IF THE FLYERS have any dreams of digging out of their self-created crater against the New Jersey Devils, beginning Tuesday night with Game 5, they are going to have to do it without their top point producer and leader.

That's because the NHL decided on Monday to suspended Flyers star Claude Giroux for one game as a result of his high hit on New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus late in Game 4.

The suspension seemed to surprise many around the Flyers organization, since the game that Giroux - who previously had a spotless disciplinary record - will miss what just happens to be the one game in which the Flyers are facing elimination for the first time this season. New Jersey can advance to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2003 with a win on Tuesday night.

Giroux said in a statement through the Flyers' public relations staff that he "respects" the league's decision and "wants to move on." Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said he would have no comment on the suspension.

The Flyers were 2-1-1 without Giroux in the four games he missed this season with a concussion from Dec. 13-19. Giroux leads all playoff skaters in scoring with 17 points this postseason.

The NHL's vice president of player safety, Brendan Shanahan, used the term "reckless" to describe Giroux's on-ice actions on that shift with under 10 seconds to play in the second period.

"Claude Giroux delivered an illegal check to the head," Shanahan said in an online video explanation. "After pulling even with Zubrus on the back check, Giroux chops down Zubrus' stick. Well after the puck has been chipped into the corner, Giroux comes across Zubrus' body with his shoulder, making principal point of contact with Zubrus' head.

"We feel this reckless picking of the head rises to the level of supplemental discipline."

Shanahan noted that Giroux had never been suspended nor fined in his brilliant, 4-year NHL career. The league also checked in with Zubrus on Monday morning after Giroux's 15- to 20-minute telephone hearing with Shanahan to see if he was feeling any ill effects from the hit. Zubrus, a former Flyer, returned and finished the game after being shaken up on the play.

"I'm not surprised," Zubrus told the Daily News. "That's the kind of hit the league is trying to eliminate."

The telltale part of that fateful shift, as Shanahan pointed out, was that Giroux displayed frustration - by turning his back to the play to continue complaining to an official about a missed call - which may have displayed added intent.

Giroux said he was frustrated because Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur played a puck that was situated outside of the trapezoid area, which should result in an automatic penalty.

Interestingly, Giroux and Zubrus traded a few shots earlier in the period, as Giroux was upset with a slash Zubrus made to his hand.

Giroux may have erred on the shift when he took one extra stride to try and get in front of the 6-5 Ukrainian, rather than just check him into the boards by the bench from the side.

"It's a good thing he didn't get hurt," Giroux said before learning the verdict. "Obviously, I'm a pretty honest player. My elbow was down. I didn't jump. I'm not a dirty player, I'm not there to hurt anybody. I was just trying to finish my hit. He kind of leaned in and I kind of hit him, my shoulder to his head."

Giroux received a 2-minute minor for "head contact" on the play, though the hit was clearly a violation of rule No. 48, which deals with blows to the head. Many thought Giroux would be handed a $2,500 fine, but it is tough to predict what the NHL's department of player safety will decide.

Against Pittsburgh before Game 4, also an elimination game for the Flyers with a chance to sweep the Penguins, 40-goal scorer James Neal was banned for two separate hits, including one on Giroux. Neal's teammate, Evgeni Malkin, was not even fined for two separate but sneaky elbow incidents.

Giroux, 24, could not keep his emotions in check. Now, he will pay dearly by watching his team battle without him.

"This is the biggest challenge of the year, obviously," Danny Briere said. "But we've shown all year we're not quitters. To me, that's what makes me believe the guys are not going to just quit at this point."

Read his blog, Frequent Flyers, at www.philly.com/frequentflyers.