disappointed but looking for a silver lining.
"I was able to go on a little break and get my head straight," Giroux said. "Physically, obviously everybody has injuries here and there—just little ones—and to kind of get a little break for it, I think it's going to re-charge (me). Hopefully it's going to be good for the rest of the year so I can have more energy."
Giroux will need that energy down the stretch, as 14 of the Flyers' final 17 games and each of the next 12 are against opponents ahead of them in the standings.
This is Giroux's time to shine, and his teammates expect that.
"Some players are great players, but when games get tight they kind of fall off. Not him. He always steps up in the right moment," Voracek said. "He's a game-changer."
Most importantly for the Flyers, Giroux has been a season-changer.
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