By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — You won’t ever hear Flyers’ burgeoning game-changer Claude Giroux talk about how he belongs on the pantheon with the NHL’s best today. Up there with the Sidney Crosbys, Evgeni Malkins, Henrik Lundqvists and Alexander Ovechkins. Giroux would rather put on that missing-tooth grin of his and focus on turning the young Flyers into Stanley Cup champions.
Underneath, away from the boyish humility, Giroux possesses the same brazen attitude that all superstars have in knowing they control the game. It’s why Giroux went up to Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette before Game Six of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday afternoon and told Laviolette he wants that first shift.
Giroux’s rising arc soared higher in his biggest game yet in the NHL. He needed just five seconds to issue a message that he belongs in Crosby, Malkin and Lundqvist land, when the Flyers’ superstar sent Crosby whirling through the air with a cartoon, shoulder-lowering check.
Crosby landed hard on the ice, his skates flying up over his head and his helmet knocked askew.
Twenty-seven seconds later, Giroux put an exclamation point on his jolting hit by sliding in the first goal of the game. From there, it was piling on time, as the Flyers devoured the Penguins with a superb performance in a 5-1 close-out victory at the Wells Fargo Center to win the best-of-seven series 4-2.
Giroux set the tone. His aim was Crosby.
“His game tonight was monstrous, it really was,” Laviolette said about Giroux. “When the best player in the world tells you before the game, ‘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. Claude had a great game, from start to finish. He made sure the Flyers moved on to the second round, along with every other guy in that locker room. It does have to be led somewhere. When your best players makes a statement like that, that’s exactly what you need to happen.”
It marked the first time the Flyers beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, when the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. More importantly to Flyers’ fans, it’s the first time the Flyers beat the Crosby-led Penguins in the playoffs. With Crosby, Pittsburgh was 8-3 in two playoff series against the Flyers prior to this season.
Giroux honed right in on Penguins’ whiny star and leveled him in the opening seconds of the game. Then Giroux, who leads the NHL playoffs with 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists), scored the game’s first goal, the Flyers’ first even-strength goal since Game Three. Giroux then followed that up with an assist on the Flyers’ second goal later in the first period.
“We weren’t too happy about Game Four and Game Five,” Giroux said. “We usually never get off to a good start, and I was just trying to spark the team up and I was able to get a little hit on him and get the boys going [with the Crosby hit]. Our bench, everyone was positive and having fun. The last two games we were missing that. Playing that game was a lot of fun tonight. Anything you do, you want to be the best at it, and I mean if it’s to score goals, or do hits, or block shots, I’m going to try and do it. You saw Scott Harnett diving on his two knees to block a shot and it was kind of close to private area, but he still did it.”
What was also impressive is the Flyers scored four of their five goals (including Brayden Schenn’s empty-net goal) at even strength, an issue they had through the first five games of the series. Pittsburgh had outscored the Flyers on even-strength situations, 17-11, in the series.
Another oddity, though a small one, is the team that scored the first goal in the first five games lost. The Flyers snapped that quirky trend into pieces on Giroux’s goal at 19:28 followed by Scott Hartnell’s powerplay goal later in the first period.
The Flyers opened that edge to 3-0 when Erik Gustafsson flicked a wrist shot just inside the blue line. Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t seem to see it at all. Fleury was fantastic in Game Five, but struggled mightily in the initial three games of the series. The Penguins goalie seemed to revert back to his skittish ways in Game Six.
As for Flyers’ goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, he did a credible job. He wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t have to be. He steered away 30 shots. Flyers’ forechecking helped that out, as did the Flyers’ defense. The flyers blocked 40 shots in front of Bryzgalov. The Flyers did an excellent job in curtailing Crosby and Malkin throughout the series, holding the Penguins’ star duo to a combined six goals.
“No secret. No special pills,” the enigmatic Bryzgalov said. “It takes a 60-minute, full-team effort. Everyone chipped in and it was do-or-die for us. It’s sacrifice, diving for pucks and to the net. Everyone sacrificed themselves to win this game. I knew it was going to be a hard game. Our situation was to win the game. I knew we had to play better and stop more pucks. When you don’t give up many goals, you have a good opportunity to win the game. The guys came off the same mind, to sacrifice something.”
Crosby was held scoreless in Games Five and Six.
“Today, we had a few bounces that didn’t go our way,” Crosby said. “We had some decent chances [to score] today. We didn’t put ourselves in a good position to come back. We made it 3-1. We thought we’d get some momentum from that. They got a good start, but if you look at the past five games, that didn’t mean a lot. We knew we had to keep battling, that was just too big of a lead to come back from.”
James Neal’s goal was disallowed with 3:02 left to play when he shoved Bryzgalov and the puck into the net. That came with the Penguins on a two-man advantage, and it proved to be their last surge.
“I had a good feeling about today’s game,” Flyers’ defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “We got off to a 3-0 lead and we knew they were going to come back. We were talking about getting off to a good start, and obviously that [Giroux hit] was a great start. To me, he’s the best player in the league right now. He’s our motor and our engine. When he goes, we go. It was great to see that.”
With a little over three minutes to play, the orange-clad Flyers’ fans began serenading the Penguins as the time ticked away on their season.
CBS Sports Blog: Giants’ Best Acquisition Not Beltran, But KeppingerBy Michelle Dingley
Remember the backlash when Carlos Beltran was selected to the All-Star team? People thought his best days were behind him and he didn’t deserve the honor.
Remember when, a week or two later, Beltran was suddenly the most desired player as the trade deadline approached? Playoff contenders, such as the Phillies, Braves and Giants, wanted him to improve their offensive production.
Remember when the Giants acquired Beltran? He was supposed to save our struggling offense, take some of the pressure off the Panda and Huff, and make the whole lineup better.
Remind me, how’s all that working out?
Oh yeah, I remember. When Beltran joined the Giants on July 28, the team was in first place with a record of 61-44. That’s 17 games over .500. Entering the game on August 30, the Giants have fallen to 71-64 (7 games over .500), and they are 5 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. In their last 30 games, the Giants have gone 10-20. Our offense, which had been bad all year, has recently been atrocious, terrible, and pathetic.
We can’t blame all our offensive failures on Carlos Beltran. Nonetheless, the supposed savior has done little to nothing for the team. It doesn’t help that he missed over two weeks with a wrist injury, though that’s par for the course for the Orange and Black this season. Still, Brian Sabean traded Zack Wheeler, our top pitching prospect, for this guy who’s supposed to provide some power and occasionally pop one out of the park. Here is what Beltran has done this year with the bat.
With Mets (98 games): .289, .391 OBP, 66 RBI, 15 hr, 61 K, 60 BB, .340 RISP
With Giants (18 games): .286, .306 OBP, 4 RBI, 1 hr, 16 K, 2 BB, .176 RISP
Most striking is the home run total. It looks like a huge drop-off, but if he hit the longball at the same rate as he did with New York, Beltran would only have 3. His walks are way down, which is a problem, as we definitely need baserunners any way we can get them. His average hasn’t dropped off that dramatically. If you have watched every Giants game Beltran has played in, that might surprise you. How is the rally killer hitting in the .280s? The discrepancy between his apparent lack of production versus his actual batting average lies in the quality and usefulness of those hits. Beltran has two triples with San Francisco, both with the bases empty. His one big fly was a solo shot. With the Mets, Beltran hit .268 with the bases empty, and .340 with runners in scoring position. With the Giants, he’s hitting .314 with no runners on, and a paltry .176 with RISP. Even though Beltran is collecting hits, he has been almost completely useless at the plate. Beltran has grounded into 6 double plays with the Giants. In almost 5 ½ times more games with the Mets, he had grounded into just 9 double plays.
We acquired Orlando Cabrera on July 31, just before the trade deadline. The former Indian was not exactly obtained for his bat, and that’s a good thing, because he has also helped very little offensively. Here are his stats for the season.
With Indians (91 games): .244, .277 OBP, 38 RBI, 4 hr, 40 K, 13 BB, 6 E, .985 fielding %
With Giants (26 games): .227, .245 OBP, 11 RBI, 0 hr, 12 K, 3 BB, 4 E, .966 fielding %
Just take a glance at those numbers, and it’s obvious that Cabrera is also subject to what I’ve heard described as “Giantsitis” – the inability to hit once donning the orange and black uniform. Still, Cabrera was not expected to be a power hitter, just a right-handed shortstop. He was acquired when Miguel Tejada was on the DL and our only shortstops were Brandon Crawford and Mike Fontenot, both lefties who weren’t swinging the bat very well. Cabrera was thought of as a slight defensive upgrade over Tejada. A former Gold Glove-winning shortstop, he was playing almost exclusively at second base for the Indians. As demonstrated above, his fielding is not quite where we would like it. It’s not just the 4 errors in 26 games; it’s the plays that weren’t ruled errors but that a more sure-handed shortstop – Crawford, for example – probably would have made. On August 28, for instance, there was a ball hit sharply that Cabrera missed, dribbling into center field for a hit. The tying run scored later that inning, and the Giants fell in extra innings. Cabrera has also not put down good tags on throws both from the outfield and from the catcher, allowing runners to safely reach second base. The way we have been hitting, we cannot afford to give away extra outs. If Cabrera isn’t contributing with the bat and is not quite as advertised with the glove, we need someone else to play short. It’s getting to the point where I’m starting to miss Tejada. Luckily, Crawford should be back on Friday.
One bright spot in the lineup is the addition of Jeff Keppinger. Debuting with the Giants on July 20, Keppinger has done a nice job filling in for Freddy Sanchez, who is out for the season. Since he is now a Giant, Keppinger spent the requisite time injured. He hurt his wrist in a collision at first base on August 15, but he was back in the starting lineup on the 20th. He is hardly a power hitter, but he can consistently put the bat on the ball, which is more than most Giants can say.
With Astros (43 games): .307, .320 OBP, 20 RBI, 4 HR, 7 K, 4 BB, 3 E, .982 fielding %
With Giants (34 games): .273, .304 OBP, 6 RBI, 1 HR, 10 K, 4 BB, 2 E, .986 fielding %
Like the other acquisitions, his production has dropped off a bit upon joining the Giants. Unlike the other two men, he has actually been helpful at the plate. Keppinger is one of the hardest guys in the majors to strike out, though he doesn’t walk much. He can sacrifice a runner over, and you can count on him in a hit-and-run. He has won at least three games for us nearly single-handedly, which is three more than Beltran. On August 13, Keppinger hit a solo homer in the first, and the Giants never looked back. He also made a great play in the 5th to prevent the Marlins from scoring. If he hadn’t snagged the ball, it would have been a 2-1 game with a runner on second. Instead, the Giants won with a final of 3-0. On August 26, against his former team, Keppinger hit a two-run double, plating the only runs the Giants got for the night. They beat Houston 2-1. The next day, he got the game-winning hit against the Astros, scoring DeRosa from second in the bottom of the 10th. In addition to his consistency at the plate, Keppinger is more than capable at second base. The nail-biting that ensues when a ball is hit at Cabrera does not occur when Keppinger fields a ball. The way the Giants have been playing, both offensively and defensively, Keppinger might be the best player on our team right now.
It seems that, once again, the Giants’ best acquisition is the player most people hadn’t heard of. Carlos Beltran has not been the power bat that we needed. Orlando Cabrera has not been a big improvement over our other shortstop options. The “incremental” improvement of Jeff Keppinger at second base was the best trade we have made this year.