3 Stars: Flyers blow chance for home ice in first round with loss at Lightning

3 Stars: Flyers blow chance for home ice in first round with loss at Lightning

A look at the Philadelphia Flyers’ 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. from the perspective of two players and one unit that struggled mightily in the third period.

 

That third period sure was ugly on Thursday night. For even more of a punch to the gut and just like the title suggests, this loss combined with the New York Rangers’ 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres makes the Rangers the second seed in the first round of the Metropolitan Division playoffs and eliminates the Flyers from any shot at home-ice advantage in the first round.

 

3. Tyler Johnson

The Lightning’s extremely impressive rookie forward made his presence felt early on Thursday night when he took a nice cross-ice pass from Steven Stamkos and blasted the puck past Flyers goalie Ray Emery just exactly two minutes into the game for the opening tally.

Fast-forward to the third period. Johnson hit cutting defenseman Eric Brewer, who was left wide-open in the slot by the porous Flyers defense (more on this in a bit). Brewer rifled a wrister past Emery for the eventual game-winning goal.

The first-period goal was Johnson’s 24th of the season. That ties him with Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon for most among rookies. That goal combined with his third-period assist gives Johnson 50 points on the year, third most among rookies.

Although MacKinnon will probably win the Calder Trophy, that’s not too shabby of a stat line for Johnson.

 

2. The Flyers’ third-period defense

Where to even start here? It was brutal.

About five minutes into the third, Lightning winger Richard Panik skated with the puck deep into the Flyers’ zone. Flyers defenseman Luke Schenn totally missed his check and let Panik escape around the net. Panik came out in front and began an offensive flurry that he eventually finished when the Flyers failed to cover him and he backhanded it past Emery for a 2-1 Lightning lead. There were Flyers all around Panik but they were all flatfooted and no one picked him up.

Things got worse on the aforementioned Brewer goal. Brewer was allowed to slide into the slot untouched after what looked like a miscommunication between Flyers winger Steve Downie and his defensemen. It was the third-to-last game of the season. Brutal breakdowns and miscommunications like that shouldn’t have happened.

Stamkos’ power-play goal later on wasn’t pretty either as Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn misplayed the puck and three Lightning players were there to pounce before Stamkos eventually cashed in.

It wasn’t like Tampa Bay dominated the period, either. Tampa had nine shots in the period, the same amount Philadelphia had. It just seemed like Tampa dominated the period because of how poorly the Flyers played defense.

It’s a bit worrisome considering there was fairly important home-ice advantage on the line for the Flyers. This kind of stuff needs to be cleaned up in the next two games.

 

1. Anders Lindback

Thought the Flyers were going to have an easier time with Lindback, the Lightning’s backup, in net in place of injured starter Ben Bishop?

Think again.

Lindback was superb as he made 36 saves for the victory in just his second start since late January.

Once he made that sprawling glove save on Flyers winger Tye McGinn in the first period, you just had a feeling it could be one of those nights.

Well, it was one of those nights. The Lightning netminder had basically every answer except for a Wayne Simmonds power-play goal and Sean Couturier’s gift of a goal that went off a Lightning defenseman’s stick and into the net.

Lindback now has seven wins on the season and three of those wins have come against the Flyers for a season-series sweep for the Lightning.

The Flyers never saw Bishop, one of the best goalies in the league this year, or the lethal Stamkos, who missed most of the season with a broken leg, during two of the meetings and were still swept by the Lightning.

 

As if the whole losing-a-chance-at-home-ice thing didn’t hurt enough, don’t look now because the Columbus Blue Jackets and Flyers remained tied for the third seed in the Metro at 91 points each.

But the Flyers currently have a game in hand since the jackets won’t play Sunday. The Flyers also hold the first tiebreaker, which is regulation and overtime wins. They have 38 of those while the Jackets have 37. The Jackets took the season series, 3-1, but that’s the second tiebreaker, as goofy as that may sound.

Don’t sleep on these last two games. There is a ton left to still be decided. Plus, the Flyers don’t want to fall into that last wild-card spot and have to book that flight to Boston next week.

With rotation gone, Mychal Kendricks preparing for comeback season

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With rotation gone, Mychal Kendricks preparing for comeback season

Getting in a rhythm, getting in a flow, is important for Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. 

Really important. 

“That’s everything,” Kendricks said after Tuesday’s OTA practice. “It truly is.”

That’s why last season was so tough on the veteran linebacker. Under former defensive coordinator Bill Davis and head coach Chip Kelly, Kendricks was forced into a rotation with DeMeco Ryans, Kiko Alonso, and later Jordan Hicks. 

In a year when he did nurse a hamstring injury for a few weeks, Kendricks played just 52 percent of defensive snaps in 2015. After playing all 77 snaps in the opener, Kendricks never got above 90 percent again and didn’t play more than 70 percent of snaps in any of the last five games of the season. 

That’s quite a departure for someone who is widely considered to be a three-down linebacker. In 2014, Kendricks played 100 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in seven games. 

“I just feel like it was too much hot and cold, with all the players rotating in and out and whatnot,” Kendricks said about his 2015 season. “No one was able to get in the flow. It was odd. But I didn’t feel like I played as good or as much. For the time that I was in, I feel that my numbers were OK. But it’s hard to be a force or something to reckon with when you’re not on the field.”

Kendricks admitted the rotation was tough on him, but did what he was told. 

This season, he’s not expected to be in a rotation. For now, he’s the team’s starting weakside linebacker, while Jordan Hicks is in the middle with Nigel Bradham on the strongside. All three, however, are versatile and could be moved around. 

“All of those guys are pretty much interchangeable,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “And you have to be now.”

Aside from the rotation at inside linebacker a year ago, Kendricks also dealt with another injury. He basically missed a total of four weeks in 2015 with a lingering hamstring injury. In 2014, Kendricks missed four games with a calf injury. 

While Kendricks has never made a Pro Bowl, before last season, when healthy, he has played to that level. In fact, making the Pro Bowl is a personal goal for Kendricks this season. 

“I feel like if I stay healthy, you’ll see me in the Pro Bowl,” he said. “Those are things that you can’t control. Unfortunately, a couple times, I’ve fallen short of my personal goal because of an injury. No one wants that. I’m not making any excuses or anything, that’s just what it is. 

“I used to beat myself up over that, but as you get older and you start understanding the game, you know that there’s some things that you just literally do not control. You can’t beat yourself up over it.”

If Kendricks does get named to the Pro Bowl this season, his production will match the four-year, $29 million contract extension he signed before the 2015 season began. 

From the outside, it seems possible that Kendricks’ new contract might have been a factor in his decline last season, but the linebacker doesn’t seem to think it played much of a role. 

“Have I thought about it? Yeah,” Kendricks said. “But then I look back at all the scenarios that could have played an effect. I got paid and I didn’t play as much as I’d like to. It could have went both ways. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have played at all. I don’t know. Sometimes the grass is greener; sometimes the grass isn’t greener. I’m not a fortune teller or a future teller, I just go with my gut.”

Sixers draft target: F Ben Simmons

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Sixers draft target: F Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons

Position: Forward

Height/Weight: 6-foot-10/239 pounds

School: LSU

The 19-year-old Australia native was the favorite to be the top pick in the 2016 NBA draft before he ever took the court for LSU. Here we are less than a month from the draft and that still may very well be the case.

It's hard to ignore Simmons' production in his only season with the Tigers: 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and two steals per game. The 6-foot-10 forward with guard skills was named SEC Freshman of the Year and was named to the conference's first team. But for all his personal accolades, Simmons' team failed to make the NCAA Tournament after taking a 71-38 whooping at the hands of Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. He's been criticized from everything to his lack of maturity to his inability to shoot consistently from the outside.

Strengths
It's so rare to see a player of Simmons' stature with the ability to handle and see the court so well. Watching Simmons grab the ball off the rim and then go the length of the floor to either finish or find the open man is a thing of beauty. I love how smooth he is. It looks effortless for him. You almost forget he's 6-foot-10. His basketball IQ is excellent. He forces contact down low with his big body and draws fouls. His rebounding ability should translate very well to the next level.

He has the ability to guard multiple positions with his length and athleticism... if he's motivated. His size is going to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. A traditional four will struggle with his quickness. He'll be able to take a lot of wings down low and punish them in the post.

Weaknesses
The biggest thing is his shot. It's been well-documented. His three-point output in college: 33 percent. As much as that number reflects a weakness, he's at least self-aware. He knows his weaknesses. His free-throw percentage (67 percent) is just OK. The good news is, if you actually watched him shoot, this isn't a total rebuild.

Are the maturity and competitiveness concerns legitimate? I don't know. It's a 19-year-old kid we're talking about. The Sixers will have to decide if those concerns are something he'll outgrow or a serious red flag going forward. Playing under Brett Brown, who coached Simmons' father in Australia, would hopefully mitigate some of the concern.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
This is a really interesting question that I'm not sure anyone has the answer to yet. At 6-foot-10, he almost has to play the four, but where does that leave Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and possibly Joel Embiid and Dario Saric? There could be nights where Brown could get away with playing Simmons on the wing given his ball skills. But it might be a struggle for Simmons defensively depending on the matchup. In any case, Simmons will need a shooter/scorer or two in the lineup to complement his skill set.

NBA comparison
This is next to impossible. How many players have there been that are built like power forwards but handle like point guards? Magic Johnson is a lofty comparison, but Lamar Odom may not be quite strong enough. Much like Simmons, Magic was not a shooter (19 percent from three in his first nine years in the NBA), but at 6-foot-9, Johnson was one of the greatest facilitators in league history. If Simmons is somewhere between Johnson and Odom, the Sixers will be just fine.

Draft projection
I'd be shocked if the Sixers don't take Simmons at No. 1. It's the right call.

Union-Orlando City SC 5 things: First-place test for Jim Curtin's club

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Union-Orlando City SC 5 things: First-place test for Jim Curtin's club

Union at Orlando City SC
7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Union’s roll continued last weekend with a win over D.C. United in extra time, giving Jim Curtin’s club nine points in its last five games and a spot atop the Eastern Conference standings. But that momentum will be tested starting Wednesday night when the Union (5-3-3) make a quick turnaround to take on Orlando City SC (3-3-5) at the Camping World Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Defending first place
At first it was a fluke, then a random hot streak. But at the near quarter mark of the 2016 season, the Union are riding high in first place in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday’s match against Orlando City SC.

“I’ve always believed that you start to get an assessment of your group after about a third of the games,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “That’s a good barometer. We are starting to form an identity as a team that’s very tough to break down defensively and is a very good home team. Now, we need to carry that mentality on to the road.”

That mentality, the one that’s helped the Union to a 5-3-3 record, is about consistency on the defensive side of the ball. The Union have given up only 11 goals in 11 games, good for second in MLS.

“We’re a team that’s going to be tough to score against,” Curtin said. “One goal against per game is good — that’s good goalkeeping and that’s good defending. There’s some things you’re starting to see that maybe define us and give us a little bit of identity.”

With nine points in their last five games, the Union take their hot run on the road, where they haven’t been good. First up, Orlando City SC on Wednesday and then the Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids on Saturday. The Union are 1-3-1 away from Talen Energy Stadium.

“Two very hostile places, two very good teams,” Curtin said. “We’ll take every player on our roster on the trip, which is unique. We haven’t done that before. We are a deep team and everyone is going to contribute.”

2. Blake’s availability
The big question for the Union entering their two-game road swing was would star goalkeeper Andre Blake play after being called up to the Jamaican national team for the Copa America tournament? And if so, would he make both games?

Curtin had the answer on Wednesday, stating that Blake will play in both road matches (see story).

“Jamaica’s been excellent with us,” he said. “What is best for both parties is that he is with us up until [June 1]. The Columbus game is the only game he’ll miss.”

And that’s good news for the Union. Blake has been stellar this season, often making game-saving stops a habit on the road to three shutouts and a 76.1 save percentage — placing him among the best in MLS.

“He’s a big part of us getting points,” Curtin said. “Going into two hostile environments knowing that he’s going to be in there is very valuable.”

3. Orlando’s momentum
Despite just one win in their last seven games — a run that includes a 2-1 loss to the Union — Orlando City is still keeping pace in the East by way of three draws over that same span.

But coming off a win over the Montreal Impact, and in the midst of four home games of five matches, the Florida club wants to go from staying afloat to rocketing up the standings.

“Any time we step on the field, we’re looking to get three points,” Orlando’s Kevin Alston said. “For us, we want to build off of last game and move forward.”

But they have to go through the Union first to get that momentum rolling.

“They are a confident team,” Orlando coach Adrian Heath said. “You can see it’s a happy camp. They keep working hard, they don’t give in, it’s gonna be tough because they are coming here with confidence.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: The Union are a better team with Vincent Nogueira in the midfield. Which made it even more concerning when the Frenchman went out with an oblique injury prior to the match against D.C. United last Friday. And though Nogueira isn’t believed to be seriously injured, he, along with Ilsinho, will be a question on Wednesday. “I honestly don’t know whether they’ll be available by Wednesday,” Curtin said. “We’ll assess after Wednesday’s game and see what it looks like for Colorado.” If Nogueira can’t go, the Union will likely go with the same midfield lineup as they did against United, with Warren Creavalle in Nogueira’s spot and Brian Carroll sitting deeper as defensive mid.

Orlando: At 21 years old, Cyle Larin is already one of the most dangerous strikers in the league. He scored 17 goals in 24 starts in his rookie campaign and is continuing his ridiculous pace with six goals in nine starts this season. And the Union have taken notice. “He’s a great striker, one I rate very highly,” Curtin said. “We dodged a bullet because he wasn’t in the last time we played, so it’ll be a real challenge to shut him down, especially in their building.”

5. This and that
• The Union are undefeated against Orlando City all-time with a 2-0-1 record.

• Orlando City’s star midfielder Kaka came alive last weekend, notching two assists in his club’s 2-1 win over the Impact. Heath noted that as Kaka goes, Orlando goes, leaving Curtin to wish the legendary player was invited to the Brazilian national team for the Copa America tournament, missing the match. “Yeah, I’d rather play them without Kaka, for sure,” Curtin laughed.

• Dating back to Aug. 1, 2015, Orlando City is unbeaten at Camping World Stadium. The club is 6-0-6 in its last 12 matches at the venue.