Game 3: Will Regular Season Lessons and Home Ice Advantages Prove Meaningful?

Game 3: Will Regular Season Lessons and Home Ice Advantages Prove Meaningful?

We've discussed it here before, a certain reality we'd almost rather not know… 
The NHL's regular season is little more than a really long, entertaining preseason war of attrition. If a team doesn't make the 16-slot playoffs in the NHL, it had an extremely poor chance to win a Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the parity among teams that do make it can be staggering. Without getting into some existential debate on the relative meaningless of all things, let alone sports, we watch the regular season simply because we love hockey, our local team, and the players that make it up at any given time. So I'm not taking anything away from our time spent watching, analyzing, debating, and enjoying the 82 games that spanned from October to April. But so little of it matters once the playoffs begin. Or does it…?
You can say they're playing for home ice, for seeding, for experience as a team in understanding their strengths and weakness and those of their opponents. I increasingly feel that only the latter really means much once the second season begins. An eighth seed is up 2-0 in the Western Conference. The Flyers are up 2-0 after a pair of games in a frenzied, hostile building. Home ice often means nothing when it comes to the outcomes of games despite player proclamations to the contrary. 
With the series set to resume in Philadelphia this afternoon, can the Flyers find an advantage that the Penguins could not in Pittsburgh?  
Home ice is a reward for fans and franchises, particularly if the series goes the seven-game distance. For those fortunate enough to have a ticket into the building today, just getting dressed and driving to the Wells Fargo Center, having a few beverages with friends, sharing the playoff atmosphere with your kid for the first time, and seeing the place lit up in that glowing orange will be a transcendent experience. 
For everyone from season ticket holders to casual-fan friends of corporations with catered suites, the feel of the building during the playoffs is completely different. In the regular season, the realities of the long 41-game schedule are more apparent than we want to admit. The building feels big, at times hollow. Every seat isn't quite as filled as attendance reports might indicate on some nights. But once the playoffs begin, it's like the building has been dropped out of a huge plane, and everyone's reality outside of it is suspended amidst an adrenaline rush that lasts for a few hours. The game is the only reality that exists. The camaraderie among the orange-clad masses is more palpable. The hatred of the opponent even more so. As soon as you enter the gate, you can see, hear, and feel it. 
For 60 minutes, the chants are louder, particularly if it's a close game or one decidedly in favor of the Flyers. If they win… The chants as fans file down the stairs and elevators can give you that feeling in your ears where it's like you temporarily lose hearing. 
It really doesn't get any better. 
It's a different story if they lose… one the folks out in Pittsburgh can recount with painful detail. It's also a different story on the ice. The Penguins seemed to be playing with one perceived advantage of being on home ice—getting out to early leads and "keeping the building in the game." The Flyers were completely unfazed though, taking their first period beatings only to assume the bully role sometime in the second period. 
Today we'll watch to see if the Flyers—who were better on the road than at home in each of the past two seasons and haven't always played well in afternoon starts—can put together an effort that obviates all elements that are outside of the game itself. 
We all enjoyed Lavvy's tirade after the Flyers got off to another slow start in game 2. And, they're up 2-0 despite continuing a regular season trend everyone said would sink them if still present in the playoffs. But we wouldn't mind seeing a hot start for a change, even if this team's identity and winning formula seems to be the Comeback Kids. 
How long can they keep that up? Are the Pens strong enough to clamp down once they get a lead, or is their defense and goaltending simply unable to withstand the Flyers attack for a full 60 (or more) minutes?
Hopefully the building is a factor in a huge game 3 win. Sidney Crosby-led teams have fared well in Philly, our ill-conceived "Crosby Sucks" chants seemingly having an effect not unlike earth's yellow sun on the son of Jor-El. But lately, the Flyers haven't been affected by the Pittsburgh captain's stellar play early in games. On Friday, he scored 15 seconds in but was victimized later in the game. Are the Flyers finally in his head? I wouldn't bet on it. They may not need to be in order to win though.
To continue winning in the playoffs, the Flyers need to continue making their regular season experience meaningful. In 82 games, six of which were against Pittsburgh, the Flyers learned that no matter what the Penguins throw at them, it is surmountable. The Penguins are strong but flawed—strong enough to win a pair of games in Philly and flawed enough to be swept out. 
In the first two games of the series, we saw that over the course of the regular season, a young, untested group had become seasoned and fearless. They're playing the team heavily favored to win it all, and they're winning. Rookies are sneering in the faces of superstars. Gritty players are mocking diving in their counterparts. The passion of a coach who climbed on top of the dasher boards in anger is flowing into every forward line and defensive pairing. 
If you're headed to South Philly, enjoy one of the greatest parts of being a Philadelphia sports fan. If you've never been to a Flyers playoff game, this is your annual full-throated recommendation to change that. 
Today should be one hell of a battle. 
Photo the Igloo's remains by Ryan Lawrence of the Delco Times. 

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Dave Hakstol’s Flyers returned home from Vancouver on Monday not quite resembling conquering heroes.

Sure, they salvaged two points from their three-game trek to Western Canada, but for a team that supposedly sees itself as a wild card, that just ain’t gonna get it done.

The Flyers required at least four points — ideally, five — from the trip to give us some proof they’re a legit contender for the wild card.

Right now, their wild-card hopes remain on life support.

Yes, they’re only two points behind Toronto. Thing is, the field of wild-card contenders have officially caught up and even passed them.

When the Flyers left for the trip, they were even in points with the Maple Leafs while holding down the 9-seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto had the second wild card.

Hakstol's team is the 11-seed now. Toronto, Florida and the New York Islanders are ahead of them with games in hand.

This trip should offer enough evidence to general manager Ron Hextall that his team is still floundering.

There are no moves Hextall can initiate at the trade deadline that will guarantee a playoff spot without mortgaging the future.

Since their return from the All-Star break, the Flyers are 3-5-1. Those numbers don’t suggest they’re headed to the playoffs.

And even if the Flyers were to qualify as the second wild card, they would face a very early exit against the Washington Capitals.

Again.

At this point, with the March 1 NHL trade deadline staring Hextall in the face, he has to be a seller at the deadline.

If you trust Hextall’s long-term plan of patience, you understand that what this is about is preserving assets and preparing young players to be integrated into the system next year and the year after, and the year after that.

Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto are two unrestricted free agents who could help someone else right now.

Streit has been strong this season on the power play, which is his forte. He’s the perfect deadline rental.

Even if Hextall would like to have Streit’s veteran leadership on the blue line next season on a one-year, low salary to “tutor” Robert Hagg or Sam Morin or Travis Sanheim, he could still move Streit now and re-sign him later this summer.

Del Zotto, at 26, will get a nice return in draft picks or a prospect. Del Zotto is going to want a big contract this summer (he’s making $3.87 million now).

There’s no incentive for Hextall to go that direction given the sheer number of young, outstanding defensive prospects in the system that will be arriving shortly, all of whom come with very low salary cap hits.

Don’t blame Hextall for not getting involved in the Matt Duchene/Gabriel Landeskog saga that is going on in Colorado. GM Joe Sakic is asking a lot.

Hextall seems reluctant to part with any future prospects or young players just to get the same in return.

Much of the fan base has been saying for a while now it’s time to move team captain Claude Giroux. He's in the midst of his fourth consecutive season in which his numbers have declined, and in some respects, dramatically from his two best seasons — 2011-12 (93 points) and 2013-14 (86 points).

Yet there is no indication from Hextall or anyone in the Flyers' organization that such is even being contemplated.

Or that the organization feels Giroux’s leadership abilities have been assumed by Wayne Simmonds, who is arguably the most popular Flyer, two years running now.

Hextall still sees veterans such as Giroux, who is only 29, as a player who would help the transition of younger pups coming along — Travis Konecny, German Rubtsov, Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal, etc. — and he also believes Giroux can recapture his offense.

In short, Hextall is not going to tear his roster apart nor is he going to make a blockbuster trade next Wednesday. But he will likely try to sell veteran assets that make the team younger in some way.

Which is the correct thinking for the Flyers now and right into this summer, as well.

Why the Eagles should ignore big names and buy low at wide receiver

Why the Eagles should ignore big names and buy low at wide receiver

It won't be a surprise if the Eagles go after a big name wide receiver.

The team's receivers were a disaster last year. There's the fact that among the Eagles' receivers, Jordan Matthews' 11 yards per catch led the group (minimum 10 catches). Matthews' also led the receivers in touchdowns with four. The team dropped 24 Carson Wentz passes, the fourth-most for a quarterback last season.

So Alshon Jeffery or DeSean Jackson would be a no-brainer, right? Maybe not.

At the moment, the Eagles' cap situation isn't ideal. Surely they'll take a few more steps to clear space, but signing a high-priced receiver isn't the right way to allocate that money.

Jeffery and Jackson have their pros and cons. Jeffery had two elite seasons in 2013 and 2014, but his last two seasons have been mired by injuries and a PED suspension. Despite being 30, Jackson still has the ability to stretch the field, but his red flags are well-documented. According to Sprotrac, Jeffery is scheduled to become the sixth-highest paid receiver, while Jackson will be the 19th-highest paid.

Sure, there are other options. Veteran Kenny Britt enjoyed a renaissance season under new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh in L.A. and he's still only 28. He's also coming off a 1,000-yard season and could cash in on that. There's also Kenny Stills, who is only 24 and coming off a season where he averaged 17.3 yards a catch and caught nine touchdowns for Miami. Terrelle Pryor is still learning the position but finished with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns for the Browns.

Any of those guys makes the Eagles' offense better immediately. But in reality, just about any decent receiver would make this group better. Howie Roseman is better off buying low in free agency and building the receiver corps through the draft.

CSNPhilly.com Eagles Insider Reuben Frank recently highlighted the lack of success the Eagles' have had in signing free-agent receivers. The list is basically Irving Fryar and a bunch of guys. While the occasional trade (Terrell Owens) has worked out, the Eagles have been better off drafting receivers.

Looking ahead to the draft, this receiver class is extremely deep. There may not be the elite talent of the 2014 receiver class, but there are plenty of intriguing players to explore. In the first round, Clemson's Mike Williams or Western Michigan's Corey Davis could be available to the Eagles. Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook or Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp could be there in the second. Even in the middle rounds, guys like Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson, Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor and ECU's Zay Jones could be impactful.

As far as free agents go, the Eagles have other options beyond the big names. Kamar Aiken of the Baltimore Ravens is an intriguing name. The 27 year old had a breakout 2015 (75 catches, 944 yards, five touchdowns) followed by a disappointing 2016 (29 catches, 328 yards, one touchdown). He lost snaps to a healthy Steve Smith, free-agent signee Mike Wallace and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman. The Eagles can buy low on Aiken and hope his production is similar to 2015.

Kendall Wright, also 27, had a breakout season in 2013 (94 catches, 1,079 yards) but has fought injuries and inconsistencies over the last few seasons in Tennessee. Then there's Brian Quick from the L.A. Rams, another 27 year old who hasn't quite put it together. He had a career year in 2016, hauling in 41 catches for 564 yards under new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh.

The Eagles' best bet would be to take a flyer and buy low on one of these receivers and dig deep on this draft. Aiken or Wright and two rookies could help overhaul the position and create serious competition.

Can the Eagles count on Roseman to deliver the next Irving Fryar? The safer bet is him delivering the next DeSean Jackson... instead of the actual DeSean Jackson.