NEWARK, N.J. - Claude Giroux has become the Flyers' leader, and no one questions it. He is them and they are him and that is that, at least for now.
When Giroux is the best player on the ice, they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. When he is quiet, they lose three straight games and fall behind the New Jersey Devils in the second round.
When he assists on a power-play goal and persists on a shorthanded goal in the first period on Sunday night, the Flyers remain alive in a game in which they should be dead. Eventually, they were dead, by a final score of 4-2. They now trail the Devils by three games to one in the series.
But the issue has become even bigger than that, and more worrisome. Because he is them and they are him, and now there is a chance the Flyers will be without Giroux for Game 5 of the series after he was penalized at 19:56 of the second period for a head shot delivered with his shoulder against the Devils' Dainius Zubrus.
To attempt to predict what Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's dean of discipline, might do with this is a waste of energy. All we can know for sure, after everything that has happened in the playoffs so far, is that it will be scrutinized. The guess here is that there will be no suspension, and that there should be no suspension - that the hit was deserving of a penalty and nothing more.
But who knows? And who knows what effect a suspension might have on a Flyers team that has now been outplayed in three consecutive games.
For his part, Zubrus did not call the hit dirty when given the opportunity, and Giroux seems certain that there will be no suspension.
"I'm not a dirty player," Giroux said. "I don't want to hit guys on the head. I was just trying to finish my hit there."
Then, later, when asked specifically about a review by Shanahan, Giroux said, "I think I should be fine. He was leaning in. At the same time, [the Devils' Anton] Volchenkov also hit [the Flyers' Wayne] Simmonds in the face with an elbow. They can look at that one, too."
At the same time, Devils coach Peter DeBoer, took a different view - not entirely surprisingly.
"For me, it looks like the type of hit they're trying to get out of the game," DeBoer said.
"That's for people above me to decide," DeBoer said.
Giroux has no history of discipline issues with the league, which will work in his favor. Zubrus returned to the game and did not appear to be injured seriously, which also will work in his favor. Zubrus scored twice in the game, including an empty-net goal in the final minute.
The fact that Zubrus, who is 6-5, was hit in the head by the shoulder of a player who is 5-11, means that Zubrus was already bent over - and that should work in Giroux's favor, too. It wasn't as if he head-hunted. It wasn't as if he reached up with an elbow.
But who knows?
The problem is that it is very obvious that Giroux skated a long way in anger before the hit. He was carping with the officials seconds before, furious as he skated up the ice, because Devils goaltender Marty Brodeur illegally played the puck outside of the trapezoid behind the net without being whistled for a penalty.
So there is that, and there is the penalty call itself: "illegal check to head." You do not see that one every day.
Again, it was not a legal play. But it did not seem to rise to the level of a suspension. And, for his part, Zubrus did not fan the flames.
"It surprised me," Zubrus said. "I don't think the puck was that near. I was just trying to get on the forecheck. He decided to play me . . . It didn't knock me out. I still needed a few seconds, for sure, just to get back to it and get my feet back under me. But that's about it. Then I went to the room - it was the end of the period, so I had plenty of room to recover and looked at by the doctors, and I felt fine."
Zubrus said he thought Giroux caught him on the side of the head. Asked specifically if he thought the hit was dirty, Zubrus demurred.
"I'm not going to comment on whether it was dirty or not," Zubrus said. "It's playoffs. They try to hit us, we try to hit them. There's plenty of hits that I guess you can say are questionable, or whatever. I think he got a penalty. I think it was deserved. That's about it."
The Flyers can only hope that Zubrus is correct - that that's about it. They already have plenty to worry about, after all.