There are great plays and then there are plays that announce greatness. Claude Giroux's premeditated playoff killing of the Pittsburgh Penguins was the latter.
"When the best player in the world comes up to you and says, 'I don't know who you're planning on starting, but I want that first shift,' that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said after Sunday's 5-1 rout of the Penguins in their NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
"About 10 seconds before they dropped the puck, he came over and told me, 'Watch the first shift,' " Danny Briere said. "He set the tone. That first shift, that was beautiful to see. That's the sign of a great leader."
Everyone in the Wells Fargo Center was feeling some combination of anxiety and potential dread as Game 6 began. The Flyers had taken a three-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series, then lost two in a row to a supremely talented Penguins team. To suffer that kind of collapse, against this most bitter of rivals, would be unbearable.
Correction: Everyone was feeling that except Giroux.
"We talked about getting off to a good start," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "He got us off to a great start. To me, he's the best player in the league right now."
The legend will grow in time, so let's keep to the facts here. They are dazzling enough. After the opening faceoff, Giroux darted toward Penguins captain Sidney Crosby as he emerged from his zone with the puck. Giroux delivered a solid but clean hit.
The impact on Crosby was enough to put him on his backside, sliding back against the boards. The impact on the crowd was even greater. Giroux already had dropped the gloves and fought the city's least favorite opposing player. Now he had taken him down in the biggest game of the year so far. The impact on his teammates was greater still.
"He made sure the Flyers moved onto the second round," Laviolette said. "Along with every other guy in that locker room. But it does have to be led somewhere. When your best player makes a statement like that, that's exactly what you need."
Just seconds later, Giroux had the puck in the Penguins zone. He created a bit of space for himself and fired a shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Just 32 seconds into a must-win game, the Flyers had a 1-0 lead. Any momentum Pittsburgh might have picked up in two wins was gone, along with Crosby's dignity.
"He's probably the biggest competitor I've ever played with," teammate Scott Hartnell said. "He wants to win so bad. I could tell right when I got to the rink this morning that he was fired up and ready to go. You hit like that first shift, you score like that first shift - that's our best guy in here."
In a very real way, these drastically reconfigured Flyers became a team by dismissing the favored Penguins. But they also became Giroux's team. The 24-year-old center is a rare combination of skill, grit, creativity, hockey intelligence, and fearlessness.
He had already outplayed all-universe stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin throughout this series. Giroux scored six goals, including a Game 2 hat trick, and assisted on eight others.
"Anything you do, you want to be the best at it," Giroux said. "If that's to score goals or block shots or whatever it is, I'm going to try to do it."
The way he imposed his will on Game 6 was something to be savored. Goalies do it at times - Bernie Parent at his peak, Martin Brodeur. Back in 2004, Keith Primeau was this dominating and this driven as the Flyers went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. There were times in 2010's run to the Finals that Mike Richards showed this kind of leadership. Giroux is just at another level when it comes to pure skill.
Primeau and Richards were both captains. It is a title Giroux will almost certainly carry, possibly as soon as next season. It would be fitting if Laviolette awarded him the "C" - unworn since captain Chris Pronger's injury - right now, as the second round beckons.
Fitting, but unnecessary. "C" or no "C," Giroux is now the man.
"He's been our leader all year," Briere said.
"His game tonight was monstrous," Laviolette said. "He was so adamant he wanted that first shift. He wanted to make a statement. You see the skill, but sometimes you don't hear that, you don't know that, you don't get that feel for him. Or maybe you do, but we do. For him to come up and say that, that speaks volumes for him - not just as a player but as a person."
The Flyers don't know whom they will play in the second round. They know they have Claude Giroux, though, and that may be enough.