Giroux and van Riemsdyk growing into lead roles

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove NHL / Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent

It doesn’t seem that long ago that youngsters Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were being groomed to take on leadership roles with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Even though both are just 26 years of age, they each recently completed their sixth full NHL seasons and are now veteran leaders in Philadelphia.

As the Flyers prepare to take on the Sabres in game four of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series tonight at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, there is another pair of younger players making their marks in the club’s forward ranks.

Claude Giroux (23) and James van Riemsdyk (21) have arguably been Philadelphia’s two best forwards in the first three games of the 2011 postseason, and have both contributed to the Flyers’ current 2-1 series lead.

If you look at the ice time of the Philadelphia forwards in game three, you’ll see that Giroux (19:51) and van Riemsdyk (17:26) topped the list for the Orange-and-Black.

Giroux, who had his coming-of-age party during last year’s trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, continues to take his game to another level – a statosphere that few are able to attain.

His all-around game has been evolving at an exponential rate since last June, even garnering some very nice comparisons to “a Steve Yzerman in the making”.

Comparable to Yzerman’s stature during his playing days, Giroux is considered diminutive - five-feet, 11-inches, 175 pounds.

Also like the Hall-of-Famer, Giroux has world-class offensive and defensive abilities, plays on both the power play and penalty killing units, and takes the body tirelessly in an effort to do whatever it takes to win.

After leading the Flyers with 76 points during the regular season, Giroux is tied for the team lead in playoff points with three (goal and two assists).

The goal and assist he picked up in Saturday’s game were two of the sparkling moments of the early stages of this postseason thus far.

Trailing 1-0 in the series and with the prospect of going to Buffalo down 0-2 looming ominously, game two was a must-win affair in Philadelphia for the Flyers.

Giroux opened the scoring with a masterpiece just four minutes in, weaving his way through four Buffalo defenders before snapping a shot up and over Ryan Miller’s glove hand and high into the net.

I was able to get a puck to go over his (Miller’s) shoulder, and any time you get a quick goal like that it’s good,” Giroux said later.

His assist later in the period was more of the subtle variety but a gem, nonetheless.

With the Flyers trailing 3-2 in the first period, the Sabres were attempting to clear the zone up the defensive left wing boards.  Philadelphia defenseman Andrej Meszaros pinched to keep the puck in the zone and carried it along the wall.  As Meszaros was checked off the puck, Giroux skated over to lend puck support.

As the puck came to Giroux he angled his twig and sent a blind, between-the-legs deflection right onto the tape of van Riemsdyk’s stick.  Van Riemsdyk cut across the slot and fired an against-the-grain shot past Miller and inside the post to knot the game at 3-3.

We had a little more bite around the net and we also had some great shots.  Claude’s first one, ‘JVR’ had a great wrist shot,” defenseman Sean O’Donnell pointed out after the game.  ”We had some real nice plays there.”

In his second year, van Riemsdyk is developing into the power forward the club had hoped he would become when they drafted him second overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

After deciding to forgo the NHL to attend college, van Riemsdyk played two seasons at the University of New Hampshire before turning pro last year.

He started off as one of the hottest freshman scorers early on, but tailed off mightily as the season advanced.  After scoring 15 goals and 35 points in the regular season, van Riemsdyk added just three goals and six points in 21 playoff contests.

He feels that last year’s experience in the postseason was an aid to help prepare him for the current task at hand.  “I think a huge amount.  I mean going through last year what we went through and kind of seeing what guys did that had success and how they played and how I needed to play to have success,” van Riemsdyk said.  “Kind of just help me build that confidence going into this year.”

Along with knowledge gained during the trials of the 2010 playoff run, it was apparent that he needed to increase his fitness in order to endure the rigors of an 82-game schedule and playoff season.  Intense offseason weight training added 10-15 pounds of muscle to van Riemsdyk’s six-foot, three-inch frame, and the difference has been evident.

The left winger topped the 20-goal mark (21), and did not struggle down the stretch in his sophomore campaign the way he did a year earlier.  As a matter of fact, van Riemsdyk has seemingly gotten stronger as the season progressed, something that has continued right into the postseason.

JVR (van Riemsdyk) has been awesome now for two games,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of his left winger after Saturday’s victory.  “Just the speed, power, and confidence that he has reminds me a little bit of what Claude (Giroux) did last year in the playoffs.  You get this experience and maturity that grows.”

Many have likened van Riemsdyk’s upside potential to that of a John LeClair-type power forward, something that would be just fine with Flyers Nation.  The former-Flyer scored 50 or more goals in three consecutive seasons and 40 or more in five straight in addition to winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens earlier in his career.

There is no doubt the lessons learned in last year’s march to the finals provided invaluable help in the development process for both Giroux and van Riemsdyk.  They know what it takes to win, and maybe even more importantly, the sacrifice that it will take in order for the Flyers to make another deep run into the current postseason.

As both Giroux and van Riemsdyk mature right before our eyes, they continue to become leaders on a very good Philadelphia team.

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If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle