Conor Casey a Rare Philly Phenomenon -- A Player Who Is Far Exceeding Expectations

Conor Casey a Rare Philly Phenomenon -- A Player Who Is Far Exceeding Expectations

Hey, it's been a while. I'm Steve, and I like soccer. Pleased to meet you.

Seriously though, apologies for the lack of posts the last few weeks. Real work got in the way (you thought blogging was a real job?), but hopefully things have settled down and we can get back in the groove.

I've had to miss the last two home games, but was able to watch them on television. While I'll gladly take my seat at PPL Park over one on the couch, you do get a different perspective, especially as the team adapts to life without Jack McInerney.

(Ironically, that's a problem that could come to an end today, as United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann is entitled to make roster changes before the Gold Cup quarterfinals on Sunday. Jack McInerney has not seen the field in three group games, and we should find out today whether he'll return to the Union in time for Saturday's big game vs. Portland)

That different perspective has made me realize something you don't really need to be an astute soccer mind to figure out:

Conor Casey's still got it.

When Casey signed with the Union in the offseason, I was happy with the move and excited to see Casey play. But if I'm being honest, most of that excitement was because for the first time since the Freddy Adu signing, the team was bringing in a player I had heard of. A player with a name and a pedigree and an established MLS career.

I didn't really expect Casey to do much more than be a vocal leader, a bruiser up front, and a spark off the bench when the Union needed a late goal or to hold the ball up and keep a lead.

In reality, Conor Casey is the hands-down, without-question, don't-even-try-to-argue-with-me Most Valuable Player for the Union.

McInerney leads the team in goals and Sebastien Le Toux leads the entire league in assists. I know this. But Casey has been exactly what this team needs at exactly the right time.

In the season-opening loss to Kansas City, Casey came on in the 84th minute of a game the Union were going to lose anyway. He threw his body around, earned a few laughs from the River End, and I walked out expecting more of the same. A nice player who is not afraid to get involved and get under an opponents' skin. But I wasn't expecting much skill or finishing touch.

Boy, was I wrong.

Finally, for the first time since flashes from Le Toux in the team's inaugural season, the Union have forward(s?!?!) with a finishing touch. Casey technically only had one goal against Chivas last weekend, but only because his header glanced off Brian Carroll before finding the net and soccer is silly with how it awards goals.

Casey's "real" goal -- the team's third -- may seem like a simple finish. But with a completely saturated field and a bouncing ball, there was nothing simple about it.

Instead of blasting it into the Delaware (something Michael Farfan and others do regularly), Casey had the patience to see the goalkeeper leaning to his left, and calmly rolled it the other way to seal a win the Union desperately needed.

Casey will tun 32 years old next week (Matthew De George of The Daily Times in Delaware County had an great Casey story in Wednesday's edition). He's been around the block, and with one glance it's easy to see he doesn't have the typical soccer body type (although the fact that he played a full 90 in the heat in Houston 2 weeks ago was surprising).

But whether McInerney returns this weekend or is out the rest of the month, Union fans can rest comfortably knowing that should a Grade A chance fall at the feet of a Union forward, odds are good it'll actually be converted.

That's not something fans of this team are used to.

Since I've slacked off in recent weeks, a few posts coming this week. On Thursday we'll break down the strangest goal in Union history, followed Friday by a look ahead at the biggest home game of the year so far for the Union.

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers (28-25-7) at Penguins (37-14-8)
8 p.m. on NBC, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

It’s time for some outdoor fun.

The anticipated Flyers-Penguins Stadium Series game has arrived, as the two rivals clash Saturday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Let’s get you ready for it all with five things to know.

1. Eye on the ice
The one caveat of playing ice hockey outdoors is, of course, the weather.

The forecast is calling for rain showers from morning until noon with temperatures in the low-to-mid 50s. The precipitation is expected to taper off and temperatures are expected to dip into the high-30s for puck drop.

The ice can still be playable with some rain. Both teams are expected to have their morning skates indoors. No matter what, the game ice will certainly be a bit different than playing in a concealed arena.

“I'm sure they will do the best they can to have it ready,” Michael Del Zotto said this week (see story). “Unless it is really cold, the ice is always going to be chippy playing outdoors.

“It doesn’t matter what the ice conditions are because both teams are playing with it. It’s not an advantage or disadvantage for either team. Both have to deal with it.”

Ultimately, players are ready for anything weather-wise -- with the wind being just as big of a concern as the ice (see story).

2. Two directions
The Flyers and Penguins are in contrasting spots.

Pittsburgh is built for another Cup run.

The Flyers are not yet. Instead, they are fighting simply for their postseason lives.

The orange and black have lost seven of their last 10 games. Since the 10-game winning streak, they are 9-15-4 with the NHL’s second-fewest points at 22.

When the Flyers won 10 straight, they had a plus-14 goal differential over that span. In the 28 games since, they have scored an NHL-low 48 markers and own a minus-36 goal differential.

So, like last season, the Flyers have a mighty mountain to climb for a playoff berth (see story). They are now five points back of the Islanders, who currently hold the second wild-card spot with 68 points. The Flyers, at 63 points, also trail the Bruins (68) and Panthers (66), while the Sabres (62) and Lighting (62) are right there in the mix.

Meanwhile, the defending champion Penguins are third in the NHL with 82 points and first with 3.47 goals per game, spearheaded by Sidney Crosby’s league-best 33 scores.

3. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Brayden Schenn is on a three-game goal streak and ranks No. 1 in hockey with 14 man-advantage tallies. Since Jan. 8, he is tied with Wayne Simmonds for the Flyers’ lead in goals at eight. He also owns eight goals and eight assists in 23 career games against Pittsburgh.

Penguins: Right winger Patric Hornqvist, who plays alongside Crosby, was super active in the first meeting with the Flyers, recording two assists, five shots on goal, three hits and three blocked shots. The 30-year-old has 17 goals, 18 assists and a plus-19 rating, while the Penguins are 12-3-0 when he scores a goal.

4. This and that
• Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth is making his sixth straight start and ninth in the last 10 games. He is 2-2-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in seven lifetime matchups with Pittsburgh.

• Penguins goalie Matt Murray is 5-1-2 in his last eight games with a .940 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. In two career games (one start) against the Flyers, the 22-year-old is 1-0-0 and has stopped 39 of 41 shots faced.

• Pittsburgh has won four of the last five meetings with the Flyers. This is Game 2 of the four-game regular-season series between the teams. The Penguins won the first matchup, 5-4, on Oct. 29 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz (upper body) and Kris Letang (upper body) will be game-time decisions. Schultz is a team-best plus-31 on the season, while Letang is a two-time All-Star.

• Jakub Voracek has 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 29 career games against Pittsburgh.

5. The rivalry
Relive some great moments from the Flyers-Penguins rivalry with these terrific pieces from CSN’s Orange Line.

Danny Briere recalls brawl in Pittsburgh

The origin of Philly’s hatred for Crosby

Reliving Flyers’ five-overtime playoff win

Mario Lemieux returns to form in first game back

Top Flyers-Penguins moments

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

PITTSBURGH -- At this point, the Flyers are sick of talking about Saturday night's Stadium Series outdoor game against the Penguins at Heinz Field.

They just want to get it on and get it over with. Too much buildup.

“Yeah, kind of,” Simmonds said Friday. “For us, this is an extremely important game. We’ve got to get all the points we can possibly get going down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs.

“Obviously, it’s going to be an exciting time. A lot of guys have families here. But we have to stay focused on the goal.”

To say the Flyers need points right now is a huge understatement. They are five points behind the New York Islanders for the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot.

That’s the farthest they have been behind since occupying the wild card on Dec. 4. When the Flyers won their 10th consecutive game Dec. 14, they were 14 points ahead of the Islanders.

That’s a 19-point swing in the standings since then.

“So, we just have to find a way to get two points and get some wins in a row here,” Jakub Voracek said. “Every game against Pittsburgh is special. Playing an outdoor game -- I don't know how many people are going to be here -- but it's going to be a great experience.

“For us, every game is a huge game. So, if you play Pittsburgh or Colorado, it doesn't matter. You have to get two points.”

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Friday night he believes his team can still make a playoff run and salvage a wild card.

The thing is, when the Flyers made their second-half push last season, it actually began in mid-February -- earlier than now.

A couple players got hot, as did Michal Neuvirth and then Steve Mason, and you could see momentum building in the team over weeks.

That hasn’t been the case here. It’s almost March and the Flyers are floundering, no one is scoring and they are losing games despite playing pretty good hockey with no answer on how to turn things around without a major scoring increase across the board.

“It's a different season,” Voracek said of the comparison. “Different teams. You could use it as an advantage. … We have to play our hockey. The last two games, we went 1-1, but we played pretty good. We have to be ready [Saturday].”

Hextall said what happens this weekend and Tuesday against Colorado will have a trickle-down effect on what he does Wednesday at the NHL trade deadline (see story).

“We’ve played well enough at times this year that we can mount a run,” Hextall said. “I have no doubt in my mind. We’ve been playing pretty good the last eight, nine games. Except for the Edmonton game.

“But we haven’t gotten results. We need to get results. It’s not about moral victories or playing good against Washington. That’s fine and dandy, but not good enough. We have to win games.”

It starts tonight.