One thing we’re learning quickly during the NHL’s “pause” period: during COVID-19-imposed isolation, millionaire pro athletes become very much like the rest of us. Philadelphia Flyers left winger Claude Giroux rides an exercise bike. He does pushups. He tries to navigate crowded video chats in which everyone struggles to get a word in. And, yes, he binge watches Netflix. “When the baby goes to bed, you glue yourself to the couch, he says.” That’s about as relatable as it gets.
Just like all of us, he’s trying to pass the time as best he can as he waits out the virus at home in Ottawa. Whatever he can do to distract himself from the anguish over what could have been. His Flyers really had something cookin’ before the league shut down March 12. They’d won nine of 10 games and were 14-4-0 from the start of February. They’d closed to within one point of the Washington Capitals for first in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers’ .645 points percentage was their highest since 2010-11. They were finally building toward something after missing the playoffs four of the past seven seasons and not advancing past Round 1 since 2011-12. The virus snatched it away, and there’s no guarantee the 2019-20 season returns at all.
“We were playing some good hockey, in a good position to go into the playoffs,” Giroux said on a Zoom video conference call last week. “I’ve been thinking about it every day, when we’re going come back, if we come back, what the possibilities are going to be. You obviously think about it, but you don’t want to overthink it. As much as it’s frustrating, you’ve got to stay optimistic.”
As Philly’s captain, Giroux has to think that way, for his sanity and that of his teammates. And they still try to rally together virtually, even if, as Giroux describes a recent team FaceTime session, “It didn’t go very well. Everybody just started screaming. We couldn’t hear anybody.”
Since there’s nothing they can do about the shutdown, they may as well stay optimistic, especially when their outstanding season seems pretty sustainable even if it doesn’t resume until the summer or fall. After a slow start, Giroux had found his game in a big way after the all-star break. Right winger Travis Konecny was blossoming from impact player to legit star goal-scorer. The Kevin Hayes signing had added crucial depth behind No. 1 center and two-way maven Sean Couturier. Goaltender Carter Hart was growing into the stud No. 1 he was always projected to be, going 9-2 with a 1.93 goals-against average and .934 save percentage after the all-star break. Most importantly, the Flyers had seriously shored up their defense thanks to new head coach Alain Vigneault and veteran off-season additions Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen. Their presence created room for Ivan Provorov to get back on his future Norris-Trophy-winner trajectory, while Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers established themselves as NHL regulars. The Flyers became one of the most smothering teams in the league. At 5-on-5 they allowed the sixth-fewest shot attempts, fourth-fewest shots on goal and sixth-fewest scoring chances per 60 minutes while icing the league’s No. 11 penalty kill. Not bad for a team that ranked 29th in total defense and 26th on the PK last year. If the season ends as is, Vigneault will get a deserved pile of Jack Adams Award votes.
The Flyers, then, have something to get excited about whenever play resumes, even if it’s still months from now and comes in the form of an entirely new season. We also haven’t even seen this roster at its peak potential. By the time the Flyers play again, center Nolan Patrick could have his migraines sorted out. Myers’ fractured kneecap and James van Riemsdyk’s broken finger could be healed. Young forwards Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost have only dipped their toes in the NHL waters and will keep getting better, while Cam York is one of the sport’s top blueline prospects. Even Oskar Lindblom’s cancer prognosis could be different depending on when play resumes.
So when Giroux says he’s staying positive, you believe it. It truly is a good time to be a Flyers fan. With that in mind, Giroux tries to tuck hockey away and focus on what’s going on in the world, trying to stay abreast of the daily COVID-10 updates. “Early on, a lot of people weren’t taking this very seriously,” Giroux said. “And you can see in the last few weeks, people have really made sure everybody stays home and everybody does the right thing. If it keeps going like that, we’re going in the right direction, but there’s a lot of unknown, and you’ve just got to do your part.”
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