Flyers Never Say Die: Voracek OT Winner Caps Comeback

Flyers Never Say Die: Voracek OT Winner Caps Comeback

We saw it throughout the season and wondered whether the Flyers could keep winning this dangerous gamble when the playoffs began. I guess we shouldn't be surprised we got our answer in the first game of the opening round: No opponent's lead is safe when the Flyers are on the ice. 
It's not exactly heart-friendly hockey, but the Flyers continue to come back and win games in which they've conceded early leads. On Wednesday, they were down 3-0 after the first period, only to come all the way back, force overtime, then win by a 4-3 count after Jake Voracek beat Marc-Andre Fleury to stun the Consol Energy Center crowd.

[PHOTO GALLERY: click here for more photos from the Flyers OT win | VIDEO: watch fans at XFINITY Live! in South Philly react to Voracek's game winner]

A closer look at the game action below. Playoff hockey doesn't get much better than this. 
In the regular season, early Flyers deficits often did not accurately reflect their level of play. As the pattern continued and they frequently opened games down a goal or two, the knee jerk reaction was to think they were outplayed. That wasn't always the case, as some combination of strong goaltending and bad luck/bounces often conspired to tilt the score the other way despite an evenly matched effort. 
That was decidedly NOT the case in the first period of game 1 against the Penguins on Wednesday. The Pens absolutely took it to the Flyers in the game's first 10 minutes, and the visitors had little in the way of a solid response in the first 20. 
1-0Pittsburgh was strong on the forecheck and opportunistic in the neutral zone. Less than four minutes in, their pressure led to the first goal of the series. Guess who. After the Flyers iced the puck for the second time, their skaters were trapped on the ice while Dan Bylsma sent in the Crosby line. Despite putting a check on Crosby and blocking an initial shot, #87 buried a top-shelf backhand. The building went crazy. 
2-0Just four minutes later, it was Tyler Kennedy's turn. After a soft Marc-Andre Bourdon advance was intercepted, Kris Letang sent a perfect pass up the seam to send Jordan Staal on the outlet. Staal then found Kennedy, who made easy work of the play. Jaromir Jagr failed to get back in coverage, perhaps thinking TK was offsides on the play. Hung out to dry in the odd-man rush, Ilya Bryzgalov didn't have much of a chance at it. 
TimeoutIf you were telling yourself this game was far from over, that we've seen this all happen before, only to have the Flyers climb back out, you were likely relieved to see Peter Laviolette call his timeout. Good things happen when his gum's in his hand. 
Lavvy started tinkering with the lines some. One player in particular was standing out—Brayden Schenn. Earlier in the day, we liked Schenn's chances of showing up in a big way this postseason, and he certainly made his mark on game 1. Watch the two hits he made on this one sequence:

The Flyers started to turn things around, but still couldn't crack Marc-Andre Fleury. Pittsburgh was efficient in clearing the porch and keeping opportunities outside of the slot, limiting the Flyers to just six shots in the first period. And, they weren't done scoring yet. 
3-0With 37 seconds left in the first period, what looked to be a sure icing call—as in, the linesman's arm was up to signal it was icing—was called off by the linesman on the opposite side of the ice. No idea why. But what followed was a fluky goal that felt like a back-breaker. It was credited to Pascal Dupuis, who rushed to the front of the net and appeared to tap in a pass from Steve Sullivan, who won a battle along the boards, then sent a pass toward the front of the goal. It caught both Bryzgalov and Nick Grossmann off-guard, and somehow wound up in the net.  
The odd waving off of the icing was vexing, but the Flyers would get it back on a similarly blown call. But not before the refs again had remotes being tossed around Delaware Valley living rooms some more. 
Claude Giroux was whistled for the first penalty of the series, and, not surprisingly, it was a questionable call. Brooks Orpik flubbed the puck as he skated along the end boards, slowing up, and Giroux checked him into the boards. Had he played the puck cleanly, it likely wouldn't have been an issue. 
3-1The Flyers killed the penalty off, something they've been successful doing against the Pens this season. When G came out of the box, he set up Scott Hartnell with what looked like a sure goal. Marc-Andre Fleury had other thoughts though, sliding across the crease and stoning Harts. But the pressure was on, the momentum in new hands, and the Flyers were soon on the board. 
Schenn sent a nice pass up the middle to Danny Briere, who admittedly entered the zone offsides, then beat MAF like he stole something.

There was blood in the water after that, the comeback had begun.  
The Flyers had to kill off another second period penalty, this time to Zac Rinaldo. He probably earned it, but James Neal clearly embellished the hit. The PK unit again held the Pens scoreless, with a huge save by Bryz on a Chris Kunitz opportunity. 
Just as the buzzer was about to sound to end the second period, Craig Adams tried to lay a hit on Schenn. He probably wasn't expecting to be the one on his ass. 

At the second intermission, the Flyers were still down 3-1, and the start of the third didn't help. Just 1:49 into the final frame of regulation, Jagr was called for interference on Crosby. Again, an embellishment by a Penguin led to a call. Crosby ran into Jagr from behind (in a mostly legal sense, just a collision), Jagr pushed him off, and Crosby threw his head back and got the call. 
Again, the PK unit stepped up and blanked the Pens' power play. 
3-2Back at even strength, the Flyers moved the puck well and generated good opportunities. The Briere line was buzzing and cycling when Schenn found Danny, who sent a shot through a possible screen by Crosby to beat Fleury and put the Flyers within one. 
3-3Keeping with the hot hand, Lavvy sent them back out, and Danny almost scored his third of the ni
ght. After the attempt, he got trucked by Orpik on what looked to be a clean hit. But, the officiating wasn't great in this one, and Orpik might have gotten the other end of a makeup call as he was sent to the box for interference. On the ensuing power play—the Flyers only of the game—the top unit had some good pressure but couldn't break through. Scott Hartnell was unable to change after the Pens forced a clear, but he was rewarded for sticking with the play after most of the night's second PP unit jumped on. Jagr sent him a nice set-up, and Harts slap-passed it toward the goal, where Schenn was the happy beneficiary of the Pens giving Jagr a lot of respect. 
Watch as Hartnell starts toward the bench, then quickly decides to stay on:
Schennnnnnnnnnnnn…
The Flyers had taken control of the game, forcing overtime. No shootouts, or gimmicks, they'll play until someone scores. It didn't take long. 
4-3!Jake Voracek was the hero in the extra frame… Although we have to give some credit to Kris Letang for the assist:

Absolute elation. There's an indescribable satisfaction borne of truly believing a team is still in a game that might appear to non-fans to be completely out of reach. Even more satisfying is the schadenfreude of seeing a rival bleed out on home ice while grown men regret wearing bear costumes to the game
Game 1 is in the books. I don't think anyone on either side lacked for interest in this series, but it's hard to ask for more from a game that we got here. 
NotesHeading into the first intermission, the road to a comeback looked rough. The Flyers would need to slow the game down and stop gambling, yet somehow put three on the board while not allowing any more. The Pens were winning the end-to-end style of play by owning the middle of the ice. Fortunately, Pittsburgh's back end is still leaky, and the Flyers took advantage. 
Voracek worked his ass off for the Flyers this year, often without the goals to show for it. A playoff OT winner has to be worth about 10 regular season tallies. Had to feel good to make Letang look bad, too. They once shared a dance.  
Despite being on the ice for the game's first goal, the Flyers' fourth line put in a great effort, keeping the Malkin line off the board entirely. Hard to pin the first goal on them after they were frozen due to an icing, while Bylsma got to send in the Crosby line. 
Pavel Kubina was a healthy scratch. After Marc-Andre Bourdon missed the third period and was labeled day-to-day after it was announced he wouldn't return, it looks like Kubina could be in the lineup for game 2. 
Bryz was a rock in net. After the opening period, he let nothing past, and he was tested. 
We can complain about the calls that went against the Flyers and the Penguins' ability to draw calls with head fakes on the refs, but make no mistake, the Flyers benefited from a blown offsides call and a questionable penalty. 
It was a great night for the players who came over in the deals that sent Mike Richards to LA and Jeff Carter to Columbus. However, the Kings enjoyed having those two in their opening game too. Richards was outstanding, scoring a goal, assisting two others, and putting some big hits on. Carter had a pair of assists, including a nifty redirection off his skate on a pass from Richards. The Kings topped the Canucks by a 4-2 count. Are you rooting for Flyers West?

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

In the ninth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 9 is Mills to Smallwood.

Jalen Mills
Cap hit: $559K

Roob: Mills has all the tools to be a capable cornerback except world-class speed. He’s fearless, he’s cocky, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. He just doesn’t have that make-up speed you want your top outside corners to have. I’ve seen enough positives from Mills that I definitely want him on my team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a starter, but I definitely want him around.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Mills really got thrown into the fire as a seventh-round rookie, didn’t he? It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. It’s pretty obvious defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s loves Mills’ competitiveness. He doesn’t have top-end speed and that’s probably going to prevent him from ever becoming a top-of-the-line corner in the league. But there’s no reason he can’t stick around for a long time. He certainly has the right mindset to be a corner in the NFL and that’s a part of the battle. The Eagles really need to upgrade the corner position, which could greatly reduce Mills’ role, but he should still have one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aaron Neary

Roob: Neary is a guard who spent the year on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: I’d say there’s a fair to good chance most of you have never heard of Aaron Neary. He’s an undrafted O-lineman out of Eastern Washington who was on the practice squad in 2016. I’d be lying if I told you I knew a lot about him. 

Verdict: GOES

Jason Peters
Cap hit: $11.7M

Roob: Cut Jason Peters at your own risk. You want the $9.2 million cap savings that the Eagles would gain by releasing the perennial Pro Bowler? Find it somewhere else. Because some guys simply should never be released. Peters is an all-time great Eagle and unless his level of play drops off dramatically, he should be allowed to decide when it’s time to go. Only Chuck Bednarik has been picked to more Pro Bowls than Peters in Eagles history. Peters rebounded from a subpar 2015 with a vintage Peters season this past year. Considering that the Eagles have a promising young quarterback who has to be protected and considering that Lane Johnson is one more positive test from a two-year suspension, Peters has to stay. I don’t care what the cap savings would be by getting rid of him. He’s too good and means too much to cut him. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Sure, the Eagles could save over $9 million in cap room if they cut Peters, but who would they get to play? While they’d be fine moving Lane Johnson to left tackle, they’d then be relying on Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play right tackle. And while that might be the plan in coming years, it would weaken the team in 2017. Peters might not be the dominant force he once was, but he had a very good season and he was able to play 97 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, which is huge. He gets paid a lot, but he’s still worth it. 

Verdict: STAYS

Isaac Seumalo
Cap hit: $764K

Roob: I asked Jason Kelce about Seumalo back in training camp and Kelce said he thinks the third-round pick will one day be a Pro Bowl center. Pretty clear Seumalo is the heir apparent to Kelce, it’s just a matter of when the transition occurs. Kelce wasn’t as awful as some people seem to think. He actually finished the season strong. But I think Kelce goes this offseason and Seumalo is your opening-day center in 2017. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Seumalo’s rookie year was a really interesting one. It started with a pec strain in training camp that slowed him down, but eventually ended with his getting some real experience. In all, Seumalo played six different positions in 2016: right tackle, right guard, left guard, left tackle, fullback and tight end. He didn’t even play center, which might be his most natural spot. I think he’ll have a real shot to be the team’s opening-day starter at left guard. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aziz Shittu

Roob: Rookie defensive tackle spent the year on the practice squad. Depending on what happens with Bennie Logan in free agency, the Eagles could be on the prowl for defensive tackle depth this offseason, and Shittu is an interesting guy. He had a good training camp last year coming off a solid career at Stanford and it’s fair to say he has a chance, depending on what the Eagles do in the draft and free agency. Going with my instincts on this one.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I actually really liked Shittu coming out of Stanford and not just because I giggle like a schoolgirl every time I hear his name. For an interior defensive lineman, he has some real pass rushing potential. I think he would have been the undrafted guy to make the team over Destiny Vaeao had he not missed the spring because of the silly college graduation/quarters rule. I’d like to see him get a legitimate shot to stick here. It’s a longshot, but I’m going to take a chance with this one. I think he can make the roster. 

Verdict: STAYS

Wendell Smallwood
Cap hit: $601K

Roob: We spend so much time talking about the Eagles’ desperate needs at cornerback and wide receiver that it’s easy to forget they're just as desperate at running back. Assuming Ryan Mathews isn’t back, the Eagles will have a real need for a No. 1 back. You can’t draft or sign every position. So Smallwood could get a real shot at the lead back role. Can he handle the role or is he best suited to be a No. 2? Not sure yet. I like how Smallwood responded when he got double-digit carries against the Steelers, Falcons and Seahawks. Averaged 4.2 yards in those three games. And he had nine runs of 10 yards or more out of just 77 carries. I know Smallwood is a player. I’m just not sure where he’ll fit in. Maybe it’s the No. 28 jersey, but at worst I see him as a Correll Buckhalter-type, a solid No. 2 back who can fill in once in a while as a lead guy. At best? We’ll see. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Smallwood might not be the true answer at the running back position, but he proved enough to earn a roster spot next year and a role in the offense. I’m not sure if his ceiling is very high, but he got better throughout the year, specifically as a blocker. He’ll be back for Year 2. 

Verdict: STAYS

Flyers in familiar spot in standings as critical games before break await

Flyers in familiar spot in standings as critical games before break await

While many people believe the Flyers are in far better shape right now than where they were a year ago, the fact is, they are pretty much the same.
 
After 48 games played, the Flyers have the same number of points now as they did last season – 52.
 
The critical difference – and this is why fans say they’re better off – is that a year ago at this juncture, the Flyers were five points behind Pittsburgh in the wild-card chase.
 
Right now, they own the second wild-card spot, but there are five teams behind them within four points or less of catching them, two of which have games in hand.
 
Earlier this week, Toronto was ahead of them and the Maple Leafs have three games in hand, which makes Thursday’s showdown against the upstart Leafs at Wells Fargo Center a very critical game.
 
That game represents the back end of the Flyers' 13th back-to-back set, which starts Wednesday with a date at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
 
If ever two games in a short week prior to the All-Star break were of prime significance, these next two seem to qualify.
 
“A hundred percent,” said Jakub Voracek, the Flyers' leading scorer with 42 points. “It’s the same for every game. Practice and come to the rink with a win in your head.”
 
To a man, the Flyers go into the nationally televised showdown with the Rangers feeling great about themselves because of the extraordinary effort they showed in Sunday’s 3-2 comeback victory against the Islanders in OT.
 
“I felt like we won the Stanley Cup with that overtime goal,” Voracek kidded. “That’s how happy we were. There was a lot of relief. Now we have to keep going.”
 
Just five points separate nine teams from the second wild-card position right now. The Eastern Conference is just as tight as it’s always been. Within the Metropolitan Division, just five points separate the Flyers from the three times tied for last in the conference - the Islanders, Sabres and Lightning.  
 
“It’s been that way,” said coach Dave Hakstol. “Right from the drop of the puck in October, it was going to be a battle. You can’t get too distracted by it. You worry about the job in hand and that’s tomorrow.”
 
The focus this week is rather narrow: two games left before the All-Star break begins on Friday.
 
“Yeah, both these games have implications directed to us in the standings,” said goalie Steve Mason, who will start against the Rangers. “Both being Eastern Conference teams and they are right with one another.
 
“We have to have a short mindset. We have the Rangers and that’s going to be a tough game going into MSG. Once that game is over, we focus on the Leafs.”
 
The Rangers have beaten the Flyers twice this season already – both in South Philly. While the games were mostly competitive, there remains a huge disparity in one critical area for both teams this season: goal differential.
 
The Rangers have a plus-40 differential while the Flyers check in at minus-18. As poor as Henrik Lundqvist (2.75 goals against average) has been this season – although his recent performances are trending upward – he still owns the Flyers.
 
In his last 15 games against the Flyers, going back to Jan. 1, 2013, Lundqvist is 11-3-0 with a 1.91 GAA and .938 save percentage.
 
“This is huge, especially in MSG,” Voracek said. “We lost two games in a row to them at home. Hopefully, we get points.”
 
In his last three starts this month, Lundqvist is 3-0, with a 1.32 GAA and .952 save percentage. In other words, the “old” King Henrik appears to have regained his throne just in time to face the Flyers.
 
“Their goaltender has been outstanding over this past stretch for them,” Hakstol said. “Their team is playing well.
 
“We have to worry more about our team. We’re not going to control what their side is going to do. We can control what we do.”