WASHINGTON — Amid a sea of red Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers jerseys on Monday, a few Flyers jerseys in Capital One Arena added a dash of orange to the crowd for Game 4 of the Caps and Panthers’ best-of-seven first-round playoff series.
Despite the Flyers not competing in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, many of their fans still have a strong rooting interest in this year’s postseason. Thanks to the presence of Claude Giroux, the longtime heart of their beloved Flyers, many fans have adopted the top-seeded Panthers for the playoffs. Some fans, donning orange-and-black Giroux jerseys, even made their way down to Washington on Monday to root for their former captain as he pursues that elusive first Stanley Cup.
Seeing Giroux in a different jersey was weird at first, Tommy Lavagna, who came from South Jersey said. Nate Cohen, who also traveled from South Jersey, was sad when he first heard the news Giroux had been traded March 19. But both of them said Giroux deserves better than what he went through with the Flyers this season, and they want him to win a Stanley Cup.
It took Giroux himself some time to get used to looking in the mirror and seeing red and navy blue instead of orange and black. The colors weren’t the only difference. His jersey no longer sports a “C” on the shoulder. In fact, as a newcomer, and for the first time since the 2010-11 season, he doesn’t have any letter at all.
Suddenly, instead of being the captain, the face of and the undisputed best player on a team, Giroux has had to adjust to fitting in with several elite players on a team led by young stars Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and Jonathan Huberdeau.
The Panthers have been welcoming, though, and it helped that Giroux saw some familiar faces. Among them were Radko Gudas, who was with the Flyers from March 2015 to June 2019, and Robert Hägg, who played four full seasons in Philadelphia before he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres last summer. Despite having just arrived in Florida himself, Hägg welcomed his former Flyers teammate with open arms.
“I was excited because I knew G was going down there,” Hägg said. “It’s been awesome. We had a lot of fun back in Philly for all these years, and, I mean, to have an opportunity to play together again, it’s amazing.”
Just like for Lavagna and Cohen, it was different for Hägg to see his former captain and a player so tied to the Flyers in a different role and a different jersey. However, he said Giroux has seemed to get more and more comfortable to the point where it feels almost normal. His humor has come out, as have his attempts to change rules to win when the team plays games before warmups.
It’s been interesting seeing Giroux play without the responsibility of a franchise on his shoulders, Hägg said. He was and is a great leader and role model, he said, but the opportunity to play without that weight is paying off for him.
“It’s definitely different, just being able to kind of focus on your game and on yourself,” Giroux said. “And not that it was bad before. It’s just I had to adapt to what I was doing.”
The Panthers quickly reaped the benefits of adding a player of Giroux’s stature. He scored four points in his first two games and finished the regular season with 23 points in 18 games with the Panthers. Barkov said they knew they were getting a good player, but that Giroux has surpassed their expectations.
“He’s been amazing since we got him,” Barkov said. “Coming here, bringing that experience and leadership and skill that he has, I don’t think that you guys have time for me to keep saying nice things about him.”
Panthers coach Andrew Brunette added that he appreciates what Giroux has brought to the group. He’s calm, calculated, and experienced, but he teaches guys in a way that’s fun.
“He’s kind of — I don’t want to say, [a] hockey nerd — but he knows every little intricacy in the game,” Brunette said. “He’s kind of a little bit contagious that way.”
In a back-and-forth series with the Capitals in the first round of playoffs, the Panthers have relied on their veterans to keep them even-keeled, and winger Anthony Duclair said Giroux is one of the players they have leaned on.
Giroux has two goals and five points in the five games so far, but his impact goes beyond the stats. In addition to his presence, he has set up numerous scoring opportunities. As the Panthers dominated at even-strength Monday night, Giroux created multiple chances for his teammates that only didn’t result in assists because of Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov’s exploits in net.
Giroux has appreciated the opportunity to play hockey during the “best time of the year,” especially after missing the postseason last year with the Flyers. He said it’s great to be back in front of packed crowds. Monday night, he experienced the thrill of overtime playoff hockey again and the satisfaction of silencing a deafening opposing crowd; teammate Carter Verhaeghe quieting 18,573 fans at Capital One Arena with his overtime winner.
The Flyers fans sprinkled throughout the crowd at each game have not gone unnoticed. The continued support from fans, as well as former teammates is appreciated. Giroux said it’s nice to know he was able to touch them during his time as a Flyer, and he’ll cherish the memories he had in Philadelphia.
But those memories are just that — things of the past. That was on display Wednesday night in Game 5 as Giroux tallied a goal and an assist to help the Panthers rally from a 3-0 hole to take a 3-2 series lead. Giroux’s focus is now firmly on the Panthers and trying to help them close out their first-round series.
“It’s important ... turning the page and focusing on the team I’m on now,” Giroux said. “Obviously, nothing’s going to take away the memories I had in Philly. But I turned the page, and being a Panther, it’s been great so far.”