Flyers desperately need Claude Giroux to find his form

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Flyers desperately need Claude Giroux to find his form

Claude Giroux’s torrid finish over the final 10 games of the regular season is undoubtedly the single-biggest reason the Flyers earned a first-round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Without his contributions, the Flyers would have already conducted their exit interviews.

But the team is still searching for the player that posted a career-high 34 goals and 102 points.

Through the first three games of the series, Giroux has managed one assist. He hasn’t experienced this lack of production over a three-game span since the beginning of February, Games 51-53 of the regular season, which more than anything speaks to how dominant he was over the final two months of the regular season.

Upon further inspection, Giroux’s shot has been wickedly off the mark. Excluding shots that were blocked, Giroux hit the net on 76 percent of his attempted shots during the regular season. That number has dipped dramatically in the Pittsburgh series to just 44 percent.

Of the 10 shots he fired in Game 3, five never had a chance at becoming a goal. The captain’s marksmanship hadn’t been this far off the mark in a single game since March 2014. Uncharacteristically, Giroux’s nine missed shots in the postseason now lead all NHL players.

Somewhere there’s a “gripping the stick too tightly” cliche just ready to roll off the tongue.

Giroux’s lack of scoring aside, the most startling sequence of events came right after Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal early in the second period. It was a moment head coach Dave Hakstol referred to as the point in Game 3 when he should have utilized a timeout (see story).

It might have prevented the fastest two goals in NHL postseason history. Sidney Crosby not only won the faceoff cleanly but skated around the Flyers’ captain, who appeared so shell-shocked that he forgot to pick up Brian Dumoulin, who jumped in from his left defense position to take Crosby’s pass and score on a snap shot.

Goaltender Brian Elliott even appeared surprised how that play unfolded.

“We can’t get beat off of a neutral-zone draw like that and have a guy walking down Main Street,” Elliott said. “It’s just another thing that I don’t think we’re ready for right off the draw there.”

If there’s one aspect of Giroux’s game that’s a notch above the competition, it’s his work in the faceoff circle. He took over 1,000 draws this season and was never beaten that badly.

After cleaning up in Game 1, Giroux won less than 40 percent of his faceoffs in Games 2 and 3, which hadn’t happened in back-to-back playoff games since the epic seven-game series against Boston in 2010.

Entering this series, the Flyers needed one of two things to happen to have a legitimate chance at dethroning the two-time champs: superior goaltending or the Flyers’ elite players outperforming Pittsburgh’s elites.

So far, neither have happened.

Crosby once went 13 straight playoff games without a goal. The Penguins suffered then, and the Flyers can’t survive without Giroux at his best in this series. 

What are Flyers made of? We're about to find out

What are Flyers made of? We're about to find out

VOORHEES, N.J. — The Penguins have the Flyers on the canvas in a headlock.

The faces of the guys who wear orange and black are turning purple, and unless they put up a courageous fight as they did in Game 2, they will tap out of this best-of-seven series after just five games (see story).

General manager Ron Hextall spoke to the media for the first time since the series started and believes the Flyers have displayed a lack of mental fortitude through the first four games.

“A lot of it is mentality,” Hextall said. “We need to be stronger if a bump goes the other way. We need to be stronger and bounce back and create energy going back our way. The playoffs are a series of momentum (swings) — within a period and within a game. We need to do a better job of bringing the momentum back our way."

So where exactly does that start? The return of Sean Couturier would help considerably.

After sitting out Game 4’s 5-0 loss, the Selke Trophy finalist hasn’t ruled out playing in Game 5 after skating Wednesday and Thursday on his own. Hextall said Couturier would travel to Pittsburgh and nothing more than that.

“I’m feeling better every day, and we’ll see how I feel tomorrow,” Couturier said. “It’s really on me to see how I feel every day and hopefully, it keeps getting better. It’s really up to my body to see how it keeps progressing.”

Dave Hakstol switched up his lines once again Thursday, most notably installing Valtteri Filppula onto the top line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and breaking up the top defense pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Robert Hagg is also expected to make his series debut, playing alongside Andrew MacDonald as fellow rookie Travis Sanheim will serve as the healthy scratch.

“About time,” Hagg said. “I’m looking forward to it tomorrow. Hopefully, I can bring something to the team, some energy. I think it’s perfect and I can’t wait to go in and show what I can bring to the team.”

“He brings a different element than a couple of guys in the lineup if we’re so inclined to make that change,” Hakstol said. “We haven’t generated very much over the last five periods, but at the same time, we’ve given up quite a bit in some of the harder areas.”

Toward the end of Thursday’s 45-minute practice, Giroux gathered his teammates around and delivered a speech he hopes can galvanize the Flyers for Game 5 and bring the series back to Philadelphia for Game 6.

“I think it’s believing in ourselves," Giroux said. "All year we’ve done that, and we’ve talked about it before. You lose 10 in a row and find a way to make the playoffs. Tomorrow’s a big game for us, and if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”

Quick hits
• Speaking on the collision with Radko Gudas, Couturier said, "We've done this drill all year. It was bad timing and a fluke accident. There's no one to really blame, and I should have maybe had my head up there."

• Hextall believes Couturier should be the Selke Trophy frontrunner based on his outstanding 2017-18 season.

"I think he should win it," Hextall said. "I know those other players fairly well, and yes, I watch Coots on a daily basis, but the two-way game that he brings to our team is in my mind, the best in the league this year."

• Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist will miss his second straight game.

Ding dong, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is gone

Ding dong, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is gone

Michal Neuvirth stood by his locker Wednesday night dejected, like the rest of his teammates, after the Flyers’ latest blunder, an embarrassing 5-0 loss on home ice to the Penguins in Game 4.

The Flyers are on the brink of elimination to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, and Wednesday's defeat was the latest reminder of their current state of affairs.

"Definitely good to get in the mix," said Neuvirth, who replaced Brian Elliott in the second period for his first game action since March 28. "But tough outcome tonight. We lost it to a better team tonight."

With that, Neuvirth perfectly encapsulated exactly where the Flyers stand in this first-round playoff series with Pittsburgh. It's definitely good to be in the mix, and they lost to the better team.

We've heard that before and we'll hear it again, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow. This Flyers team isn't quite there yet, to compete with the Penguins or in the playoffs.

There are encouraging signs. The postseason experience will pay off in the long run — it's better than not being there. Nolan Patrick, 19, has perhaps been the Flyers' most consistent forward in the series. He was the only player who competed Wednesday.

But goaltending remains an eyesore and rookie mistakes are consistently being made by veterans, and some appear immune to accountability. Game 4 was as ugly as it gets (see story), and that's counting a series that included a 7-0 loss in Game 1.

The Flyers were never really in Wednesday's game outside of about a two-minute stretch in the first period, when they were buzzing in the Pittsburgh zone until a Scott Laughton centering pass turned into a Penguins odd-man rush.

Bang, 2-0 Pittsburgh. Ballgame.

"From our standpoint," Dave Hakstol said, "we have to look from within. There's going to be momentum swings, there are going to be pushes, but we haven't been able to reestablish our game quick enough to give ourselves an opportunity."

Wednesday served as another grim reminder. This Flyers-Penguins rivalry, well, isn't much of a rivalry and hasn't been one in quite some time now.

Coming into this series, we heard the old storylines, about how much these two teams hate each other, how close games are, but the hate hasn't been there for a while and the games, they haven't been close, either.

The Penguins have dominated the Flyers, this season especially. With the 5-0 win Wednesday, the Pens have outscored the Flyers, 38-17, in eight total games and 20-4 in games played at the Wells Fargo Center.

The hype machine was on full blast and we all bought into it. It's the playoffs, different animal, but some things never change no matter the environment.

At some point, it's time to bury the hatchet.

It was fun while it lasted, but for now, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is no more.