PHILADELPHIA – And just like that, Claude Giroux must be considered a favorite to win the Hart Trophy for the NHL’s most valuable player.
Oh, a case can be made for Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon or New Jersey’s Taylor Hall.
But when you take a deep look at what these candidates have done this season, Giroux’s credentials jump out at you.
He’s taken a Flyers team which wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs and defied the odds by posting a career-best 102-point season, including a hat trick to clinch a playoff berth in the final game of the season.
He leads the NHL is assists with 69. He’s been among the league’s best faceoff men all season. His plus-28 is a career-best and among the top 10 in the NHL.
Those, however, are just numbers.
Giroux also brings the intangibles and as captain, makes players around him better.
That said, Giroux was left off the 2014 Canadian Olympic team, even though he was in the midst of a six-year stretch in which he led the NHL in scoring.
Prior to that, he was left off the Hart ballot after recording a career-best 93-point season.
Coach Dave Hakstol was asked if a game like Saturday’s (a hat trick against the Rangers) and a season like the one that just ended validate that Giroux should be included in the conversation about the game’s elite players.
“For me, he’s never needed the validation,’’ Hakstol said. “If the exclamation point tonight that he put on his season in the most important game of our season doesn’t say that to the outside world, I don’t know what would.
“He doesn’t need that sort of validation inside our dressing room or amongst his teammates. He’s done it all this year, he’s done it under pressure. And for me, that says a lot for me, who he is and what he’s all about.’’
Sean Couturier, who paired up with Giroux at the beginning of the season and more than doubled his previous best goal total with 31 markers nearly doubled his career best in points (from 39 to 76), expresses a similar opinion.
“G is an unbelievable player, he’s getting everything he deserves this year,’’ Couturier said after the Flyers’ 5-0 win. “He definitely deserves to be in the MVP conversation. Although some people don’t put him there.
“It’s crazy. He just steps up his game everytime the game is bigger. That’s the kind of guy he is. It shows his character. He’s our leader.’’
All this after Giroux had his least productive season a year ago following offseason abdominal surgery.
“I think you saw early on he felt great,’’ Couturier said. “He was looking good, healthy. He was excited about that, we were excited. He brought that energy around our team.’’
If Giroux was on a mission this season, never was he more focused than Saturday. He says the key was to play clear-headed and not get too emotionally charged.
“You know, when you wake up for a game like this, you want to try not to get too jacked up,’’ he said. “We did a good job today of not getting too excited.’’
He says it’s something he’s figured out over the years.
“Yeah, I think you learn a little bit as you go through seasons to make sure you focus on the right things,’’ he said, “and don’t try to do too much. Then you get caught doing the wrong things.
“I think everybody was pretty dialed in.’’
Finally, there was the wave to the crowd during a standing ovation for his hat trick.
“I think the fans were great,’’ he said. “I tried to relax, I was pretty uncomfortable there when I was on the big screen.’’
Yet that’s where Giroux belongs, on the big screen. Maybe even on the big one in Las Vegas in late June when the NHL announces it’s annual awards.
Would it surprise you if Giroux’s name gets called?
After what you watched Saturday, it shouldn’t.