Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds was sitting on the bench during the second period of a Nov. 9 game against the Edmonton Oilers when something caught his eye.
As a frustrated Claude Giroux slammed his stick on the ice after missing another scoring chance, Simmonds noticed something he hadn't seen much during a trying start to the season for the Flyers and their on-ice leader.
The Flyers entered that day 4-10-1. Coach Peter Laviolette had been fired three games into the season. The offense was missing in action; nine times in 15 games it had been held to one goal or fewer. The power play was non-existent, and only strong play by goaltenders Steve Mason and Ray Emery kept their goal differential from being worse than the minus-20 it was.
Giroux was the biggest example of the Flyers' struggles. The third-leading scorer in the NHL and an EA Sports video game cover boy in 2011-12, and a point-per-game performer in 2012-13, Giroux fired 31 shots on net in the first 15 games of the season without beating a goalie. He had seven points and was a minus-11.
Center - PHI
GOALS: 25 | ASST: 53 | PTS: 78
SOG: 193 | +/-: 7
Things didn't appear to be changing much through two periods against the Oilers. In the final five minutes of the second period, Giroux had two great scoring chances, but lifted a backhand over the crossbar, and after fighting to get the puck back, Oilers forward Ryan Smyth
blocked his shot.
Anyone watching could see Giroux's anger and frustration boiling over, but Simmonds saw something oddly comforting.
"I was actually watching him skate up the ice and he had a little smile on his face, as if he knew he was going to get one," Simmonds said.
Halfway through the third period, Giroux finally did get one. He picked up a loose puck in the Philadelphia zone, raced it up the left side of the ice, and using Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference as a screen he fired a shot that beat goalie Devan Dubnyk.
The bench erupted, the Flyers won, and Giroux had a smile that lit up the Philadelphia skyline.
That goal, and that night, sparked a renaissance that has more than just Giroux smiling.
Since that night against the Oilers, the Flyers are 34-17-6. They've gone from the team with the second-fewest wins and points in the Eastern Conference to third place in the Metropolitan Division, one point behind the second-place New York Rangers.
The Flyers' absent offense has rallied, averaging 3.19 goals per game since Nov. 9, and they've been held to one goal or fewer eight times in their past 58 games. They've outscored their opponents by 26 non-shootout goals (185-159). And that non-existent power play? The one that had scored six times in 60 chances (10.0 percent) in the first 15 games of the season? Since that game against the Oilers, the Flyers are humming along at 22.8 percent with the man-advantage.
Leading that charge has been Giroux. Since scoring against the Oilers, Giroux has 25 goals, 71 points and a plus-17 rating in 58 games. He has had three point-scoring streaks of six games or longer, twice has he gone back-to-back games without a point, and he has moved into the top three in the NHL in scoring.
Just how good has Giroux been? Only Sidney Crosby has more points (74) than Giroux since Nov. 9, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"He's playing phenomenal," linemate Scott Hartnell said. "He's leading us in the dressing room; he's leading us on the ice every day in practice. It's pretty exciting to be a part of it."
Simmonds said, "He's one of the best players in this League and I think he's shown that time after time. ... I think people were doubting him earlier this year and I think he has definitely proved himself. He's been awesome. He's a great leader and he works really, really hard. He's a great example for all of us to follow."
Giroux has scored five game-winning goals in his stretch, none more impressive than the play he made in the final seconds of overtime March 18 against the Chicago Blackhawks. Giroux knocked down a centering pass deep in the Philadelphia zone, took a return pass from defenseman Mark Streit and carried the puck into the Chicago zone. With time ticking away, Giroux used Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith as a screen and blasted a shot from the top of the right circle over the shoulder of goaltender Antti Raanta with 4.2 seconds remaining.
It's that outstanding two-way play that drives the rest of the team. And as a captain not afraid to speak his mind, his words carry far more weight when his teammates see him leading by example.
"I think it's contagious," Hartnell said. "The hard work is contagious. When your leader does it, it filters right through everybody."
Vincent Lecavalier said, "What impressed me this year is how hard he works defensively. He backchecks [and] a lot of goal-scorers in the League … don't necessarily do that. He plays a complete game.
"You look at your leaders to lead on the ice and he's been doing that. When you see him do it … you can say whatever you want in the room, but when you go out there and he does it, I think guys get that extra step there. Guys follow him."
Giroux has been the leader the Flyers needed on the ice, and Craig Berube has become the leader they needed on the bench. The longtime assistant coach replaced Laviolette on Oct. 7 and has brought the same forceful honesty he displayed in 17 seasons as a player to a group that looked lost and disinterested.
"He's very honest and that helps a lot," forward Jakub Voracek said. "Every time I have a conversation with him he's honest with me. He'll say, 'You played like [garbage],' or 'You played good.' There's no in between. That's how he gained respect; he's honest with everyone and he doesn't change with different players."
Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter, who coached Berube in 2002-03 with the Calgary Flames, said, "He's a natural leader. He was that as a player. … He's a strong guy. He's a captain. If he was a player he'd be their captain."
Berube's first dictate was telling the players they had to get into better shape. Practices became shorter but more intense, with lots of up-tempo drills and hard skating.
He also demanded stronger defensive play, which included forwards skating deeper into the defensive zone. The result wasn't just stronger in-zone play; the smaller gaps between the defensemen and forwards allowed for easier breakout passes and cleaner exits of the zone, something the Flyers struggled with early in the season.
Craig Berube's style and system changes have given the Philadelphia Flyers a 39-24-7 record since taking over. (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI)
"He changed a lot of stuff," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "He's got his own way to lead the team and I like the way he leads the team. … Lot of different things. Starts with [Berube] and what he brings to the team."
The changes didn't work right away, but Berube wasn't going to let up.
"I think we just kind of realized if we want to win games we have to play defense," Giroux said. "At the start of the year we left our goalies out to dry a lot. … Everybody is on the same page. We have a game plan, and when we follow it we play good and when we don't we get in trouble. There's a reason we lost a couple games 7-1, 7-3 [early in the season]. We got away from our game plan. The next game we'd start doing our game plan and we started winning games."
Once the Flyers embraced that part of the defense-first concept, Berube installed the second phase, which was having his forwards be more aggressive on the forecheck. During a recent five-game win streak it became common to see one and often two Philadelphia forwards deep in the offensive zone; the pressure caused turnovers and led to more scoring chances. The St. Louis Blues entered their game in Philadelphia on March 22 with the fewest giveaways in League, but the Flyers forced seven, including two that directly led to goals in a 4-1 victory.
"We want to play a hard forechecking game," Berube said. "Having our forwards in good position to track pucks and be on the backside of our defense, we can get more aggressive and kill the play coming out of the [opposing] zone. It's something you really have to preach about your forwards reloading and pressure pucks. It's important. You look at all the good teams in the League, they all do it. You have to skate without the puck and you have to put pressure on the other team."
That extra pressure in the offensive zone has eased the burden on the Flyers defense. After allowing 42 goals in their first 15 games (2.80), they've tightened it up to allow 2.74 goals per game. It might not seem like a huge improvement, but it's been enough to turn around a season that appeared to be headed for a long stay at the bottom of the League standings.
"We don't play defense as much as we used to," Timonen said. "And obviously the shots are going to be down. There's all kind of things that happen when we skate and forecheck hard. That's our game. We have to keep it that way."
The dark cloud that hovered over the Flyers prior to that Nov. 9 game has been blown away by a combination of Giroux's leadership and Berube's style and system changes. It's carried the Flyers from the depths of the standings to the brink of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a spot almost no one thought they'd reach in the early days of the season.
"I don't really care what anyone thinks," Berube said. "We know who we are and we know where we're trying to get to."