Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Claude Giroux Will Be an All-Star

If you watched last night's game between the Flyers and Avalanche, a 4-2 win in the home opener for the Flyers, you know that while Jeff Carter scored twice and had the game-winner, Claude Giroux was the best player on the ice, or at least as impressive as Mike Richards. As Jim Jackson put it at one point during the game, Giroux was just moving a different speed than everyone else on the ice, kicking into another gear, and there can't be a more frightening sight for a goaltender than seeing Claude coming in on a breakaway. Just ask Craig Anderson.

Giroux scored the first goal of the game, shorthanded nonetheless. It was already his second shorty of the season, this one even more impressive than his very impressive first, making Anderson look helpless, and doing it seemingly so effortlessly.

It wasn't the first or the last time he invoked visions of Peter Forsberg, the former Flyer and Avalanche star, and it certainly won't be the last. Like Forsberg, Giroux is no longer just an offensive maestro either. He's averaging about 20 minutes of ice time a game, playing in all situations — penalty kill, power play and of course on his regular shifts. Peter Laviolette is using him in all the ways John Stevens wouldn't, and it very well could result in Giroux taking the next step from elite talent to elite player.

He's off to one heck of a start, a start that could catapult him to all-star status, if not this season, sooner rather than later. We all knew he had it in him, and in the first three games of this young season, he's showing he's ready to take that next step, ready to fill the scoring and leadership void that Simon Gagne left behind. He's just so damn fun to watch, and in these first three games, nothing has been funner than watching him and Mike Richards on the penalty kill.

Richards has been one of the best penalty killers since he entered the league, scoring 20 shorthanded goals already in five seasons and three games. And he almost got another one last night, getting stopped on a breakaway by Anderson. Now with Giroux, he becomes even more lethal. After creating a shorthanded break of his own, Richards made a great play at the Colorado blue line to win the puck and throw it to a wide open Giroux. Claude did the rest, and the Flyers had their second shorthanded goal of the season, both by Giroux.

Considering the Flyers aren't exactly averse to taking penalties, with these two guys getting a ton of PK time, not to mention the team's leading goal-scorer the past few years in Jeff Carter killing penalties, it wouldn't be surprising if the Flyers lead the league shorthanded goals like they did two seasons ago. Expect Giroux and Richards, with the aggressive style they play up top on the kill, to be among the league leaders, and expect Giroux to really break out and become a bona fide star this year.

As for the game itself, I was thoroughly impressed with the Flyers in the first period. They outworked, outhustled and simply outplayed Colorado, clearly feeding off the energy from the crowd in the home opener after the unveiling of the 2009-10 Eastern Conference Champions banner.

They built a 2-0 lead on the aforementioned shorty by Giroux followed by a nearly identical goal by Jeff Carter just after another Flylers penalty had expired, with Carter stealing the puck at his own blue line and bursting in for the breakaway.

The Flyers outshot the Avalanche 15-8 in the first, and looked like they were on their way to an easy victory. But the second period turned on a dime. Colorado came out as the aggressor, spending the majority of the time in the Flyers' zone, and some guy named Brandon Yip scored to make it a 2-1 game on a bad giveaway by Scott Hartnell.

Colorado carried that moment into the third, scoring just 32 seconds in on a shot by Milan Hejduk that snuck through the arm of Sergei Bobrovsky. For the most part, Bobrovsky was very good again last night, stopping 25 of 27 shots, but that was one he'd like to have back. He may have been screened, but it was not nearly a strong enough shot or chance to be considered unstoppable. Bob should have had that one.

The good news is, he stopped all of them the rest of the way, including a couple dandies, and I'd be lying if I said I'm eagerly anticipating Michael Leighton's return in six to eight weeks. I like what I see from this kid a lot. It's the first time I've been truly excited about a young goaltender since Brian Boucher broke in over a decade ago and almost carried the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals.

The game settled down after Hejduk tied it up, but in the final five minutes, the Flyers pretty much took over. Carter scored the game-winner by simply throwing the puck toward the net. It got caught up at Anderson's feet and found its way in, more proof that it's never a bad idea to let it fly. Darroll Powe added an empty-netter to ice it by using his great speed and softly backhanding it in the empty net.

Besides the incredible play by Giroux, excellent game by Carter and the all-around dominant performance we've come to expect from Mike Richards, I was also really impressed with the play of Andrej Meszaros, Sean O'Donnell and Matt Carle.

In the early going, Meszaros looks to be a much more physical player than I thought he was. He was throwing his weight around often last night, doing a very nice job of separating opposing forwards from the puck. And O'Donnell looks very much like Chris Pronger-lite, using his size and reach to break up plays and block shots. Particularly on the PK, I thought these two played really well, and with Chris Pronger making his season debut last night to give Philadelphia its full compliment of defenseman, it's pretty evident this group will be one of the best defensive corps in the league.

While Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn received the majority of ice time and played their usual solid games, I thought Matt Carle stood out as the most impressive d-man on the night. He seemed to be everywhere, winning a puck in his own zone one second, and jumping up on the rush the next. With Pronger looking a little bit behind the eight ball after missing all of the preseason (though still playing over 20 minutes and finishing the night a plus-2), Carle took charge and looks even more confident than he did last year. Playing alongside Chris Pronger for a full season has done wonders for his game.

Another thing Flyers fans should be excited about is the confidence that James van Riemsdyk has exuded here through the first three games. As a rookie last season, he showed flashes at times, yet clearly struggled at others. So far this season, he looks like he knows he belongs, and knows he can be a force. No play exemplified that more than when he was tapping his stick on the ice calling for the puck next to the net during a power play, and when Richards obliged him, JVR stepped out in front of the net, quickly going from backhand to forehand and trying to jam it by Anderson. He used his size and strength to shield the defense and created a great scoring chance.

I can't wait to see what JVR and Giroux have in store this year. Something tells me it's gonna be something awesome to behold. It is admittedly way too early to predict what this season might bring, but through three games, so far, so good.

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