TWO YEARS AGO, Claude Giroux took the opening faceoff in a pivotal Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the shift that has defined him as a Flyer since. He crushed Sidney Crosby with a check. He scored a quick goal, amped a Wells Fargo crowd unnerved by consecutive victories as the Penguins cut a 3-0 series hole to 3-2, and led his team to a 5-1, series-clinching victory.
“He’s the captain and the leader of the team,” Flyers coach Craig Berube said yesterday. “At the time he wasn’t, but everybody looked to him. He went out, hit Crosby, scored a goal right away.
“You can’t win a game in the first period. But you can lose one. At that time, that really set the tone for the game.”
Seven minutes into a still-scoreless game Sunday, Giroux sped to the net as Jakub Voracek slid the puck past a defender and goalie Henrik Lundqvist to the open mouth of the crease. Giroux arrived in time for the pass, but simply short-armed what would have been an unchallenged tip-in before crashing into and dislodging the net. So uncharacteristic was the whiff and crash that Carl Hagelin was called for a phantom slashing penalty on Giroux, the referee ciphering that something must have impeded Giroux’s stick, that he could not have missed that pass on his own.
Something did. Confidence, or a lack of it. That missed opportunity a little more than 7 minutes into the game, two more impotent power plays soon after, set a tone all right. A tone of uncertainty, trepidation, of a team that has lost its swagger in the wake of the Rangers’ team speed.
One by one yesterday, Flyers players spoke of how confident they were entering tonight’s Game 6, even when the question asked was about tactics or the line change that seemed to juice Giroux’s game a little in the third period of Sunday’s 4-2 loss.
Giroux’s first goal of the series, on that familiar one-timer that is usually money but that he has whiffed on or fouled off several times in this series (including earlier in Sunday’s game), provided the Flyers and their fans with a sliver of hope that the feisty player who before that first shift 2 years ago told Danny Briere, “Watch this,” could return in time to change the dynamic of this series, win two games and extend the Flyers’ season.
Because he is the captain now. And they are watching. As people pointed out so often in the Flyers’ rise from the ashes this season, he is their offensive catalyst. He scores, they usually win. He doesn’t, they usually lose. And Sunday wasn’t just the first goal he’s scored against the Rangers in this series. It’s the first goal he has scored against them this season.
And it came with the Flyers’ net empty.
But it was still big for a team that has been outscored at even strength in this series by nearly a 2-1 margin. The other popular theme in the dressing room yesterday was about a lack of “aggressiveness” Sunday and improving on that tonight, until someone asked the obvious followup: Why, in the playoffs, would you need to improve on your aggressiveness?
Again, the answer: confidence. The Rangers’ speed has not been matched by the Flyers in either zone, and it has negated any edge in physicality they might possess.
“You have to give them credit,” said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen. “They play a hard game. And they play defense well. They’ve got five guys on you all the time. They skate hard, they’re a fast team.
“But still, the whole year we didn’t care who we played against. It shouldn’t change in the playoffs. You have to worry about your own game and what you can do better. I know we can play better. That’s why I’m really confident about tomorrow.”
Giroux too, said he and his teammates were not down, that the team’s psyche was “good. Better than what you guys think I think.”
What I think is this: They would like to be confident. But when their leader is caught by Ryan McDonagh after surging for what appears to be a breakaway, it’s not easy. He’s under the microscope now in a way he wasn’t 2 years ago, and this team full of unproven playoff performers (and in Scott Hartnell, one that’s MIA) will look only as aggressive and as confident out there as he does.
“I think everybody’s got to be accountable about how they play,” he said when I asked him about whether he felt the eyes upon him. “We know we can play better. And ... we have our game [tonight] to prove it.”
Yeah, OK. But he carries the burden of that proof, especially given his postseason so far. “Watch this,” he said 2 years ago, and our jaws dropped. Our jaws have dropped over the last 11 days, too, but the context could not be more different. He had a chance to set a tone early in Sunday’s game. He has one last chance tonight, one last chance to renew the faith forged 2 years ago, that he can do almost anything when he puts his mind — and heart — to it.
On Twitter: @samdonnellon