The hats had rained down onto the ice. The shovels came out. There would be no hockey for a few minutes as the ice was cleared, so Claude Giroux leaned against the boards in front of his bench and did what all the other hatless folk did.
He watched the replay. He watched a burst of speed that he could not conjure at this time last year. He watched the pinpoint purpose of a shot that zipped over the glove of Henrik Lundqvist, the future Hall of Famer, giving the Flyers captain, at age 30, his first-ever regular-season hat trick, adding to the 100-point plateau he had reached earlier in the game – a plateau that only five other Flyers have ever reached.
Claude Giroux led the Flyers into the playoffs Saturday the only way he knows how. Not by bashing a trash can between periods or standing on a soapbox before the game. With speed and skill and will.
His 100th point was shot from a wide angle, as 19-year-old Nolan Patrick distracted Lundqvist. His second, by using Michael Raffl as a screen. He scored the third after a heady pass from another of the Flyers talented rookies, Travis Sanheim hitting the Giroux in full stride at mid-ice from his own corner.
Lundqvist didn’t even have time to push the puck from his net before the first hat fell, and the ensuing storm of them lasted a good 30 seconds.
At first Giroux squirmed uncomfortably as the camera zoomed in, as his teammates behind him clearly enjoyed his discomfort. Raffl told him to get back on the ice. Travis Konecny put a hand on his shoulders, started talking, even tossed a hat he found on the bench into the piles already on the ice.
“He’s a really good kid,’’ Giroux said of Konecny, who turned 21 last month. “I was trying to stay serious. But the stuff he was saying, I couldn’t hold it.’’
So he smiled. He waved, somewhat sheepishly. And when the decibel level from the 20,028 at Wells Fargo Center increased, so too did the sheepish smile, offering a glimpse of the person cloaked by the captaincy.
What a difference a year makes. For the Flyers, who overcame an early 10-game losing streak, injuries to two goalies and the overall unevenness inherent in a team rolling younger players into meaningful roles. For Giroux, who a year ago seemed to be a player in rapid decline — his wrists, his hips, his core muscles all adding wear and tear to a body and a style that never seemed built particularly well for this bash-body game.
A year ago at this time, his balance compromised by extensive core-muscle surgery the summer before, Giroux finished his season with 14 goals and 44 assists, finished with a minus-15, the worst by far of his 10 NHL seasons. “The core,” as he and several players in their upper 20s were often described, were at times deemed flawed in both leadership and play, and when last season ended, the trade speculation began.
Brayden Schenn went to St. Louis on draft day for a pick that turned into Morgan Frost, the juniors sensation. But the rest remained, including their captain, who became the longest-tenured current Philadelphia athlete earlier this year when Brent Celek was released by the Eagles following the Super Bowl.
By then, of course, it all seemed ludicrous: He was not over the hill after all, and, damn, was he leading these guys. Once a bit fun and flaky himself, he is a role model these days, too, especially when it comes to Konecny, who finished his second NHL season with 24 goals and 23 assists –most of them coming alongside Giroux and Sean Couturier.
“His personality – I think I see myself a little bit in him,’’ said Giroux. “I used to be pretty loose. And sometimes it got me in trouble. We have a good relationship, so it’s good.’’
A center his entire NHL career, Giroux went to left wing happily before the season, piled up points along with Couturier and anyone lucky enough to play on the other side with them. Jake Voracek started there and had a great year. Konecny exploded once he got the job. On Saturday, Raffl, the most recent resident – who had gone 41 games between the end of last season and the beginning of this one without registering a point – acquired two in the span of six seconds, setting, with Giroux and Couturier, a franchise record.
There was nary an “E-A-G-L-E-S’’ chant in the house Saturday.
They were replaced, on numerous occasions, by “M-V-P’’
“For me,he’s never needed the validation,’’ said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “But if the exclamation point tonight that he put on his season, in the most important game of our season, doesn’t say that to the outside world, I don’t know what would. He doesn’t need that kind of validation inside of our dressing room or amongst his teammates, because he’s done it all this year, and he’s done it under pressure.
“And that, for me, says a lot about him and who he is and what he’s all about.’’