Giroux not the same after Laviolette's label

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Giroux not the same after Laviolette's label

Claude Giroux hasn’t been the same, and why do you think that is?

The money? No. Giroux is still playing out the final year of a three-year, $11.25-million deal. His eight-year, $66.2-million extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

The captaincy? No. Giroux has taken the honor very seriously, and has embraced his role as the face of a franchise.

It’s “The Label.” Don’t remember?

Immediately after the Flyers disposed of their cross-state rival Penguins in six games in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Giroux went from rising superstar to the king of the NHL mountain. His former coach, Peter Laviolette, rolled out one of those medieval catapults at his postgame press conference and launched Giroux into a hockey stratosphere that has included The Great One and a select few who have been compared to Wayne Gretzky ever since.

“When the best player in the world comes up to you and tells you, ‘I don’t know who you plan on starting tonight, but I want that first shift.’ That says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there,” Laviolette said at the time.

As he stepped off the stage, Laviolette should have grabbed that pail of red paint used to touch up the goalposts and applied a big, fat bulls-eye onto Giroux’s chest. “The best player in the world” line raised eyebrows and dropped jaws everywhere from Western Pennsylvania to the coastline of British Columbia. It may have come across as a compliment from a head coach to his most-gifted player, but Laviolette’s bold proclamation unloaded a monumental amount of pressure on the shoulders of the Flyers’ best player that simply wasn't needed.

“With that comment, Laviolette tried to move Giroux into the same zip code and neighborhood as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin,” Flyers analyst Al Morganti said. “As it turns out, Giroux is having trouble paying the higher taxes in terms of attention and tighter checking.”

Residency in that neighborhood can only be obtained by achievement, not inherited through opinion. Crosby, Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin all have Hart Trophies with the distinction as the league’s most valuable player. Crosby and Malkin have hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. While Laviolette lauded Giroux, his words were also a slap in the face to those who had the necessary credentials -- especially from the much-hated group down the turnpike.

“In hindsight, he (Laviolette) shouldn’t have said it, but I can understand his heart was in the right place at the time,” said Flyers analyst Rick Tocchet, who lives in Pittsburgh and has heard plenty of feedback and reaction from Penguins fans.

If you think Giroux has been oblivious to the backlash, check his Twitter account, where fans in the other 29 cities have taken a virtual sledge hammer to his reputation in the wake of Laviolette’s words. It all has an impact and it was almost immediate.

Since Laviolette’s declaration, the Flyers were upset by New Jersey in the next round. After scoring 14 points against the Penguins, Giroux was held to just three by the defensive-minded Devils. He was invisible in Games 2 and 3 of that series –- both losses -- and was suspended for the series-clinching Game 5 defeat following a borderline hit to New Jersey’s Dainius Zubrus.

The NHL’s awards ceremony that summer in Las Vegas only intensified Giroux’s superstar spotlight. Malkin was awarded the Hart, and the Los Angeles Kings -- with former Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter -- were recognized as Stanley Cup champions. But that evening, it was Giroux who claimed the league’s popularity contest when he graced the cover of EA Sports' NHL 13 video game by receiving the majority of the 26 million fan votes that were cast on NHL.com. Suddenly, Giroux was elevated further –- from the league’s best player to the shelves of Best Buy.

It’s been a rough 2013 for Giroux. The Flyers failed to reach the postseason in his first year as captain, and he admitted recently that the capital “C” on his left shoulder can’t be mistaken for confidence.

“The confidence is not there,” Giroux told CSNPhilly.com's Tim Panaccio last week. “I don’t think it’s the hand -– the confidence is just not there. ... It’s a beautiful game. You need to enjoy it. It feels like I’m not enjoying it right now.”

Confidence wasn’t lacking when he requested to take that opening shift on April 22, 2012 when he leveled Crosby and proceeded to score the game’s first goal. Since that day, and over time, it has been stripped away. Now it's up to Giroux to get it back.

Wayne Gretzky defends Connor McDavid's outburst over Brandon Manning

Wayne Gretzky defends Connor McDavid's outburst over Brandon Manning

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

"I guess we can put the whole 'if he did it' thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that," said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers' loss.

"I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player," Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. "I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I'm a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that."

Gretzky didn't mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

"And Connor, he's going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him," Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. "He's been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he's always responded and done his part."

Michael Raffl's power moves impressing Flyers, adding another element to top line

Michael Raffl's power moves impressing Flyers, adding another element to top line

He did it last Sunday in Nashville.

And he did it again Thursday night against Edmonton.

Michael Raffl displayed power and speed to send the Flyers to their seventh straight victory and longest winning streak since 2011 Thursday with a 6-5 win over the Oilers.

"Raf has this stutter step that's undercover speedy," goalie Steve Mason said. "He used it in Nashville to get a big goal and then here tonight.

"It looks like he's going to stop fully up, but he finds another gear and he really adds another element to that line that brings physical play.

"He has that sneaky talent, too, that can make you pay."

Raffl received a bank pass off the wall from Jakub Voracek, stutter stepped and then blew by Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom, protecting the puck along the way before flipping it over goalie Jonas Gustavsson for the game-winning marker with 1:29 left in the game.

It was his sixth goal of the season and his second game-winner in three games.

"Jakey has been hard on me for three years now," Raffl said, referring to Voracek's pass, "and it's actually the first time it worked out.

"He wants me to make that play all the time. He's been hard on me. I threw a little fake in there, got around their D-man and chipped it up high."

Voracek, who tied a career high with four points (one goal, three assists) said after the game his pass was not as perfect as it appeared on tape, as it didn't hit Raffl in stride.

"I think we should use it a little bit more to be honest," Voracek said, "because if their D wants to have a gap on that, you know you put it off the boards, it's tough to handle for the defenseman. [Raffl] had to slow down a little bit, so next time I've got to put it better."

Juggling his lines in an attempt to find chemistry, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol moved Raffl up from the third line to the top line with Voracek and captain Claude Giroux on Nov. 27. Coincidentally, that was the start of this seven-game winning streak.

On Thursday night, Raffl showcased the reasoning behind the move to the top line, a spot he's familiar with, having played with Giroux and Voracek in seasons' past.

"He's good from coming off either way as he enters the zone," Hakstol said. "He's got the ability to take it to the net. 

"Obviously at a critical time of the hockey game. But, that's Raffl when he's at his best. He's a power forward that can do those type of things offensively."

In his fourth season with the Flyers, the 28-year-old doesn't possess jaw-dropping skill. He's better suited for a third-line role, but drives play at 5-on-5 and is strong on the puck to move up into the top six. His style complements Giroux and Voracek's game well.

"[Raffl] complains a lot on the bench," Giroux quipped. "Nah, he was fired up there in the third. He is so strong on the puck. That's a big goal for us. He's been playing some great hockey right now for us. I think me and Jake are lucky to play with him right now."

"He does every little thing right," Voracek said. "He wins the battles. He wins so many puck battles in the corners and on the boards and gives me and G a lot of space to work with. He knows what to do to have success with us and he's been doing that."

Against the Oilers, Raffl was one of two European free agents the Flyers found to contribute to their win, with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare slowing down Connor McDavid.

It's been an avenue the Flyers have found some success in recent years. Raffl was a Paul Holmgren signing, while general manager Ron Hextall plucked Bellemare from the SHL.

"Since we signed him, I think he surprised everyone," Voracek said of Raffl. "He's got a lot of talent. He's a strong guy on the puck. He's skating well. He's got a great shot.

"I think he's one of the good players."

The Flyers described Raffl as a sneaky talent, someone who may not demand the respect from defensemen but has the ability to surprise and make them pay for playing lax against him.

But it's really simpler than that, according to Raffl.

"Just puck possession," he said. "Just focus on being the first on forecheck, digging out pucks. It's not a fun job to do, but somebody has to do it.

"They're two great players with the puck, I try to dig it out and get it to them and get in an open area and they'll find me eventually."

And they found him Thursday night when it mattered most.