FLYERS TAKE GAME 3

FLYERS TAKE GAME 3

Could this series be any tighter? Three games, each decided by a single goal, with tonight's requiring overtime to be broken. Claude Giroux masterfully deflected a pass by Matt Carle to take advantage of a Chicago line change and beat Antti Niemi in OT for a 4-3 win.

Once again, neither team ever had more than a two-goal lead, and now the Blackhawks' series lead is down to 2-1 with another game in Philly scheduled for this Friday night. Highlights and video after the jump.

That was playoff hockey at its best. Both teams played well, generating opportunities between long stretches of solid defensive play and game-stealing goaltending. There were some shifts and goals each side would like back, but mistakes weren't the deciding factor in this one. Nor were bad calls or excessive minutes spent on special teams, although the latter was definitely a deciding factor. 

It was a straight-up battle, and the Flyers came out on top. 

The first period was especially tight, with both sides on lock down in front of their respective nets despite nearly non-stop action for most of the frame. The Blackhawks really played well defensively all game, blocking shots, clogging lanes, and limiting the quality of the Flyers opportunities in normal circumstances. It took power plays and ultimately a rough line change for the Flyers to break through. 

The home club took the all-important first goal, with Scott Hartnell making an amazing pass in front of Niemi's crease—backward across his falling body to Danny Briere—who potted it from the back door

If any player on this team needed redemption on the postseason, it was Hartnell, who would go on to score the Flyers' second goal after the Blackhawks had answered. Hartnell's goal also came on the man advantage, again with Harts wreaking havoc in front of the net. Chris Pronger fired the puck on net from the point, and Hartnell deflected it past Niemi, who had little shot at cleanly stopping it. 

It's hard to ask for more from that entire line. Ville Leino's confidence with the puck was again on display tonight, and Briere was buzzing the net constantly and could've easily had another goal or two. Leino's 15 points tie a club record for playoff points by a rookie, held by Brian Propp. Not bad for the guy Homer stole for OKT and a 5th rounder... 

If not for a huge night from Niemi, the score would not have been near as close. 

For the second straight game, the Flyers led the Blackhawks in third period shots by a huge margin of 15-4. Especially given how gassed the Flyers looked in the third, that ain't easy to pull off, and it finally broke Chicago down. During a frustratingly light start to the OT in terms of shots on goal, the Flyers caught the Blackhawks on a line change and entered the zone with a full line converging on just three Chicago defenders. They moved the puck quickly across the zone, with Briere finding Carle, who fired a pass toward a streaking Giroux, who made an unbelievable tip under his skate to beat Niemi.

Giroux also helped to create the Flyers' tying goal in the third period, a horn blast that stopped the Blackhawks' momentum at a critical point in the game. Twenty seconds after Kane's long break in on Leighton put the Hawks ahead, flung the puck toward the net, hitting Chicago defenseman Jordan Hendry and bouncing to Leino, who put it behind Niemi. Again, a tough stop for any goalie to make.   

Mike Richards missed on a few shots that had the Delaware Valley on its feet, and current linemate Jeff Carter had a tough game including too many key turnovers and especially a deflection past his own goalie. Duncan Keith was credited with the game's first equalizer, but Leighton had no chance to make the save on a puck that was severely redirected on a shot-blocking attempt by Carter. Before the torches and pitchforks come out, remember that Carter is playing on surgically repaired broken feet, and he returned to make a difference in the Montreal series. 

Dan Carcillo could see the next game from the press box though. Lavvy clipped his wings late in the second period, and I don't remember seeing him after that. He wasn't the only Flyer to see limited time late in the game or overall for that matter, but his is the most likely spot to see a change, if there'll be one at all. However, we can't discount the undisciplined play by some of the Blackhawks in this one. Guys like Carcillo, Hartnell, and Pronger can unnerve a team into taking dumb penalties, and Pronger in particular has won the much-publicized battle with Dustin Byfuglien in this series. Byfuglien took two penalties in game 3 and is a minus-3 for the series. The Flyers' second goal of the game came on a powerplay awarded after Byfuglien broke Chris Pronger's stick with a slash after the two had been battling in front of the net. 

When the Flyers' backs are against the wall, they've come out swinging and found a way to win it. It'd help the collective cardiac health of the fanbase to have it come easier, but that doesn't seem to be their style. 

Hopefully the haters continue to count them out and call the series over. As soon as that happens, they start to win. This isn't to say they're anything more than down two games to one in the series though. They're still a long way away from celebrating anything more than still being alive with a chance to tie it on Friday. But tonight we'll definitely celebrate that. 

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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.”