Captain Comeback: Thoughts After Flyers 4, Penguins 3

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Flyers fans haven’t seen a game like this since 2010.

While the comeback win against Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was a bit more do-or-die than a regular season game not even at the midway point against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and had a more profound impact on the lore of the franchise’s history, what happened Thursday was itself a seminal moment.

It’s not going to be one of those games that is considered one of the most memorable when such lists are compiled five, ten, twenty years from now, but when viewed in a vacuum, this well could be the game that is the catalyst for whatever success the Flyers have in this weird season.

Oh, and for the record, it should be part of the ‘Claude Giroux for hockey Hall of Fame’ highlight reel five years after the Flyers captain eventually hangs up his skates.

Because here the Flyers were, facing their most hated rival, minus one of their leading scorers, falling behind by not one, not two, but three goals before the game was even four minutes old, when coach Alain Vigneault, channeling his inner Peter Laviolette, called timeout, gathered his team around him on the bench, looked up at the scoreboard and reminded them that there was an entire game left to play and that if they would just get the next goal, they were back in the hockey game:

Two Flyers players were experiencing deja vu – as Giroux and James van Riemsdyk were but just puppies on that 2010 team that forged the greatest comeback in franchise history, and arguably NHL history – and while JVR, who scored that first goal to start the comeback 11 years ago, didn’t get himself on the scoresheet (but played an important part nonetheless), it was Giroux who responded with an epic performance that only the best to play the game usually provide.

For it was Giroux who would score twice, including the game-winner, and assisted on a third that would have been a hat trick had it not kissed Scott Laughton’s pants on the way into the net to tie the game, as the Flyers completed a comeback, winning for the first time this season when trailing heading into the third period, 4-3 to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins and set the tone for the rest of the season.

It was the first time the Flyers had overcome a three-goal deficit in five years and it flipped the always-tight East Division standings on its ear for one night as the Flyers went from falling outside of a playoff spot, if they would have lost, to moving into third place (12-5-3, 27 points) with the win.

(The Flyers and Bruins have identical records and although the Bruins have absolutely pummeled the Flyers this season, going 5-0-0 against them, the NHL, in it’s always infinite wisdom, does not have head-to-head as the first tiebreaker between two teams, but instead bumps the team with more regulation wins ahead of the other, which is how the Flyers have a tiebreaker on the Bruins – in case you were wondering.)

The 12-5-3 record is the Flyers’ best through 20 games since the Ken Hitchcock era, when Peter Forsberg, pre-foot-and-skate issues, led the 2005-06 team to the same start.

This win though, is they type of win that coaches remember. Players remember. A win that fuels the tank for a long trip – and the Flyers have plans for one of those.

The night didn’t start out well for the Flyers though, and I don’t mean allowing three goals in 3:57. I mean even before the game started:

Crosby missed just one game while in the COVID-19 protocol, while Farabee, easily the Flyers’ hottest player and tied for the team-lead in goals with 10, was suddenly out of the lineup.

Vigneault said after the game that he didn’t want to share what the lines were originally supposed to be in the contest because all four were blown up by Farabee being unable to play.

It’s a good bet that either Connor Bunnaman or Nolan Patrick was going to sit out, but with Farabee sidelined, Jake Voracek moved up to the wing to replace him on the top line with Sean Couturier and JVR, Giroux moved from wing to center on a third line with Oskar Lindblom and Nick Aube-Kubel, who rotated back into the lineup after being a healthy scratch Tuesday (and was likely coming back in even if Farabee was able to play), Scott Laughton moved from center to wing on a line with Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny, and Patrick shifted back to center after a brief and unsuccessful stint at right wing, centering the fourth line with Bunnaman and Michael Raffl.

It wasn’t the setup AV wanted. It left the Flyers a little out of sorts as they tried to piece together new lines, a new power play setup and new cohesiveness just a couple of hours before puck drop.

It’s not an excuse, but it was certainly a contributing factor to the team being on its heels in the opening minutes of the game.

Then AV called the timeout. His other smart decision was leaving Brian Elliott in net. Elliott had no chance on any of the three Penguins goals. Two were the result of strange glove plays by teammates (One went off of Travis Sanheim’s glove as he failed to block the shot on the way in and instead redirected it past Elliott, the other was on a gloved clearing attempt by Giroux that went right on the stick of the charging Mark Friedman in the slot, and caught Elliott completely by surprise. The third goal was a defensive breakdown and a wild shot by a falling Jared McCann that hit off the underside of the cross bar and bounded into the net.

After that, Elliott shut out the Penguins for 56:03, finishing with 26 saves.

We’ll dive into Elliott a bit more in a bit, but first we got to start with the captain.

1. Ginger Jesus

Remember that nickname for Giroux? We haven’t heard that one in a while because Giroux is frequently the target of fan ire on social media when the team struggles. They falsely accuse him of being a poor leader, of not stepping up and being the best player on the team or doing things that captains are supposed to do.

It’s all hogwash. Fan-created nonsense. But, it persists because we allow ourselves to be shaped by the opinions of the most vocal, even if they are far-fetched.

Without getting political, the fans who bitch and complain about Giroux as a captain are the QAnon followers of the hockey world.

This season Giroux now has 17 points in 18 games. And, he singlehandedly is responsible for two Flyers wins now – the Rangers game last week, the day he returned from the COVID-19 protocol list, and now the Penguins game Thursday.

While there were other players who played well post-AV timeout – Konecny specifically comes to mind as he was active, aggressive and hit a couple of posts, otherwise he might have been the story after this game – it was Giroux who stood out the most.

This is how he leads – by example.

Take his first goal:

This was just impeccable work by Giroux’s line. If the video went back even further, they were buzzing. They were determined. They kept the puck in the Pittsburgh end and alive enough to set up the scoring chance. Even Justin Braun got in on the act with a pinch down the wall.

And as great as the pass was from Aube-Kubel to Lindblom in front, it’s Giroux’s instincts that makes the goal. He knows Lindblom is a left shot and if there’s going to be a rebound it’s going to come off to the right side of the net, so he quickly scoots into position, and… goal.

It seems so simple, but it’s the speed at which he processes the entire play that makes it such an elite decision.

Then there was the tying goal:

You don’t see the pass from Konecny (who finished with two assists), but he spots Giroux skating hard into the zone with speed. It’s a perfectly-executed play as Laughton is going to the net for a screen, or a tip, and Giroux lets go of a blast from the top of the slot. It hits Laughton and flutters in for the tying goal.

You always hear coaches talking about how players need to move their feet. They never say that about Giroux. This goal is example No. 1 as to why.

And then, there’s the game-winner:

Go to the net. Stick on the ice. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet for some reason, it’s not. But Giroux made it simple. He carried the Flyers on his shoulders Thursday and elevated them to the best win of the season.

He did have a little help though.

2. Hold the Door

Yep. That was what Elliott had to do, and he did it. Consider this save on Evgeni Malkin:

That wasn’t the only time he was tested. The Penguins had a lot of opportunities. There was one by Crosby soon after they took the 3-0 lead on the power play that Moose turned aside. There was a mad scramble late in the second period where the Flyers got caught watching the puck and he had to make a few stops in a row from in tight.

The point is, Elliott has been sensational for the Flyers. He’s the backup, and will remain the backup, but the guy is good enough to be a starter, and he has the hot hand right now.

As such, AV should stick with him for a little bit. Hart has to start one this weekend anyway, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Elliott get extra games until he slows up. Because right now, it’s night and day between the way the two are playing.

3. Coots just keeps on scoring

The Flyers’ most important player once again gets on the scoresheet. He has now registered at least one point in every full game he’s played this season (he only took one shift against Pittsburgh in the second game of the season before getting hurt and missing three weeks, so we aren’t counting that one.)

Here’s his goal:

The guy is playing lights-out hockey right now and deserves more credit nationally than he’s getting (I know, he won the Selke last year, but he’s not getting enough love from the national media this season).

I also want to point out JVR sets a mean screen here. He doesn’t register a point, which is a rarity these days, but JVR is still in the thick of the action and making stuff happen.

Don’t look now, but the much-maligned veterans are doing it all for the Flyers right about now.

And yes, I relish in that because of the haters and trolls who constantly say otherwise without any knowledge of how they are poisoning the public narratives.

Enjoy Saturday’s finale in Pittsburgh.

For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts   

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