The hero folk tale was supposed to begin at the end of Game 5 in the first-round playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
After falling behind three games to none, Pittsburgh had rallied to win Game 4 by a final of 10-3, and held on to squeak out a 3-2 victory in Game 5. Philadelphia was losing all the momentum it had built, and Flyers star Claude Giroux showed his frustration, smashing his stick over the goal posts at the final horn.
Giroux stewed and stewed, then went to Flyers coach Peter Laviolette with a request. Start him. It didn’t matter who it was against, or who it was with, Giroux wanted to be on the ice for the opening faceoff of Game 6.
He was, and five seconds from the opening drop, he leveled all-world center Sidney Crosby before zipping a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury 27 seconds later for the first goal of the game. That score sparked a 5-1 win for the Flyers, and catapulted Giroux’s team into the second round past the team considered the heavy favorite to lift Lord Stanley’s grand chalice.
”When the best player in the world comes up to you and says, ‘I don’t know who you’re starting tonight, but I want that first shift,’ that tells you everything you need to know about Claude Giroux,” Laviolette recalled after that game.
It was a Hollywood moment. It showed the hockey world that Giroux had graduated to superstardom, and that he was a more fitting choice than fellow alternative captains Daniel Briere and Kimmo Timonen to fill the leadership void left by injured captain Chris Pronger.
But in the Stanley Cup playoffs as with Hollywood, the storylines can change in the blink of an eye, and heroes can become instant villains.
Less than two weeks later, with the Flyers again seemingly losing control of another series in Game 4 of the conference semifinals against New Jersey, Giroux again let his frustration show. This time, though, instead of splintering his Bauer Vapor on some iron, he put a wicked shoulder to the head of Devils center Dainius Zubrus.
The Flyers lost Game 4 to fall behind 3-1 in the series. More notably, they lost Giroux for Game 5 after Department of Player Safety director Brendan Shanahan leveled a one-game suspension on Giroux for the reckless hit … and probably for the extracurricular activity that preceded it.
”When you look at this shift in its entirety, including the violent chop of the stick coupled with the lateness of the hit,” offered Shanahan in his official explanation, “we feel this reckless picking of the head rises to the level of supplemental discipline.”
To his credit, Giroux offered a pseudo-explanation and vague apology for his hit, telling the assembled media, ”I was trying to finish my hit and he kind of leaned in and I kind of hit him, my shoulder to his head. My elbow was down. I didn’t jump. I’m a pretty honest player. I’m not a dirty player. I’m not out there to hurt anybody. I was just trying to finish a hit.”
And to Shanahan’s credit, he may have finally dispelled the increasing notion among skeptics that the league’s superstars were untouchable. After all, Nashville defenseman and Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber got away with a $2,500 fine and statement of disapproval after manually introducing Henrik Zetterberg’s face to the sideboards. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin has escaped punishment for his high hit on New York’s Dan Girardi. A number of questionable hits in the first round by Hart Trophy favorite Evgeni Malkin were all but ignored. The thinking was an All-Star invitation was also a get-out-of-jail-free card. No more.
Shanahan may have been bowing to consensus pressure, or signaling that he was finally getting serious about eliminating headshots. Time will tell on that front.
But in the more immediate future, Philadelphia must now play a do-or-die Game 5 without their star, their leader, their de facto captain. Giroux may have, if his Flyers advanced to the next round, been at the forefront of any discussion on the Conn-Smythe Trophy, along with Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick. His 17 points and nine assists in 10 games lead all playoff scorers. His eight goals tie him for the most with playoff savant Briere.
Philadelphia is by no means bare in the cupboard without Giroux. All-Star Scott Hartnell, future Hall-of-Famer Jaromir Jagr, Briere and rising stars Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn can all light the lamp.
But it’s Giroux who is now in the unenviable can’t-win situation. If the Flyers kick off their offseason with a Game 5 loss, the knee-jerk reaction from the passionate fan base in Philly will be to blame the absence of Giroux. If the Flyers can win Tuesday’s game at home and extend the series, Giroux will be unfairly expected to make up for his misdeed by carrying the team to victory in Games 6 and 7.
Giroux, though, has shuttered that all out, instead trying to rally his troops before their next battle.
”We’re not playing our game,” Giroux said Monday. ”We need to relax a little bit. Everybody’s just panicking a little bit. We need to relax. We need to have a little more confidence in our game.”
But panic is as panic sees, and Giroux’s actions have made his words seem like mere lip service.
Giroux needs a Flyers win in Game 5, if only to guarantee himself a third act. In Hollywood, that’s when the hero rises up to defeat the villain. In Philadelphia, that’s where the goat rises up to redeem himself.
Tuesday night, the Flyers can fade to black, or Giroux can fade back into orange-and-black. Stay tuned.