PHILADELPHIA – Claude Giroux had his coach call him the best player in the world.
Giroux needed one shift to prove that claim is more than hometown hype.
He flattened Sidney Crosby only 5 seconds into the game, buried his sixth goal of the series past Marc-Andre Fleury 27 seconds later, and led a Philadelphia Flyers charge into the second round.
Giroux wrapped up a dominant series with a goal and two assists, Ilya Bryzgalov had his first outstanding effort in net and the Flyers beat the 108-point Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 on Sunday to win their Eastern Conference opening-round series in six games.
“G is a very special player,” Bryzgalov said. “There’s not very many players like that in the world.”
Giroux strapped the Flyers to his 24-year-old back and gave the Flyers an opening shift to remember. In a series where no lead was safe, the Flyers scored the first three goals and made it stand behind stout defence and stellar play out of Bryzgalov.
Bryzgalov allowed 20 goals in the first five games. He settled down in Game 6 and gave up only Evgeni Malkin’s goal in the second period.
The Flyers had stormed out to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series before Pittsburgh won two straight. A day before Game 6, Flyers forward Scott Hartnell called out his defence and Bryzgalov and said it was their turn to win a game.
The Flyers delivered with 40 blocked shots.
“Guys were sacrificing their bodies to block shots and were paying the price taking hits to make plays,” Hartnell said. “It was awesome to see.”
Bryzgalov was at last the shutdown goalie the Flyers expected when they gave him $51 million to steady one of Philadelphia’s weak links. He outplayed Fleury and helped the Flyers advance to the conference semifinals for the third straight season.
Fleury had seemingly pulled it together after some awful efforts in Games 2 and 3. He steadied the Penguins in a Game 5 victory and had the Penguins feeling confident about sending the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 7.
So much for that.
“We needed to play perfect hockey to stay in this series, to win this series, and we didn’t get the kind of start we needed today,” Crosby said. “We felt like we could get it back to Pittsburgh, and now we have some time to think about why we didn’t.”
Crosby had no time to think on the first shift.
Moments after Giroux levelled him, the Flyers winger took the loose puck and fired from the circle for a 1-0 lead. He gestured toward the crowd and slammed the glass in celebration, firing up 20,000 fans that hadn’t had much to cheer about the last two games.
“I wasn’t planning to hit Crosby,” Giroux said. “Just sometimes when you have a chance to hit another player, you’ve got to go out there and do it.”
It’s clear Giroux had something big in mind.
“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,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said.
It was Philadelphia’s first even-strength goal since Giroux scored one early in the third period of Game 3.
The team that scored first had lost the first five games of the series. For once, the Flyers piled on.
The Flyers made it 2-0 on the second bad goal allowed by Fleury. He had seemingly stopped the puck and had it covered it up, but Hartnell poked it free and jammed it into the net for Philadelphia’s 12th power-play goal of the series.
From there, Flyers fans started their derisive chants of “Fleur-rrrrry! Fleur-rrrrry!” He was rattled more by the Flyers in the second period than the crowd noise.
Nothing shook Bryzgalov en route to 30 saves.
“He was our best player on the ice tonight,” Giroux said.
Erik Gustafsson was all alone when he fired an uncontested shot from just above the circle for a 3-0 lead.
Gustafsson scored one goal all season. The Flyers put his face on the big screen as he sat on the bench, and the crowd erupted and gave him a standing ovation. Gustafsson cracked a small smile when he looked up at the video board and realized those screaming fans were all for him.
The 3-0 lead looked shaky for a moment when Malkin scored his third of the series to make it 3-1. The Penguins had 19 goals over Games 2-4 and certainly had the firepower to rally one more time.
The Flyers silenced the Penguins 34 seconds later when Danny Briere’s shot trickled between Fleury’s sprawled legs for his fifth goal of the series and a 4-1 lead. Brayden Schenn added an empty-netter in the final seconds.
The Penguins were the odds-on favourite to win the Stanley Cup and could find the early elimination leads to sweeping changes on the roster.
“Being down 3-0, we were confident, and we remained confident, but we just ran out,” Penguins forward Jordan Staal said.
Flyers fans chanted “We don’t like you!” in the waning moments, a poke at Crosby’s comments that he didn’t like anyone on the Flyers.
The testy series concluded with a peaceful handshake line—and the Flyers having several days of rest to find out their next opponent before the next round begins.
Notes: The Flyers set a team record for power-play goals in a series. … Giroux had six goals and eight assists in the series.