Crosby keeps cruising; Giroux stuck in neutral

Posted: October 19, 2013

In retrospect, Peter Laviolette was nothing more than a prisoner of the moment, an overexuberant coach making a proclamation that would never stand the test of time.

He had watched Claude Giroux skate a shift for the ages at the start of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Giroux had delivered a crushing body check to Sidney Crosby before scoring the first goal in a series-clinching victory for the Flyers, and Laviolette used the postgame news conference to call Giroux "the best player in the world."

It was a curious thing to say, given Crosby's standing in the sport, but maybe Laviolette was doing what coaches often do - exaggerating a little in praising his best player. And besides, what rebuttal could Crosby offer? He was going home for the summer.

All these months later, Giroux hasn't had it so good since. He went without a goal again Thursday in a 4-1 loss to the Penguins, earning a lonely assist, just his third, as the Flyers fell to 1-7 and their season kept slipping away.

As an easy point of contrast, Crosby got a put-away goal and an assist late in the third period, giving him six goals and 14 points through seven games, and the outcome spoke both to the gap between the two teams and to the damage that Giroux's drought has done to the Flyers.

"He's obviously an elite star in the National Hockey League, but he's not productive right now," former NHL general manager Craig Button, who analyzes the league for The NHL Network, said in a phone interview. "I really think that's had a material effect on their team. The other team never feels threatened."

The Penguins did Thursday, for a while anyway. After an awful second period, the Flyers dominated the opening minutes of the third but failed to tie the game, and you could see them sag at the ease with which Crosby tapped the puck into a vacant net to make it 3-1.

They'd spent so much energy and effort, and where was the easy goal to get Giroux going, to get anyone else going? Eight games in, and the Flyers haven't scored more than two goals in a game yet. You can see them white-knuckling their sticks from the press box.

"We need to start believing it before we start playing," Giroux said. "I think we go into games with confidence down already. We've got to start believing we're a good team."

It will take a bit more than belief. Before Thursday's game, Flyers coach Craig Berube had told reporters that he wanted Giroux to relax, to return to the skilled, free-flowing style of play that makes him so dangerous. Nothing is so simple, though.

Over his six years in the NHL, Giroux was at his best during the 2011-12 season, when he had 93 points in 77 games and benefited from the presence of Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr flanking him on his line. Jagr turned 40 that season, his first in the NHL after three years in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. But he still controlled the puck as if he were carrying it in the netting of a lacrosse stick, drawing defenders to him and creating space for Giroux to work.

With Hartnell injured and out of the lineup, Berube has tried to simulate that dynamic, putting a pair of rugged wingers, Wayne Simmonds and Tye McGinn, with Giroux. Simmonds did score a power-play goal Thursday, tipping a Giroux shot over the glove of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but it wasn't enough for the Flyers.

Giroux had one shot on goal over more than 22 minutes of ice time. It wasn't nearly enough.

"He was competitive, but I know he can play better," Berube said. "There are a lot of guys who can play better. That line's got to play better."

Even if it does, even if Giroux finally scores that first goal, then what? Slump or no slump, he's an elite player. Of that, there's no doubt.

But these Flyers need so much more than that, and his old coach's exaggeration feels so empty now. Sidney Crosby is still the best player in the world. He always was. And for Claude Giroux and the Flyers, it looks like summer is already here.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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