Flyers-Penguins: This Is Why We Watch

Flyers-Penguins: This Is Why We Watch

The simplest way I can think of to put this rivalry in
perspective is this: the standings do not matter one bit today. They will again tomorrow,
especially should the Flyers falter, but at this moment all anybody really needs
to be concerned with is getting geared up for one intense showdown.

Flyers versus Penguins is the premier matchup in the NHL right now, and not just in Philadelphia
or Pittsburgh, but anywhere. It’s the night of the week you look forward to, have
to plan your schedule around, because you know these teams are gonna deliver the
goods. Any given meeting between the two could turn into a classic right before
your eyes.

Just like their last tilt on February 20, a 6-5 slugfest
that could be considered the early favorite for NHL game of the year. That battle
epitomized everything this tug-of-war has been about over the last year:
fast-paced, end-to-end action; relentless physicality fostered by distaste for the
opponent; high drama amid a playoff atmosphere from the moment the puck drops until
the final horn sounds.

A heavyweight fight that pits two of the most highly-skilled
teams in their sport against one another, representing fan bases who absolutely
detest each other.

Is your heart racing yet?

Philly has been getting the better of things lately,
especially since the rivalry turned molten last season. The Bullies of course were
responsible for the Pens’ first-round playoff exit this past April, while going
9-4-1 in regular season encounters dating back to 2010-’11.

But as Tim Pinaccio writes this morning, the enemy might be
getting a little too cozy in the Flyers’ building. Under head coach Dan Bylsma,
the Penguins are 8-2-1 at the Wells Fargo Center, which provides the backdrop
for tonight’s clash.

No surprise, Ilya Bryzgalov is in net tonight for the Orange
& Black. Billy hasn’t exactly looked like an all-world goaltender against
the Penguins during the past two seasons – though to be fair, few people do. Bylsma
won’t make the same mistake twice in Pitt’s crease, opting to go with Marc-Andre Fleury over the backup this time around. Tomas Vokoun flopped around like
a fish out of water for most of last month’s 6-5 loss.

On the injury front, the Flyers might be receiving
reinforcements. It sounds like Matt Read will be making his return to the ice several
weeks earlier than anticipated. Nicklas Grossmann on the other hand was lost to
a lower-body injury in New York on Tuesday, and would be replaced in the lineup
by Kurtis Foster if he can’t go.

The contest is scheduled to begin at 7:00, with the standard
two points on the line, but one thing you definitely don’t have to worry about
is either side mailing it in or just going through the motions. There’s no need
for any extra motivation.

We're fairly certain both clubs would want to beat the hell out of the other tonight, whether the Stanley Cup was hanging in the balance, or there was nothing else at stake at all.

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Highly ranked 2018 recruit Brandon Slater verbally commits to Villanova

Highly ranked 2018 recruit Brandon Slater verbally commits to Villanova

The future of Villanova basketball just got brighter.

Brandon Slater, a 6-foot-6 wing and highly touted 2018 recruit, told Scout.com on Wednesday night that he has verbally committed to the Wildcats.

He later made the announcement on Twitter.

Among the 2018 recruiting class, Slater, a product of Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Virginia, is ranked in the top 30 by Scout.com and top 50 by ESPN.com. He's slated as a four-star talent by both media outlets.

Per ESPN, Slater had offers from Louisville, Maryland, Miami, Syracuse, USC and Virginia Tech. He is Villanova's first commitment for 2018.

"Going up there it just feels like a second home," Slater said, via Evan Daniels of Scout.com. "It gives me a good vibe. It's nothing like all the other schools. I just feel like a Villanova guy. It feels like PVI. It's already home."

Slater and Villanova head coach Jay Wright expressed their excitement on Twitter.

Pete Mackanin maintains positive outlook even though Phillies now have worst record in majors

Pete Mackanin maintains positive outlook even though Phillies now have worst record in majors

BOX SCORE

On the surface, it might appear that the Phillies were done in by one bad inning on Wednesday night. After all, they suffered a 7-2 loss at Citizens Bank Park and the visiting Colorado Rockies scored all of their runs in one hellacious burst in the third inning (see Instant Replay).

But there was more to the loss than just one poor inning by starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. The Phillies came to the plate in nine innings against the Rockies pitchers and managed hits in only two of them while finishing the game with just three. It was the third time in the last four games — all losses — that the Phillies have mustered just three (expletive deleted) hits. Through the first seven innings in this one, they were out-hit, 11-1.

"Well, once again, three hits," manager Pete Mackanin said afterward. "Not a whole lot of good to talk about."

No, there wasn't. Hasn't been for a while. The Phillies have lost five in a row, 9 of 10 and 20 of their last 24 games. Wednesday night's loss left them with the worst record in the majors at 15-29.

"There's a lot of baseball left, and I know we're better than this," Mackanin said. "We just have to have some kind of spark to get out of it. Win a couple in a row and it could put us on a winning streak."

It's not going to be easy to start the winning streak in Thursday's series finale against Colorado. The Rockies have the best record in the National League at 31-17 and they have outscored the Phillies, 23-5, in the first three games of the series.

That's a serious beating.

"They have some really good hitters in that lineup and it's a deep lineup, too," Hellickson said. "There are no easy outs."

Conversely, there have been many easy outs in the Phillies' lineup in this series. The Phils did not get their first hit Wednesday night until Andrew Knapp singled with two outs in the fifth inning. The Rockies' starting pitchers in this series have held the Phils to two runs in 20 innings. And two of those pitchers were rookies, Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez. Tyler Chatwood pitched seven shutout innings Wednesday night.

The Phillies' starting pitching in the month of May has been brutal. Phillies starters have a 6.39 ERA in the month, second worst in baseball over that span.

The team is 4-17 in the month.

"It's been kind of surprising," Mackanin said of the rotation's problems this month. "I know they're better than that. We're going to put something together. I believe that."

Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. He's been a different pitcher in May. His ERA in the month is a hefty 7.30 in five starts. The difference in the months: Hellickson located his finesse repertoire down in the strike zone in April. He's been up in the zone in May. On Wednesday night, Rockies hitters fought off his middling fastball and didn't miss his soft stuff because it was up. Carlos Gonzalez had the big hit against Hellickson in the Rockies' seven-run third. He jumped out of his shoes to hack at a 2-1 changeup and hit it for a three-run home run.

"He had poor command of his changeup," Mackanin said. "He was yanking his changeup, not locating it. That's his out pitch. He didn't have it tonight.

"He's had a lot of good starts for us. When he doesn't locate, he gives up a run here or there, but he kind of gets it back. For that one inning, it fell apart on him."

Hellickson allowed eight baserunners on six hits and two walks in the Rockies' seven-run third inning. He gave up a double, a triple, a homer and three singles in the frame.

"I beat myself that inning by falling behind and walking too many," the pitcher said. "When I did make a good pitch, they found a way to get hits off those, too."

This is the third straight season that the Phillies have endured a 4-20 stretch.

"It's not easy," Hellickson said. "It's not fun. It's just something you deal with. It's not fun."

During this stretch, Mackanin has benched his cleanup hitter, Maikel Franco (see story). Otherwise, he has kept his sanity.

"I remember when I took over in '15, the team was scuffling, really not playing well," Mackanin said. "Then something clicked and we started beating teams. Last year, we had a good first part of the season and then kind of scuffled at the end. Sometimes one little thing clicks and you get better.

"In a long season, these things sometimes happen. I remember Atlanta, the first half last year, was terrible. They had a real good second half. I believe we just need to get something going. We're going to put something together. I believe that."