Sam Donnellon: Flyers' Giroux a leading force

Flyers' Claude Giroux (right) and Max Talbot tangle with Penguins' Matt Niskanen (left) and Matt Cooke in first period.
Flyers' Claude Giroux (right) and Max Talbot tangle with Penguins' Matt Niskanen (left) and Matt Cooke in first period. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 16, 2012

THE BIG BET last summer was that Claude Giroux could do this. The big bet when Mike Richards was traded away, and Jeff Carter, too, was that Giroux would become more than just a great scorer, more than just a great playmaker.

He would fill the emotional leadership role as well, or at least part of it.

So there he was, just 12 minutes into the latest on-ice insanity that has defined this series, jumping in front of Sidney Crosby after the NHL's purported top attraction had just taken three hacks at Ilya Bryzgalov's glove after the whistle, after Sid had - in the best Matthew Barnaby imitation seen here since, well, Matthew Barnaby - flipped away Jakub Voracek's glove as the Flyers forward reached to get it off the ice.

Giroux said he stepped in because Crosby's next target was Kimmo Timonen. Implied of course is that in this series, you need all the elite defensemen you can get.

"He's trying to spark his team up, I guess," Giroux said with a shrug after the Flyers' 8-4 victory Sunday. "It was more of a wrestling match anyway."

This is not Giroux's game. "Not his either," he said, when I pointed that out. Truth is, though, that Sid is renowned for this stuff almost as much as he is for great playmaking.

"That's why he started getting physical," said Max Talbot, who scored two goals against his old team Sunday. "He's Sidney Crosby, a complete leader. He tries to do the right things to set off his team."

I asked Talbot if he thought Giroux was like that, too. "He comes from the same junior team as I did, so I had met him before," he said. "But now playing with him? I mean, he has that same fire in his eyes."

The regular season ended with a wide-ranging discussion of Crosby's dirty play. That was not the case with Giroux. Watching Giroux drop his gloves Sunday was in equal parts exhilarating and frightening. Break one of those brittle bones with a punch, and at the very least, there goes some great playmaking.

"Would I rather have G keep his gloves on?" Peter Laviolette said. "Sure. But when he's fighting Sidney Crosby, that's playoff hockey. That's this series.

"In the end, that's probably what it's about. You've got guys out here who want to win on both sides. And they'll do anything to do it. So you've got to be ready to play at that level."

The big bet last summer was hedged a little because Chris Pronger was still in the plans. Had Paul Holmgren known that he would be missing his 6-6 bad-ass for most of this season, you wonder if he would have pulled the trigger to either deal, if he or Laviolette would have entrusted so much on a player only 2 years removed from renting a room at Danny Briere's suburban home.

Officially, he is not this team's captain. Emotionally, there is no question he is, even before Sunday. He sticks his nose in the dirty areas. He makes big plays when his team needs them most.

He set up the tying goal after the Flyers surrendered the obligatory first goal. His third-period goal, just 27 seconds in, gave the Flyers a three-goal cushion for the first time all afternoon.

"If you didn't want to talk about his skill and the points, one of his greatest assets is his competitiveness," said Laviolette. "And his will to win.

"It's the best I've ever seen."

It wasn't long ago that Giroux arrived in the Flyers' dressing room and was easily mistaken for a stickboy. Now he sets the tone for a room filled with stickboy-looking dudes like Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Sunday, Schenn had his defenseless head punched into the ice by Arron Asham and Couturier took a blind-side blow from James Neal with the puck long gone from the place it occurred. Both rookies had to be helped from the ice, but both returned. And when they returned, neither incurred the kind of retaliation penalty that has haunted so many Flyers playoff runs.

Does that come from leadership? You bet it does. "We've been talking about it the whole series," said Timonen. "We're not going to get any favors from the league or the referees. We have to be the ones who stay disciplined. I think we've been doing a pretty good job of it. And they're not."

When Sunday's game ended, a Toronto writer walked around joking in Armageddon-like terms, joking that he never thought he'd live long enough to see the Flyers playing the role of saints vs. sinners. Especially against a team with the league's two most recognizable stars.

That dynamic may soon change, the recognizable stars part. Thanks to Couturier, Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's leading scorer, has been a rumor this series. Sid has been Barnaby, every plus negated by a minus. Physically, emotionally and statistically, Claude Giroux is the face of this series.

"He's a guy who just won't stop, who won't quit," said Laviolette.

And so far, his team has that personality as well.

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