At one end of the Wells Fargo Center ice, the Washington Capitals had begun a celebration tinged with relief, and along the boards near the middle of the rink, Claude Giroux stayed bent over at the waist, not skating, not watching the Capitals rub each other's head and tap each other's stick, not doing much of anything but dwelling.
"Not good enough," he said later. "I'm pretty frustrated with myself. Got to find a way. Doesn't matter how it is. Got to find a way."
Six games, and Giroux, the Flyers' captain and leader and most important and complete forward, had not scored a goal. His team had gone down in Game 6 on Sunday, 1-0, and had mustered just six goals in the entire series, and this was supposed to be some grand failure on Giroux's part, as if he had been the one to choke instead of the Capitals, as if he was supposed to lift an overmatched club over the NHL's best team all by himself.
You can see the train coming now. It's what happens in Philadelphia. It's what happens in Philadelphia all the time. There will be calls and demands for the Flyers to trade Giroux. There will be debates about whether the Flyers can win a Stanley Cup with him as their captain and centerpiece. There will be the rush to judge Giroux based on a six-game series that, without Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth, would have been two games shorter, instead of considering the totality of Giroux's career, his competitiveness, and the circumstances. There is excuse-making, and there is context.
The context is simple and obvious: The Capitals had more depth and talent than the Flyers, and they had several players capable of defending Giroux - in large part because those players didn't have to worry much about anyone else on the Flyers beating them. Sean Couturier, the Flyers' second-line center, didn't play after Alex Ovechkin drove him into the boards in Game 1 and left Couturier's left arm dangling from his shoulder like a wet car-wash sponge. When asked after Sunday's game whether he was playing through a left-foot injury that had caused him to miss close to a month late in the season, Jake Voracek said, "No comment," an indication of just how prevalent the pain still was.
Without Couturier, with Voracek at less than full strength, the Flyers had no hope of matching Washington shift for shift. To defend Giroux, Capitals coach Barry Trotz used center Nicklas Backstrom - a player every bit Giroux's equal in skill and competitiveness - checking forward Jay Beagle, and three defensemen: Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, and Brooks Orpik.
"We were comfortable with all the matchups," Trotz said. Of course they were. They didn't need the Niskanen-Alzner pairing to neutralize Matt Read or Michael Raffl. They could focus on Giroux and Wayne Simmonds because the Flyers had little else for the Capitals to focus on.
"The easy way you could possibly look at is, you look at stats," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. "I don't buy that. Those guys were our leaders, and they played extremely hard throughout this series. I'm sure the results aren't exactly what they would want. . . . Those guys have been absolute warriors for us all the way through."
That the Flyers stretched the series to six games was a testament both to Neuvirth's performance and their collective effort, and Trotz himself was quick to note how hard the Flyers had played and to praise them for that work ethic. Hell, the 19,925 people who filled the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday stood and applauded them for it after the final buzzer sounded. It has long been the franchise's greatest point of pride, but there can be a flip side to a team that is defined by how hard it plays. Often, such a team has to play that hard because it lacks the overall skill and talent to compete if it doesn't give everything it has every night.
Over his 51 postseason games between 2010 and 2014, Giroux had 21 goals and 56 points. So was his empty series against the Capitals a sign that - at age 28, in the prime of his career - he is a bum who has forgotten what it takes to win in the playoffs? Or is that decline a function of the fact that he's no longer playing alongside the likes of Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell, and Jaromir Jagr? Here's a bet: If Flyers general manager Ron Hextall were to acquire a natural goal-scoring wing to play on Giroux's line, if he were to fill out the roster with players who could better match the Capitals' speed, size, and strength, the chances that Giroux would go without a goal over six games, any six games, would drop just a bit.
Perhaps Giroux faces more scrutiny and higher expectations because his old coach Peter Laviolette wrongly tagged him as "the best player in the world" after a 2012 first-round series over the Penguins. But four years later, Laviolette's exaggeration still doesn't make Giroux something he's not, and all the frustration that he or anyone else around here might feel today doesn't change anything. He's a terrific player who didn't have a productive series against a far better opponent. That's all. The rest is noise.