- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PHILADELPHIA -- At some point before Game 6, Claude Giroux approached head coach Peter Laviolette and said he wasn't sure who the coach was planning to start, but Giroux desperately wanted to on the ice when the puck dropped.
So Laviolette put the talented forward on the ice. And as if to reinforce that this was all part of Giroux's master plan, the talented Flyers forward rocked Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby with a big hit at the Penguins' blue line, then converted a turnover to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead just 32 seconds into the game.
"Yeah, well it wasn't planned to hit Crosby," the Hearst, Ontario, native said. "It's just sometimes when you have a chance to hit another player you just have to go out there and do it."
It was a lead the team would not relinquish as the Flyers downed the Penguins 5-1 in Game 6 to end their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on Sunday.
"Not only leadership but his game tonight was monstrous, it really was," Laviolette said. "When the best player in the world comes up to you and tells you, 'I don't know who you're planning on starting tonight, but I want that first shift,' that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there."
Best player in the world?
Laviolette wasn't the only one suggesting this was the case.
Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said he thinks Giroux is the best player in the NHL right now.
"And he's our motor our engine. When he goes, we go," Timonen said.
If it sounds like post-series hyperbole, it's not.
This series was a coming-out party for Giroux, who came within a point of tying a franchise record with 14 points in six games. He had a goal and two assists on Sunday and was a constant problem for which the Penguins had no solution.
As various first-round series wind to a close around the NHL, Giroux has already taken a significant step away from the pack, not just in terms of points -- his 14 points lead the league -- but in impact on the games in which he's played.
Sunday's game loomed large for a Flyers team that had lost two in a row to endanger what had been a comfortable 3-0 series lead. But Giroux's play ensured that there would be no Game 7 back in Pittsburgh.
Veteran winger Danny Briere had an inkling Giroux was going to start Sunday's game with a bang.
"Before they even dropped the puck, he came over and he told me watch the first shift," Briere said. "When he did, I didn't know what to say to him. He's been our leader all year and once again he took another step in that direction today, it was simply amazing, plain and simple.
"He was possessed."
Linemate Scott Hartnell, who scored what would turn out to be the game winner, has seen Giroux's evolution up close this season.
"G's probably the biggest competitor that I have ever played with," 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. When you hit like that on the first shift, that's our best guy in here and he played a great game tonight."
Even though the team scoring the opening goal of the game had lost all five previous games, Pascal Dupuis said the Giroux goal was different: "Obviously it ended up being a crusher."
Even from the Penguins' room, there was grudging respect for the Flyers forward.
"He's the best player on the ice but I don't think we were surprised by that," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
"Maybe two years ago we'd be surprised by that, but he's a guy we're well aware of and have tremendous respect for."
At the end of Game 5, Giroux was seen smashing his stick in anger.
He acknowledged he felt he needed to be better.
"Yeah, I got a little anger management at sometimes when I'm not happy about my game and I kind of blame myself, I think that's good," Giroux said. "Obviously it wasn't very classy to do in front of everybody. I should have done it in an open room but you got to do what you got to do."
His play in this series suggests he won't be breaking too many sticks in anger in the future.
This series was a coming-out party for Claude Giroux, who came within a point of tying a franchise record with 14 points in six games. He had a goal and two assists on Sunday and was a constant problem for which the Penguins had no solution.