By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — You won’t ever hear Flyers’ burgeoning game-changer Claude Giroux talk about how he belongs on the pantheon with the NHL’s best today. Up there with the Sidney Crosbys, Evgeni Malkins, Henrik Lundqvists and Alexander Ovechkins. Giroux would rather put on that missing-tooth grin of his and focus on turning the young Flyers into Stanley Cup champions.
Underneath, away from the boyish humility, Giroux possesses the same brazen attitude that all superstars have in knowing they control the game. It’s why Giroux went up to Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette before Game Six of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday afternoon and told Laviolette he wants that first shift.
Giroux’s rising arc soared higher in his biggest game yet in the NHL. He needed just five seconds to issue a message that he belongs in Crosby, Malkin and Lundqvist land, when the Flyers’ superstar sent Crosby whirling through the air with a cartoon, shoulder-lowering check.
Crosby landed hard on the ice, his skates flying up over his head and his helmet knocked askew.
Twenty-seven seconds later, Giroux put an exclamation point on his jolting hit by sliding in the first goal of the game. From there, it was piling on time, as the Flyers devoured the Penguins with a superb performance in a 5-1 close-out victory at the Wells Fargo Center to win the best-of-seven series 4-2.
Giroux set the tone. His aim was Crosby.
“His game tonight was monstrous, it really was,” Laviolette said about Giroux. “When the best player in the world tells you before the game, ‘I don’t know who you plan on starting tonight, but I want that first shift.’ That says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there. Claude had a great game, from start to finish. He made sure the Flyers moved on to the second round, along with every other guy in that locker room. It does have to be led somewhere. When your best players makes a statement like that, that’s exactly what you need to happen.”
It marked the first time the Flyers beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, when the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. More importantly to Flyers’ fans, it’s the first time the Flyers beat the Crosby-led Penguins in the playoffs. With Crosby, Pittsburgh was 8-3 in two playoff series against the Flyers prior to this season.
Giroux honed right in on Penguins’ whiny star and leveled him in the opening seconds of the game. Then Giroux, who leads the NHL playoffs with 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists), scored the game’s first goal, the Flyers’ first even-strength goal since Game Three. Giroux then followed that up with an assist on the Flyers’ second goal later in the first period.
“We weren’t too happy about Game Four and Game Five,” Giroux said. “We usually never get off to a good start, and I was just trying to spark the team up and I was able to get a little hit on him and get the boys going [with the Crosby hit]. Our bench, everyone was positive and having fun. The last two games we were missing that. Playing that game was a lot of fun tonight. Anything you do, you want to be the best at it, and I mean if it’s to score goals, or do hits, or block shots, I’m going to try and do it. You saw Scott Harnett diving on his two knees to block a shot and it was kind of close to private area, but he still did it.”
What was also impressive is the Flyers scored four of their five goals (including Brayden Schenn’s empty-net goal) at even strength, an issue they had through the first five games of the series. Pittsburgh had outscored the Flyers on even-strength situations, 17-11, in the series.
Another oddity, though a small one, is the team that scored the first goal in the first five games lost. The Flyers snapped that quirky trend into pieces on Giroux’s goal at 19:28 followed by Scott Hartnell’s powerplay goal later in the first period.
The Flyers opened that edge to 3-0 when Erik Gustafsson flicked a wrist shot just inside the blue line. Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t seem to see it at all. Fleury was fantastic in Game Five, but struggled mightily in the initial three games of the series. The Penguins goalie seemed to revert back to his skittish ways in Game Six.
As for Flyers’ goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, he did a credible job. He wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t have to be. He steered away 30 shots. Flyers’ forechecking helped that out, as did the Flyers’ defense. The flyers blocked 40 shots in front of Bryzgalov. The Flyers did an excellent job in curtailing Crosby and Malkin throughout the series, holding the Penguins’ star duo to a combined six goals.
“No secret. No special pills,” the enigmatic Bryzgalov said. ”It takes a 60-minute, full-team effort. Everyone chipped in and it was do-or-die for us. It’s sacrifice, diving for pucks and to the net. Everyone sacrificed themselves to win this game. I knew it was going to be a hard game. Our situation was to win the game. I knew we had to play better and stop more pucks. When you don’t give up many goals, you have a good opportunity to win the game. The guys came off the same mind, to sacrifice something.”
Crosby was held scoreless in Games Five and Six.
“Today, we had a few bounces that didn’t go our way,” Crosby said. “We had some decent chances [to score] today. We didn’t put ourselves in a good position to come back. We made it 3-1. We thought we’d get some momentum from that. They got a good start, but if you look at the past five games, that didn’t mean a lot. We knew we had to keep battling, that was just too big of a lead to come back from.”
James Neal’s goal was disallowed with 3:02 left to play when he shoved Bryzgalov and the puck into the net. That came with the Penguins on a two-man advantage, and it proved to be their last surge.
“I had a good feeling about today’s game,” Flyers’ defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “We got off to a 3-0 lead and we knew they were going to come back. We were talking about getting off to a good start, and obviously that [Giroux hit] was a great start. To me, he’s the best player in the league right now. He’s our motor and our engine. When he goes, we go. It was great to see that.”
With a little over three minutes to play, the orange-clad Flyers’ fans began serenading the Penguins as the time ticked away on their season.