PHILADELPHIA — A softspoken 23-year old-nicknamed “G”. A charistmatic veteran with 1630 career points. A gritty in-your-face winger with over a thousand penalty minutes. They aren’t your everyday top line, but Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, and Scott Hartnell have united to form one of the league’s most dominant tandems and teams are starting to take notice.
The Philadelphia Flyers’ trio has combined to score 110 points and 17 powerplay goals so far this season and they’ve become the focal point of every team’s gameplan.
“It’s a tough line to stop,” New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonaugh admitted on Sunday from Citizens Bank Park, as his team prepared to face the Flyers in the Winter Classic. “Maybe contain is a better word for it.”
McDonaugh and defensive partner Dan Girardi have drawn the matchup against the Giroux line in two earlier meetings this season and did more than contain them. Giroux, who sits second in the NHL with 46 points, was held off the scoresheet in both games and the Rangers escaped with a pair of wins. New York will need another strong defensive performance in the Winter Classic on Monday afternoon if they want to maintain the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
McDonaugh said the unique skillset that each players brings to that line is what makes it so difficult for opposing teams to shut them down.
“A guy like Jagr is so big and so good at protecting the puck,” he said. “A guy like Giroux has got so much skill and speed, and then Hartnell goes to the net and finds those ‘dirty areas’ to score goals.”
While McDonaugh and Girardi will shoulder much of the shutdown responsibilities, they’ll need the help of Ryan Callahan and other forwards as well.
Part of the reason the Giroux line is so successful is their ability to change speeds on offensive rushes. Jaromir Jagr doesn’t possess the same high-end speed he had earlier in his career, but he still commands the attention of everyone on the ice, often leaving Giroux to slip through the defense undetected:
If opposing forwards don’t focus on their responsibilities on the backcheck, it’s very easy to get lulled into watching Jagr waltz all over the ice. The Flyers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 on Thursday and had countless chances off the rush. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after the game that his team didn’t do a good job slowing down the Flyers forwards:
“You need a forward backchecking hard and the defense playing with a tight gap and then sorting out responsibilities from there. It was a key to the game and we knew what they can do off the rush. We knew they were skilled players and we knew their tendencies and we needed a collective awareness defensively.”
Giroux, Jagr, and Hartnell have also developed a chemistry that’s rare to see after playing together for just two months. Giroux said the opportunity to play and learn from such a unique offensive talent like Jagr is also something he doesn’t take for granted.
“He’s a talented player,” Giroux said. “I think the way he plays, his mentality of playing offense, it’s just different than the other players.”
He went on to explain that part of what makes Jagr ‘different’ is also his ability to stay unpredictable.
“It’s funny, because every time we play a new team, he kind of switches his game, and that’s why he performs pretty much every night, because he can change his game to from one team to the other.”
Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette echoed the same sentiments when asked about the chemistry between Jagr and Giroux:
I think — everybody thinks about the game a certain way. And then there’s a few people, a few select people who think about the game in a different way and how it should be played and where to go and the space that’s available and where to be, how to support, how to give somebody space. They just think a little bit differently, and I truly think that Claude and Jaromir think on the same level. They think the game the same way.
Different, but the same?
It’s never easy for a coach to describe chemistry between linemates and Laviolette admits he had no idea where Jagr would fit and who he’d have success with when the Flyers signed him to a one-year, $3.3 million contract this summer.
“I don’t think it was set in stone when Jaromir got signed here and we said, well, this is going to be a match made in heaven,” said Laviolette. “I don’t think you know that until players actually get together, they spend time together, and they develop chemistry or they don’t develop chemistry. And it seemed from almost day one on the ice that there was a chemistry between them.”
In some ways, Scott Hartnell is the straw that stirs the drink on the Flyers top trio. He creates turnovers with a relentless forecheck, digs pucks out of the corners for his linemates, and knows how to make life miserable on opposing goalies. With 34 points in 36 games, he’s also on pace for a career-best season offensively.
When Hartnell is dominating physically, Jagr is picking apart opposing defenses, and Giroux is flying through the neutral zone, few teams can keep the line neutralized. The Rangers know it won’t be easy to shut them down for a third straight time.
“They read off each other so well,” said McDonaugh. “It’s a well-rounded line and it’s a line we have to key on and stop to be successful.”