Flyers at the Halfway Point: Awards, Surprises, Concerns

Flyers at the Halfway Point: Awards, Surprises, Concerns

The 2011
portion of the Flyers' 2011-2012 season was to be the great unknown
when the team took the ice in October. No one knew exactly how the
surprising reshaping of the team would work out, as it's never so simple
as putting good players together and letting them play (ask the
Eagles).

Overall though, it's hard not to be anything but pleasantly
surprised with their fast progress and overall state at the season's
midway point. The fact that we can even be disappointed at their recent
slumps — which pale in comparison to what we've seen from previous
iterations — shows how good we actually believe they can be. There's
obviously still plenty of room for improvement, particularly in goal and
in their own end. But, after this off-season, if you were told the day
before the new campaign started that the Flyers would be four points out
of the conference lead, you'd have been OK with that, right?

So how did they get here? What do they need to do stay at near the
top, or get over the hump? A look at the mid-season award winners and
trendsetters below.

MVP: The birthday boy, Hearst,
Ontario's own Claude Giroux. Were it not for a concussion sidelining him
a handful of games, he might be leading the league in scoring as he has
at several points this season. Forget the Bobby Clarke Trophy… G is a
near-unanimous early favorite for the Hart, gaining nods from Puck Daddy,
ESPN, and NHL.com, among others. With the previous faces of the
franchise traded away last summer, Giroux may have already ascended to a
place that eluded them—true superstardom. The immediate belief
surrounding the trades of Richards and Carter was that they were a
combination of a culture change and a salary shedding for the signing of
a goalie. The biggest impact so far? The Flyers became Claude Giroux's
team.

Early Ashbee: The loss of Chris Pronger for the season and
possibly beyond still looms large, but where would this team be without
Kimmo Timonen? A stalwart in all situations, Kimmo continues to be a
steadying presence on a blue line that often hasn't played to its
on-paper depth.

Calder Kids: Matt Read was TSN's Bob McKenzie's pick for the
NHL's Calder Trophy (top rookie), a pick that turned some heads. Read's
been through a few NHL camps and never stuck. Why would this season be
different? Would Read even be the top rookie on a team that included 8th
overall pick Sean Couturier and top prospect Brayden Schenn? Well, Mac
was on to something, because Read is tied for the goals lead and fourth
in overall scoring among freshmen to date. Still, Cooter has shown that
he could be at least as valuable to the team, while not having quite the
same Calder allure. Playing in a bottom-six (mostly fourth line) role
and killing penalties every night, while still notching seven goals,
Couturier is right there with Read in a toss-up for most impact from a
rookie so far. It'll be exciting to see whose game rises fastest in the
second half, including Schenn.

Comeback Player of the Half Year: I think you could have
called this one for Jaromir Jagr before the season even began. First,
not many other Flyers would even qualify. But Jags has had a remarkable
first half, the perfect complement to Giroux in his season of
ascendency. Injuries have slowed him down, a situation that is certainly
a concern in the second half, but Jagr has so far proven to be one of
the best off-season acquisitions any NHL team made.

D2D (Disappointment to Date): Hard to look past Ilya
Bryzgalov on this one. Usually a huge contract to a goalie doesn't start
looking bad until a few seasons in, but Bryz has been one of the few
bleak spots in an otherwise positive season for the Flyers. Before I say
another word about him though, the defense in front of him is a close
second — very close. I can't remember ever seeing a team let up so many
goals on deflections, second efforts, ricochets, and all other kinds of
"bad bounces." Off the top of your head, how many goals would you say
have been credited against Bryzgalov that he simply had no chance on due
to something related to the traffic in front of him or a failure to
clear out the slot and crease area? Subtract that from his total and I'm
sure his mind-bogglingly poor stats are far closer to acceptable.

Still, Bryz simply hasn't been an elite goaltender, and that's what
the Flyers are paying for. He's lacked confidence as seen in post-game
scrums (although you can decide how much weight you want to put into
that, as well as 24/7 comments) as well as on the ice, where he seems
beaten on some second efforts before they're even past him. The good
news is, if he can turn it around at all, the Flyers become very
dangerous. With Bryz's stats currently worse than they've ever been, the
Flyers are still well within striking distance of first place in their
division, a slot that currently holds the conference lead as well. He
doesn't need to be perfect (which some assumed he would after the Flyers
appeared to give up so much scoring as well as forward line defense),
he just needs to be better.

Best Moment
This is gonna be subjective, I hope you don't mind. Sitting in the first row of the 200 level in right field chanting for Bernie Parent, who was in goal for the Flyers at the time. I've been a Flyers fan my whole life, but never seen the franchise's greatest legends play. Well, before the Alumni Game, that is. Call it meaningless if you want (and me a sap), but it had as much meaning to me as any other game I've seen. Along with that, we saw Eric Lindros' Philadelphia history conclude with a previously unwritten happy ending. He was the Flyers for a formative part of my hockey fan life, and it felt right to see him back where he belonged.

One other moment I'll throw in — seeing the Flyers dance to that Knock Knock song after a big win on 24/7. Did you not just f*cking love those guys right then? One thing I'll always appreciate about hockey is the pure joy these guys share in being teammates. After a goal, the smiles are so wide, so sincere. The best part of 24/7 to me was being in the locker room when no one else is in there. Pretty stark contrast to Postgame Live when the inquisitions begin.

Worst Moment
Hearing Chris Pronger's scream of pain after
taking a stick to the eye is second only to hearing the news that his
season was over, with speculation that his career might be as well. A
storm of concussions is sweeping through the NHL, and we're not sure
what the sport will look like after more destruction mounts. Pronger
clearly still has plenty of years left in his body, but perhaps not his
head, and that's a very sad thing. It's also a reminder that age and
circumstance may have nothing to do with a career-ending concussion. A
visor might have stopped this from happening. But what of Giroux's?
Couturier's? There's not much you can mandate in terms of penalties or
equipment that would change the fact that we are simply learning more
about head trauma than we previously did. It's a great thing for health,
but the sport will never be the same.

Surprise Positives
Scott Hartnell is tied with
the league's MVP for most goals on the team, and is once again skating
with the team's top line, albeit with two completely different
linemates. Peter Laviolette called him the top power forward in the game
in reference to whether he should be an All-Star. More than a pest,
Hartnell doesn't see nothing wrong with a little Muck & Grind, and
he's truly been a bright spot for the Flyers on and off the ice. He's
emerged as a leader on a team that will need guidance through whatever
rough patches remain on the schedule — and there will likely be some.

Youth Movement: Eleven rookies have played for the Flyers so
far this season, with a handful playing nearly every night. The current
season has been pretty fun for the most part, but the future with this
club is pretty bright as well.

Concerns Going Forward:
The Flyers' defense probably
tops the list, even above Bryzgalov. First, I think Bryz recovers and
puts together a great stretch of performances before this season is said
and done. If he doesn't, the Flyers have a backup many believed would
be a capable starter. Only problem there is, if Bryz doesn't step up,
Lavy may resort to his natural tendency of riding the hot hand not
matter who's getting paid what. He may already be doing that, with Bob
starting the the Pens game, the Winter Classic, the win over Carolina,
and tonight's game against the Islanders, per Frank Seravalli.

But as we said before, the defense has absolutely let its goalies
down too often. There's too much traffic in front, and too many lost
assignments leaving opposing forward ready for second effort gimme's.
It's not just on the actual D-men either, the forwards need to tighten
up as well.

Kimmo must stay healthy. We can rattle off some fine
defensive names in Meszaros, Coburn, and Carle, but with Pronger gone,
the defensive depth lives and dies with Timonen. Not that we'd be
comfortable with any of the above hitting the press box either…

Ditto Jagr. How much of a problem is that groin going to be
the rest of the way? The G Unit hasn't quite been the same the past few
games (very small sample), and Jagr has seemed to be laboring.

Can JVR turn it up? The
second half of this season is huge for James van Riemsdyk, who has not
emerged as a star in line with the trajectory set in last year's
playoffs. A possible hip injury may be one reason, but not one most fans
will be willing to accept, and maybe not Lavy and Homer either.

Last year's lessons. The Flyers were the top team in the
league through January 2011. Then the world exploded. Nothing that's
happened so far this season necessarily has an impact on what happens
next. Hopefully the guys who are still here remember that and can impart
it to the guy who weren't.

Your Turn.
There's a lot we've left out here, hoping
you'll help fill in the blanks. What were your pleasant surprises?
Disappointments? What has you most excited for the second half, and what
are you worried about?

Phillies look to 'keep grinding' after latest rough loss to Rockies

Phillies look to 'keep grinding' after latest rough loss to Rockies

BOX SCORE

The Phillies have scored just two runs in 13 innings against a pair of rookie starting pitchers and the eventual outcome has been two losses to the Colorado Rockies the last couple of nights. The latest was an 8-2 setback on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay). That followed an 8-1 loss on Monday night.

What's happening right now at Citizens Bank Park is ugly. The Phillies are in the midst of a freefall that has seen them lose 19 of their last 23 games. They have been outscored 134-91 over that span.

Now, before we completely lose perspective here, the Phillies remain a building team and they were not expected to contend this season. But they weren't supposed to be this bad, either, and right now they are embarrassingly bad at 15-28.

John Middleton, the team's fiery managing partner, watched several innings of Tuesday night's debacle sitting beside Andy MacPhail in the club president's box. Oh, to have been a fly on that wall. Middleton is committed to a patient rebuild from the ground up, but he's also a man who has made it no secret that he likes to win a little. The show that the Phillies are putting on out on the field these days can't sit well with him. Surely it's not sitting well with the fans. Tuesday night's attendance was just 17,109, the lowest of the season, and many in that group headed home after Gerardo Parra's sixth-inning homer gave the Rockies an 8-1 lead.

"We're just in a big rut right now," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Shortstop Freddy Galvis added that he couldn't remember going through anything this bad.

"We have to keep grinding," he said. "Keep grinding, man. It's pretty tough right now."

Tuesday night's loss offered a tale of two young pitchers. Zach Eflin, the Phillies' 23-year-old right-hander and a veteran of just 18 big-league starts, was hit hard. Meanwhile, German Marquez, the Rockies' 22-year-old rookie, was impressive. He held the Phillies to one run over six innings. He twice faced bases-loaded jams and gave up just one run when he walked a batter.

On Monday night, the Phils were held to one run over seven innings by another rookie, Jeff Hoffman.

Rookie pitchers are often good medicine for struggling teams.

"That's the way I look at it," Mackanin said. "Unfortunately it hasn't happened.

"I know we're better than this. I think the team knows they're better than this. I can't fault the hustle. Someone might say there's no energy. Well, when you don't get any hits, there's no energy."

The Phillies have scored just three runs in the last three games.

The scarcity of runs gives the pitching very little room for error. But in this game, Eflin simply did not keep it close. He gave up 10 hits and eight runs over six innings of work. Phillies killer Charlie Blackmon torched Eflin for a pair of two-run homers and Parra got him for a solo shot.

"A poor outing," Mackanin said of Eflin's work. "He couldn't locate. The ball was up in the zone. He's struggling to keep the ball down.

"When he struck out Blackmon in the first inning, it was a two-seamer with great movement, I thought we're in for a good outing here. But then he couldn't keep the ball down. You have to pitch down or you're going to get hurt."

Eflin has given up 21 hits and 15 runs in his last two starts.

"It's frustrating, but it happens. It's baseball," he said. "There are going to be a lot of times in my career where I give up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. But I'm really not worried about it right now. I know that I'm going to continue to work hard and go out every fifth day and, you know, put up a line of winning baseball."

Blackmon has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. He has three multi-homer games in Philadelphia.

"He seems to like hitting here," Eflin said. "But I just have to execute pitches. There's no excuse. I just have to be on top of my game."

Right now, the Phillies are at the bottom of their game.

"We have to stay together as a team and keep fighting, try to get out of what's happening right now," Galvis said. "It's a really tough situation, but we have keep playing hard."

NHL Playoffs Senators battle past Penguins to force Game 7

NHL Playoffs Senators battle past Penguins to force Game 7

BOX SCORE

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Craig Anderson and the Ottawa Senators bounced back nicely two days after a blowout loss put them on the brink of elimination.

Anderson stopped 45 shots, Mike Hoffman scored the tiebreaking goal early in the third period and the Senators beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 Tuesday night to force a decisive Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 36-year-old Anderson was coming off a pair of rough outings, including Sunday when he was pulled after yielding four goals in Ottawa's 7-0 loss in Game 5 at Pittsburgh.

"You can't change what happens in the past," said Anderson, who has credited work with a sports psychologist early in his career for helping him manage the mental side of the game. "From that moment on you have to look forward and get ready for the next one."

Hoffman fired a slap shot through traffic off a pass from Fredrik Claesson to put the Senators ahead at 1:34 of the third. Bobby Ryan also scored a rare power-play goal for Ottawa.

It was quite a response after the drubbing in the previous game.

"I think the biggest message for us was if somebody told us back in training camp in September that we'd have an opportunity to win Game 6 in the Eastern Conference final at home in front of our fans we would've taken it," Ryan said. "So let's not dwell, let's not kick ourselves and put our heads down. Let's embrace this opportunity to extend this for two more days together and go from there."

Evgeni Malkin gave Pittsburgh, vying for its second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the lead early in the second period and Matt Murray finished with 28 saves.

"I thought we played a real good game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I thought we dominated zone time. We had lots of chances. We didn't score tonight. The puck didn't go in the net, but if we continue to play the game that way, then I believe we'll get the result."

Game 7 is Thursday night in Pittsburgh, with the winner advancing to face the Nashville Predators for the championship.

Ottawa was primarily looking for a return to structure in Game 6, beginning with a smoother start -- which they got. Notable in a scoreless opening period were two effective penalty kills, one of which saw Viktor Stalberg get the best opportunity short-handed.

Pittsburgh had four shots with the man advantage, but Anderson stopped them all. It was evident early that he had his game back in this one. He stopped Nick Bonino off a rebound in transition, Scott Wilson off a deflected shot by Phil Kessel, and Bonino again when Kyle Turris gave the puck away.

Anderson then stopped 22 of 23 shots in the second period.

"I think Anderson was the reason that they got this one, he played big for them," Murray said. "But in our room we just focus on what we need to do. We played really well, we just didn't get the bounces and weren't able to put one home."

Anderson's performance was a reminder for Senators coach Guy Boucher of why he took the job with Ottawa in the first place last May.

"I'll be honest with you, if I didn't have a No. 1 goalie, I didn't want the job," Boucher said. "I've lived it for quite a few years, and it's hell when you don't have it because everything you do turns to darkness, and there's nothing that really matters when you don't have a real No. 1 goaltender.

"It's like a quarterback in football and a pitcher in baseball, and we have it," Boucher added.

Murray was also sharp. The 22-year-old, who replaced Marc-Andre Fleury after Game 3, made maybe his finest save of the first on Derick Brassard, who found an open lane down the middle of the ice following a pass from Ryan.

The Penguins appeared to have opened the scoring just over three minutes into the second, but Trevor Daley was deemed to have interfered with Anderson following an Ottawa challenge.

Less than two minutes later though, Pittsburgh took the 1-0 lead anyway off a few moments of brilliance from Malkin. The playoff scoring leading (24 points) bounced off a check from Zack Smith behind the goal and after being stopped on his drive to the net, followed up with a nifty backhand rebound to beat Anderson.

It was the 153rd career playoff point in 142 games for Malkin -- three back of Sidney Crosby for second among active players behind Jaromir Jagr -- who had been jarring with Hoffman a few minutes earlier.

The Senators had little going until a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage for 1:24 just past the midway point of the period. The Ottawa power play, which had gone 0 for 29 in the previous 10 games, came through with Ryan ultimately wiring a one-timer short-side to tie the score.

It was the sixth goal and 15th point of the playoffs for Ryan, who is second on the Senators behind captain Erik Karlsson (16 points).