The Legend of Claude Giroux
In the heart of the city, a burgeoning tale is brewing about a man with the skill and passion to single-handedly defeat the draught of championship emptiness. As the daylight fades along the skyline of Philadelphia, this warrior prepares. His battlefield set on the glistening pond, which is frozen white and housed in the throngs of the Wells Fargo Center. He is the newly anointed Flyer's captain and he is legend...
Or, at least he could be, if he is capable of leading his young troop of orange-clad competitors to the glory of Lord Stanley's precious Cup. A feat not accomplished by any Flyer's captain in nearly 40 years. Claude Giroux rose to prominence over the course of the past two seasons, putting up career highs of 25 goals and 51 assists in 2010 than raising those highs even more last year by putting up 28 goals and 65 assists.
But what caused him to stand among hockey elite was his play in the playoffs last year. Giroux handled the puck, used his speed and tenacity, and displayed his prowess as a beast on the ice. The play that set him up to take the captaincy was Game 6 opening face off against the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. The puck rotated out of the circle and landed on the stick of Philly nemesis, Sidney Crosby. Giroux ran him down with a furious blow, crushing Crosby and stealing the puck. Less than thirty seconds later he was rushing the ice, showing both handles and speed, he flew across the Penguin's blue line and let rip an icy wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury's exposed shoulder. The Flyers went on to win the game 5-1 and the gossip about Giroux grew.
But like all great heroes that live in all stories past and present, Claude is flawed. How he handles his flaws (by either triumphing over them or by letting them define him) will determine how great he can be and how his story in Philly ends. The giant C that was sewed on his upper left chest this year has seemed to weigh heavy upon his play. Early on in this shortened NHL season, Giroux' biggest flaw has been how he has allowed himself to become a non-factor, virtually invisible in far too many games. Giroux has already had three games this year in which he didn't register a single shot on net (vs. NJ, TB, and TB); the Flyers lost two of three of those games. Three whole games where the best player on the team registers zero shots? Not acceptable! Especially on a team limited in experience and yearning for a winning example to follow.
Follow they will, if Giroux will lead. His game-time demeanor sets the tone but how he plays determines the outcome. When Giroux comes out with fire in his chest and determination in his mind, as he did against the Islanders, the team responds with spirited effort. They rally around their captain and back his play. All of a sudden the forechecking becomes more effective, the puck sticks down deep in the opponents’ zone, and shots find their way to the back of the goal.
Giroux has the ability to be not just good but spectacular. His problem is that the Flyers need more spectacular and less good. When Giroux matches his skills with the same level of emotion and commitment, he lifts his teammates and helps free them to perform their best. The two players most impacted are Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov. Briere benefits by having more space to maneuver, allowing him to be a more effective stick handler and passer, while finding avenues to pressure the goalie. In fact, when Giroux is playing well, both he and Briere tend to carry the puck into the zone more often, pressuring the defense and opening up trailing and crossing lanes to pass. The game dynamic seems to shift to a more fluent and open offense relying less on the dump and chase routine. The Flyers respond favorably to this style of play and tend to be more effective with their forechecking. Consequently, the opposition has less opportunities to challenge Bryzgalov, often freeing him up to play from a lead. Give Bryz a two-goal advantage and he swells in the net leaving little to shoot at.
Maybe asking Giroux to lead this group of Flyers to a long run in the playoffs is asking too much of this young man. Maybe Giroux isn't an emerging, dominant force ready to take on the near-nightly grind that is the NHL season. Maybe in three years he'll be an afterthought and a new hope will wear the C on the orange and black.
But what if he is? What if the pressure of the C subdued Giroux for a moment and he needed a few games to become comfortable in his new role. How about if he now recognizes the impact he has and what he needs to do to lead the Flyers to victory. What if he takes this group of young men and gives them a glimpse of what could be. What if they believe and follow him to beat the odds, make the playoffs, and go on a glorious run.
It may be unthinkable at this point in the season, but that is what legends are made of.
Contact Christopher Sweeney at email@example.com
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