By Larry Wigge
Some players are made for the moment ... others have to work at it.
Claude Giroux volunteered for it. He had had enough of letting the Pittsburgh Penguins back in this series -- and he was about to due something about it.
"About 10 seconds before they dropped the puck, he came over and told me, 'Watch the first shift,' " teammate Danny Briere said. "He set the tone. That first shift, that was beautiful to see. That's the sign of a great leader."
Giroux looked for the first hit as the first shift began. It just happened to be Sidney Crosby, who was leveled near the boards.
Then 32 seconds into the game Claude scored the first goal. One goal and two assists later, the Philadelphia Flyers had a 5-1 victory over the Penguins -- and ousted their cross-state rivals in the first round of the playoffs.
"He's got a knack for being there when it matters most," Briere revealed. "That's not something you can teach. You have it or you don't. There's guys that score a lot when games are out of hand or they don't mean much. He always seems to score the big goals or make the big plays when it matters most."
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was flabbergasted.
"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," the coach said. "His game tonight was monstrous.
"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 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 and assisted on eight others -- a Flyers record for points in a series.
"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 ..."
Giroux said, honestly, "There's obviously pressure. Pressure? I hope so because I love pressure."
Said Scott Hartnell, "He's probably the biggest competitor I've ever played with. 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."
"He's our motor ... he's our engine ... we follow him everywhere," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said.
"He got this thing in his eyes where it was, ‘You can’t stop me," says Max Talbot. "He plays like Malkin but with the grit of Sid."
Think about that for a second. Imagine the possibilities. And listen to Giroux say, "Anything you do, you want to be the best at it."
Giroux was the ultimate team player for the Flyers. It wasn't until late that Claude was surpassed by Malkin and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in scoring. Still, 28 goals and 65 assists isn't too shabby.
Strange but true, the day that Claude Giroux was drafted by the Flyers has become a classic. There was former Flyers GM Bobby Clarke ... at a loss.
"Philadelphia selects, from Gatineau of the Quebec Junior League," Clarke paused, looked down at some paper, then glanced off to the side for some help. "I forget."
When the chuckles died down, Clarke made the announcement: Claude Giroux.
There are no mistakes about Giroux now, he was the Flyers first round pick, 22nd overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. In fact ...
When the Flyers traded captain Mike Richards and high-scoring Jeff Carter last June, it was a direct correlation to how much Claude Giroux had risen to being the face of the franchise.
"When Richie and Cartsy left, I had a little bit of pressure to kind of step up in the spotlight, and that's why you play -- to be the go-to guy and want to help the team," said Giroux. "And now that we're in the playoffs, we have to keep it going. We have a young team and have a lot of energy ... and we're having a fun time doing it."
The Richards and Carter departures became prominent when the Flyers were trying to sign free-agent Jaromir Jagr. Jagr had questions about the Flyers, where they were going and about Holmgren's philosophy on team building.
"He asked me why I traded those two guys," said GM Paul Holmren. "I just said we needed to get bigger in certain areas and we got some young guys we think are emerging, Claude Giroux being one."
There was a silence on the line.
Soon Jagr understood -- as he joined on the line with Giroux and Hartnell.
"Everybody thinks about the game a certain way," Hartnell said. "Then there are a few people, a few select people, who think about the game in a different way and how it should be played and where to go and the space that is available and where to be, how to support, how to give somebody space.
"They just think a little bit differently and I truly think that Claude and Jaromir think on the same level. They think the game the same way."
Everybody has had his say. Claude Giroux had become sainted or some sort of devilish power with skates and a stick.
Briere said simply, "He was possessed."