THE DAY WAS May 9, 1974. Bobby Clarke had just scored two goals against the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, including the game-winner in overtime. The Flyers had not won a game in Boston in 7 years and 19 attempts, and that moment is widely viewed as the turning point of a series that brought the Flyers their first Cup.
That day, his coach, Fred Shero, said, "You know, Clarke is the best player in the league, not just from me . . . [The Russians think] Clarke, he's the best we have over here. Even over Bobby Orr."
Clarke was 24.
Thirty-eight years after Clarke, Claude Giroux had just completed an amazing, 14-point playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. On the first shift of the clinching game Sunday afternoon, Giroux flattened Pens star Sidney Crosby in the first 5 seconds, then went on to score a confidence-infusing goal at 32 seconds.
This day, his coach, Peter Laviolette, said, "His game tonight was monstrous, it really was. When the best player in the world comes up to you and tells you, 'I don't know who you're planning on starting tonight, but I want that first shift,' that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there."
Giroux is 24.
We have watched it all year, Giroux's growth toward stardom. It has been the greatest of fun because we all saw it from the start, back when people were using the word "magician" to describe his passing in his first rookie training camp. To see that and to see this is to validate our eyes, and to invite historical comparisons with the player the Flyers have always been working to replicate.
That first shift really was a triumph of Giroux's will. The building was nervous and the Flyers team, after losing the previous two games, had to be nervous. A 3-0 series lead had become 3-2 and Giroux said, honestly, "There's obviously pressure." It was the perfect bookend for his quote from the game before, after which he said, "Pressure? I hope so because I love pressure."
It is one of the things we have learned about him over the years, the pressure thing. We always saw the playmaking ability, and the completeness of his game with all of the penalty-killing he does. But the scoring has steadily improved, along with his willingness not only to do a little coaching on the ice but also to do more than a little agitating with the people in the other uniforms. It is a splendidly complete package.
Max Talbot, the former Penguin who has just spent his first season with Giroux, said, "He definitely took a step forward."
But how does he now compare to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Talbot's former teammates and universally acknowledged stars in the game?
"He plays like Malkin but with the grit of Sid," Talbot said.
Think about that for a second. Imagine the possibilities. And listen to Giroux say, "Anything you do, you want to be the best at it."
But here is the thing. As Clarke has said repeatedly over the years, he really did not consider the overtime goal in '74 to be that big a deal. Again and again, he has insisted, "If we don't win the series, it doesn't mean anything. It's just another goal."
Which, when you think about it, should be the lesson for Giroux here. He has been there. He also has scored his own overtime goal in the Stanley Cup finals, in 2010 against the Chicago Blackhawks. He knows how much his game and his reputation have grown in the ensuing seasons, but he also knows the emptiness he felt after the 2010 finals were over. For him, in a cosmic and historic sense, that overtime goal in Game 3 really was just another goal.
With that, the delicious unknown awaits, where nothing is guaranteed but the thrill of the journey. Past and prologue can be the coldest of strangers in this sport. This is something Flyers fans know very, very well.
The date was April 26, 1997. Eric Lindros had just scored a goal and an assist in a game the Flyers won to eliminate the Penguins from the playoffs. In the handshake line after the game, the great Mario Lemieux, on the verge of retirement, took an extra moment to speak to Lindros in what was widely viewed as a symbolic passing of the torch.
That day, Lemieux said, "I just told Eric this is his time to go out and win [the Stanley Cup] this year. They have a great chance and a great team. He has to go out and continue to play the way he is playing now and to stay out of the [penalty] box."
Lindros was 24.