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Claude Giroux of the Florida Panthers skates in warmups prior to a game against the Montreal Canadiens on March 24.Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

At the start of this season, Claude Giroux never anticipated this. Leaving Philadelphia after 1,000 games with the Flyers? He had been their captain for more than nine years and expected to lead them into the postseason.

“To be honest, when this season started I didn’t think I would be in this position,” Giroux, 34, said this week when he was introduced to journalists who cover the Florida Panthers. “When it was clear [the Flyers] were out of the playoffs I started to think about where I could go and what would be the best fit for me.

“The team I wanted to play for was here. Every time I tuned in to a game I liked the way they played. I think this team has a great chance to go far. That is the reason why I am here. I am here to win.”

Kallgren next man up as Leafs try to fill gaping hole in goal

After spending parts of 16 seasons with Philadelphia, Giroux opened the door to a trade to Florida with hope that he will win his first Stanley Cup. The Panthers have a seven-point lead over the second-place Maple Leafs in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and enter the weekend with the league’s second-best record.

After a game in Ottawa on Saturday, they will travel to Toronto for the first of three meetings between the division rivals on Sunday. The others will take place in Sunrise – a suburb of Fort Lauderdale – on April 5 and April 23.

After spending parts of 16 seasons with Philadelphia, Giroux opened the door to a trade to Florida with hope that he will win his first Stanley Cup.Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The most sought-after skater available during the recent trade-deadline period, Giroux was obtained by Florida on March 19, two days after he was saluted during ceremonies in Philadelphia to mark his 1,000th game. For him, it was a bitter-sweet celebration.

“In the back of my mind I was celebrating my 1,000th but I also knew it would be my last there because a trade would probably happen,” Giroux said. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t think it was going to be that emotional.

“There were no words really to describe it. I was there for a very long time and played with a lot of great players and had a lot of great coaches.”

At some point soon, Ovechkin and his hockey-playing countrymen will have to pick a side

The Flyers advanced beyond the first round only once during his tenure. As a seventh seed in 2010, they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup final. Florida has reached the playoffs just three times in the past decade and in that time has never won a series.

The Panthers are going all-in this year, however. They bolstered a lineup that was already formidable by acquiring Giroux and defenceman Ben Chiarot of Montreal – he, too was the most in-demand player available at his position – at the deadline.

Florida has sat atop the Atlantic Division for 19 days, is 10-1-2 against division opponents and is 26-6-3 against the Eastern Conference. It is 8-1-1 in its past 10 games and will offer the Maple Leafs a stiff test.

The Panthers have a half-dozen players with 21 goals or more, a top defence led by Aaron Ekblad and Chiarot – and a top goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. The latter is 30-6-3 with a .917 save percentage. Giroux, who has 18 goals and is a certain Hall of Famer, ranks only seventh on the team.

It took him only 36 seconds for him to register his first assist in his first game with Florida on Thursday. He added a second on the winning goal in the third period by Sam Reinhart in a 4-3 victory over the Canadiens.

He was the longest-tenured captain in Philadelphia history and ranks second among Flyers’ players in games played, assists (609) and points (900). He dropped a no-movement clause in his contract for a better opportunity in South Florida.

“It definitely wasn’t an easy decision to make but I think it was the right one,” he said. “I t was a decision where my wife and I talked about it pretty much every night and it always came down to Florida. It was something that was just meant to be.”