Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Hail Claude

I fell in love with Claude Giroux as a hockey player the moment I laid eyes on him. It was way back in 2008 against the Ottawa Senators, and then I watched him a second time two nights later against the San Jose Sharks.

Then only 20 years old and wearing No. 56, Giroux only played in those two games for the Flyers that season, playing less than 10 minutes in each and finishing a minus-2. He had no shots on net in his first contest, and only two the next night. But there was just something about him that drew me in. The way he handled the puck, the way he showed no fear, you could see it even in less than 20 minutes of NHL time.

A year later, Giroux finally got his break, playing in 42 games for the Flyers. As a 21-year-old, Claude posted 9 goals, 18 assists and finished a plus-10. His ice time jumped up significantly to 15 minutes a game. And by February, I was already comparing him to Peter Forsberg:

For the second straight game, Giroux got things going, opening the scoring with assists from Upshall and Darroll Powe. All game long, much like in the Islanders game, this line was the most energetic, most effective line for the Flyers. I hate to make hasty comparisons, but honestly, watching Giroux since he's come up this season, he reminds me of a less physical (and obviously, not nearly as good at this point) Peter Forsberg, as far as his vision on the ice and tremendous passing skills are concerned.

He has been especially impressive the past few games, and the future looks very bright for Giroux.

Shortly there after, I proclaimed him my new favorite Flyer, and I again couldn't help myself:

I mean, watching this guy up close and personal was just incredible. I've already said it once, and at the risk of sounding like an overhyping lunatic, I'm going to repeat myself: Claude Giroux really reminds me of a righthanded version of Peter Forsberg. He has incredible awareness on the ice, can thread a pass to anyone anywhere, sees plays that look like they aren't even there, stickhandles with the best of them, has a pretty nice little shot and, even though he's small, isn't afraid to take or throw a hit … much like Forsberg.

Giroux has done absolutely nothing to make me waver on those statements. He is unquestionably my favorite Philadelphia Flyer, and as he progresses each and every game, he begins to resemble Peter Forsberg more and more.

This season, he has been the best player for the Flyers, at least forward-wise, much like he was in last year's playoffs. He leads the Flyers in goals (7), points (12), power play goals (3, tied with Danny Briere), game-winning goals (3) and faceoff percentage (52.3), and leads in the entire NHL with three shorthanded goals. His .259 shooting percentage trails only Andreas Nodl, and Claude has played in seven more games and fired 21 more shots. To go along with that, he's also among the league leaders in goals, points, power play goals and shooting percentage. He averages nearly 20 minutes of ice time a night thanks to being able to play and thrive in all situations — even strength, power play and penalty kill. There is no question that Claude Giroux is playing like an all-star.

Last night was just more of the same. The Flyers beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 to win their 4th straight game and vault to first place in the Atlantic all by themselves, tying Tampa Bay and Montreal for the Eastern Conference lead in points (15). And Giroux was yet again the most exciting player on the ice and perhaps the best.

He scored a quick-strike power-play goal after winning a face-off back to Mike Richards, who slid a great pass Claude to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead in the 2nd.

He leveled former Flyer Joni Pitkanen.

And he generally dazzled with his incredible stick-handling and passing. Jim Jackson said it best during last night's broadcast: Whenever Giroux has the puck, you feel as though something special is about to happen. Sounds a heck of a lot like Peter Forsberg to me. The man is just flat-out impressive, and he's only 23 years old.

Giroux was hardly the only impressive Flyer last night. Scott Hartnell scored two Mike Knuble-esque goals last night, both the result of heading to the front of the net. The first came on an odd but beautiful play. Ville Leino, with his back turned to the net, feathered a backhanded pass to Jeff Carter up high in the slot. Carter, who also had his back toward the goal, quickly backhanded a shot/pass toward the front of the net. The puck then bounced off the defenseman to Scott Hartnell. When Hartnell, who was all alone in front of the crease, retrieved it, he had his back to the goaltender as well, took his time and calmly backhanded one up and over rookie goalie Justin Peters.

Then he scored what turned out to be the game-winner by going to the net off a face-off win and deflecting a shot off his leg and past Peters. Finally, it looks as though Hartnell is filling the role that Mike Knuble took with him to Washington — the guy who gets the job done in front of the net.

Hartnell is having a renaissance so far this year, picking up where he left off during the postseason. After scoring 24 and 30 goals in his first two years as a Flyer and finishing a plus-16, Hartnell was completely atrocious last season. His goal production dipped to 14, and he ended the regular season as a minus-6. He took stupid, lazy penalty after stupid, lazy penalty, and generally did more harm than good for the Flyers. Then he turned it all around in the postseason, and now he looks to have turned the corner. Through 12 games, Hartnell is a plus-3 and has 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists). Playing alongside Ville Leino and Danny Briere for the most part (and Jeff Carter last night with Briere serving the first game of his three-game suspension), he seems to be playing with more discipline and more confidence. He's embracing his role as the big man on his line, doing the dirty work in the corners and in front of the crease. It's all resulted in a strong rebound, and he no longer looks like the struggling guy from last regular season. Nice to see him rededicate himself and play smart, aggressive hockey so far.

Then there was Eric Wellwood making his NHL debut.

Before the game began, Jim Jackson passed along word from Peter Laviolette that when you watch this guy play, you will be impressed. Laviolette wasn't kidding. Wellwood didn't register a point and finished the night a minus-1, but he was most certainly impressive.

In his first NHL game ever, the sixth-round pick had the privilege of skating alongside captain Mike Richards and first-round pick and No. 2 pick overall James van Riemsdyk, and he immediately showed he belonged. Wellwood finished with a game-high six shots on net (tied with Carolina's Eric Staal), made some nifty passes and showed the type of aggressive forecheck that Peter Laviolette demands from his forwards. No wonder the guy loves him.

As good as Andreas Nodl has played and as much as fans love Dan Carcillo, Wellwood showed enough last night to earn himself the opportunity to crack the lineup more regularly. Of course one game is just one game, but you have to think this won't be last we see of Eric Wellwood this season.

Then of course there were the veteran blue-liners, namely Kimmo Timonen and Sean O'Donnell.

Defense-first defenseman are often hard to appreciate unless you see them play every night. Over the last three-plus years, Flyers fans have had the honor to watch Kimmo Timonen play as well as any defenseman in the league night in and night out. I've watched the Flyers almost religiously since the Eric Lindros era began, and I can confidently say that Timonen is the best defenseman — Chris Pronger's one full year excluded — I've seen in the Orange and Black.

I can understand why he doesn't get the recognition he deserves nationally. Before he came here, I barely heard a peep about Timonen. But now that he's a Flyer, I know just how incredibly good the guy is. Yes, he has plenty of offensive talent. He's topped the 40-point mark seven times in his previous 11 seasons, and came up one point short last year with 39. He has five points so far this season, getting an assist (on Hartnell's second goal) last night following his first goal of the year the game before. But it is his defense that truly separates him from pack.

Kimmo rarely makes mistakes. He's always in the right position, almost always makes the right play. He rarely gets caught pinching or allows someone to undress him. He's fearless blocking shots, careful and intelligent with the puck, and a machine when it comes to ice time. He once again led the Flyers with nearly 23 minutes of ice time last night, and he played as well as a defenseman can play. Chris Pronger is the best player on Philadelphia's blue line. We learned that last year. Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Meszaros are talented young defenseman. But Kimmo Timonen is the rock back there, the heart and soul of Philadelphia's talented, deep defense corps. You can't fully appreciate all he does unless you watch him on a nightly basis, and I feel honored to get to do that.

Then there is Sean O'Donnell. Playing the majority of his career on the west coast, with stops in New Jersey and Boston, O'Donnell was another guy I didn't know all that much about before he came here besides the fact that he won a Stanley Cup playing alongside Chris Pronger in Anaheim.

Through 12 games, I've been thoroughly impressed. O'Donnell is a defensive defenseman through and through. That's evident by his zero points thus far. But he knows his job and does it well.

Last night, he really jumped out in the offensive end though to me. He repeatedly did a great job knowing when to pinch to keep the play alive, and he created several sustained shifts in the offensive zone by doing so. A few times, he even showed a bit of stick-handling ability to get the puck deep by himself. He's been impressive in his own zone all season, but last night he showed he can chip in at the other blue line as well.

As well as those players played, and as much as the Flyers dominated the game — they outshot the Canes 37-28, won 40 of 66 face-offs and converted on the power play — there were a few negatives last night. For starters, the Flyers turned the puck over way, way too much, particularly in the first period. Most of those giveaways were unforced, and they led to many of the few quality chances Carolina generated. Secondly, the Flyers only managed to win by a goal in a game they dominated. You'd prefer things to not be so close at the end. And they were close at the end because Sergei Bobrovsky, who has played much more good hockey than bad, gave up a terrible goal at a bad angle with 27 seconds left to make it a one-goal game. In the NHL, he has to be ready for those, and he has to stop them.

Of course, that goal didn't wind up hurting the Flyers because they ended the game with a truly awesome shift, keeping the Canes buried in their own end for the final 27 seconds. And guess who was on the ice and leading the way ragging the puck on that final shift? I'll give you a hint. He looks an awful lot like Peter Forsberg out there.

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