A look at Claude Giroux’s glorious rejuvenation

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Hockey fans get a chance to see a rising Philadelphia Flyers team as they take on the Capitals in Washington on NBCSN tonight, and they also get a chance to witness one of the best new lines of 2017-18 in action.

It’s funny how things happen in sports sometimes. Back in training camp, sliding Claude Giroux to the left wing, placing Sean Couturier as the Flyers’ top center, and filling out the trio with Jakub Voracek seemed like it might just be an interesting experiment. Even if Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol praised the way Giroux embraced the move.

“When your captain is as selfless as ‘G’ is, he [goes] all in,” Hakstol said, via NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer back in September. “Whatever the role is, he’s going to attack it… It’s early, but he’s had a very high-level camp.”

In this age of more analytics-minded writing, it’s often a goal to identify how much a player succeeds with or without another player, hence the use of “WOWY” stats.

PHT’s discussed how Giroux has factored into Couturier’s leap to stardom, but the beauty of certain hockey combinations is how well certain players blend together. Giroux and Voracek already formed quite the kinship – heck, there have been times when they’ve even looked like each other – yet it’s been profoundly interesting to see how Giroux and Couturier have served as catalysts beyond even optimistic expectations. (Again, Voracek probably helped quite a bit, too.)

While it’s fair to speculate that Giroux has rebounded thanks in part to better health (see here), it’s resounding to see the difference between 2016-17 and this season.

Last season, according to Natural Stat Trick, Couturier and Giroux played just five minutes and fifteen seconds together at 5-on-5. This season, just under 65 of Giroux’s minutes have been away from Couturier, while almost 645 have come with him.

You can see a change in Giroux’s game in a few ways.

  • Giroux is becoming more of an even-strength threat again. He already has more even-strength goals (nine versus six), assists (21 to 12), points (30 to 18), and first assists (11 to 5) in 49 games in 2017-18 than he had in 82 games in 2016-17, via Natural Stat Trick.
  • His possession stats are up, even with more shifts starting in his own zone.
  • Giroux isn’t as dependent upon the power play for his production, yet he’s still dangerous on the man advantage.
  • He’s been more of a playmaker than before. Via Hockey Reference, his .88 assists per game average is a career-high. Giroux’s been firing the puck less lately, but it’s especially pronounced now. He averaged 2.43 shots per game in 2016-17, and now it’s down to just 2.08. That’s a big drop from 2015-16’s 3.08, not to mention 3.44 from 2014-15. You can see the difference in Couturier’s game; he only averaged more than two shots on goal per contest once before (2.01 per pop in 2013-14), yet this season he’s averaging exactly 3.00 this season.
  • Couturier’s already blown away career-highs with barely over a season down, and Giroux is looking to have one of his best years in ages, if ever. Last season, Giroux scored 14 goals and 44 assists for 58 points in 82 games. He could eclipse those marks with a strong display on Wednesday; he currently has 14 goals and 43 assists for 57 points in just 49 games.

At 30 years old, Giroux’s $8.275 million cap hit was starting to look scary for the Flyers, considering that his contract won’t expire until after the 2021-22 season. Voracek, 28, has a similarly scary deal ($8.25M cap hit) expires way off in 2023-24.

That’s not ideal, but it’s easier to stomach a top line that also includes Couturier’s bargain $4.33M cap hit, which runs through 2021-22.

As time goes along, Giroux’s contract could look ugly again. Players can sometimes age drastically in the NHL, and that seemed to be the direction for him, until he lined up with Couturier (and got healthier).

That said, the good news is that Giroux is willing to change his role for the good of the team. Maybe his story is also a lesson to the Montreal Canadiens with Alex Galchenyuk and other situations: getting moved out of the center position can be more warmly received if it puts a player in a better position to succeed. In Giroux’s case, he wasn’t seeing a major drop in ice time or opportunities; instead, Giroux was merely being asked to take a simpler, more offensive-minded role after being asked to do a lot as the center and captain.

If only every experiment could go as well for the Flyers, NHL, and sports teams in general …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info

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The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is now set, thanks to the Boston Bruins winning Game 7 over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-4. The Bruins will move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Washington Capitals to complete the Eastern Conference bracket. Out West, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets will battle out of the Central Division and the Vegas Golden Knights take on the San Jose Sharks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Here’s the full second round schedule, which kicks off with two games on Thursday night:

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kapanen overwhelms Marchand, scores ridiculous goal

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To the chagrin of the coaches and goalies, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are keeping things hectic during the second period of Game 7.

Kasperi Kapanen seems like he’s perpetually battling for a permanent/more prominent spot with the Maple Leafs, but it’s not for a lack of trying or moxie. He’s been hitting posts on some near-misses lately, but saved some magic for tonight.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

You can see that in a 4-3 goal that currently stands as the Maple Leafs’ lead. Kapanen overpowers Brad Marchand and then outwaits Tuukka Rask for an absolutely tremendous shorthanded goal.

(Check out that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

Impressive, especially considering who that came against. At one point, the Maple Leafs had converted on both of their shots on goal early in the second period to go from being down 3-2 to up 4-3. As mentioned after that wild first period, you have to wonder about both goalies’ confidence, but that’s especially true of Rask right now.

To be fair, Kapanen’s showed a real knack for scoring big goals so far during his brief NHL career. As you may remember, he scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 2 against the Washington Capitals during that tight series to start the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also helped them punch their ticket to the postseason in 2016-17 with his first NHL goal.

Then again, maybe this sort of goal is in the blood? Kasperi Kapanen’s shorthanded goal feels reminiscent of a great goal by his father Sami Kapanen:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins – Leafs Game 7 off to wild start, Reilly hit by puck

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You can forgive fans of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for hyperventilating right now, unless they’re merely staring blankly at their screens.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

Game 7 accelerated to 100 mph seemingly in mere seconds on Wednesday:

  • After a Sean Kuraly penalty, Patrick Marleau deflected a puck past Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a stunning 1-0 lead off of a power-play goal just 2:05 into the contest.
  • A delay of game infraction gave the Bruins a chance to tie things up on the power play, and they did just that as David Krejci and David Pastrnak set up Jake DeBrusk. That happened 4:47 into the game.
  • Less than two minutes later, Patrick Marleau scored again, giving Toronto a 2-1 edge that wouldn’t last.
  • The two teams combined for four goals through less than half of the first period, as Danton Heinen showed why he should be playing with the 2-2 goal with 11:50 remaining in the opening frame.
  • The Bruins took their first lead (3-2) of Game 7 with less than a minute left in the first period thanks to a goal by Patrice Bergeron.

Those were just the goals, too, as there were some close calls, making you wonder about the confidence of Rask and Frederik Andersen:

The two teams are also accruing some bumps and bruises, which must be to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s liking.

In the most dramatic instance, Brad Marchand ducked a high Zdeno Chara shot, leaving an unsuspecting Morgan Rielly to take a puck to the face. It’s a scary moment, although the good news is that Rielly was able to return for the beginning of the second period.

Yikes.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Chara also seemed stung by a blocked shot during the first period, as he took a puck to his ankle/foot area. He didn’t appear to miss any time, and it would be tough to imagine him not fighting through it during a Game 7, yet you wonder if the hulking defenseman’s mobility might be hindered after that.

The Bruins and Leafs already put on a show through 20 minutes. We’ll see who’s left standing to face the Bolts, whether this game ends in regulation or hits sudden death in a Game 7.

*Gulp*

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.