3 Stars: Flyers crush Rangers to knot series and force decisive Game 7 on Wednesday in New York

3 Stars: Flyers crush Rangers to knot series and force decisive Game 7 on Wednesday in New York

A look at the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-2, series-tying victory over the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the teams’ Eastern Conference first-round series on Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center through the perspective of an exceptional special teams unit and two dominant Flyers.

The Flyers have played their best hockey this season when their backs have been against the wall. Game 6 on Tuesday night was the most effective and important example of that yet.

Philadelphia ran wild over New York in the second period with three goals and chased Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to an early exit.

The Flyers flat-out dominated in impressive fashion after the first period and set up Game 7 tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m.

It was such an impressive performance that I’m naming two first stars. I don’t care.

[Related: The 7 best photos of Wayne Simmonds forcing Game 7 with his first playoff hat trick | Wayne Simmonds get the Daily News' puny cover treatment]

 

3. The Flyers’ penalty kill

One can’t write enough glowing things about to the Flyers’ penalty kill to praise just how great it has been this series.

After shutting down five more Rangers’ power plays on Tuesday, the Flyers’ penalty killers have now killed off 20-straight Rangers’ man advantages. And one of those kills on Tuesday night led directly to a huge Flyers’ goal that basically iced the game.

As the successful kill wound down midway through the second period, Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn swatted a loose puck down the ice and hit a streaking Erik Gustafsson, who had just left the box after taking a high-sticking penalty, to send him on a breakaway. Gustafsson wristed a rocket through the five-hole of Lundqvist to give the Flyers a 3-0 and they never looked back.

A lot of credit for the penalty kill will go to forwards Sean Couturier and Matt Read for the way they pressure the puck and make smart reads, and rightfully so. But every Flyer that contributes on the penalty kill deserves credit, too, for keeping a dangerous Rangers’ power play that finished in the top-half of the league during the regular season in check.

The Flyers’ penalty kill will no doubt continue be huge key in Game 7.

 

1. Steve Mason

Let’s be honest here. Despite scoring the opening tally and taking a lead into first intermission for the first time in the series, the Flyers did not play well at all to start the first period.

The Rangers dominated puck possession and the Flyers could barely get the puck out of their zone while struggling with turnovers, just as we had seen all series long.

The difference this time was that Mason had every answer, made 13 crucial saves and helped settle his team down so they could find their game. And then he continued to be spectacular for the rest of the contest.

All told, Mason made 34 saves to help propel the Flyers to Game 7. And most of those 34 saves were not of the easy variety.

He robbed the Rangers on multiple occasions with his glove hand. The glove save he made on forward Benoit Puliot on a break during a Rangers’ power play in the second period was just remarkable, even more so because that would have cut the lead in half and got the Rangers right back into the game at 2-1.

Forget about those two goals the Rangers scored in garbage time. Mason just kept making big save after big save.

There was a reason the crowd chanted, “Mason! Mason!” as the seconds ticked down. He was the backbone of his team’s victory.

A locked-in Mason is just what the Rangers didn’t want heading into Wednesday’s decisive game, but that’s what they’re getting.

1. Wayne Simmonds

The day before Game 6, Simmonds told reporters, “We’ve got to be more aggressive. Be better. We can’t be scared out there. We have to go out there to win.

Did he ever go out and back those statements up on Tuesday night.

Simmonds recorded his first career playoff hat trick in the victory.

He got the scoring started in the first when he kept pounding away at a rebound and finally pushed the puck past Lundqvist for the all-important first goal of the game.

He added to the Flyers’ lead early in the second after Brayden Schenn fanned on a shot but the puck went right to Simmonds, who slammed it home for a 2-0 lead.

Later on in that second period, Simmonds deflected a Jake Voracek shot past Lundqvist to cap the hat trick with a power-play goal that gave the Flyers a 4-0 lead and was the cherry on top of a stellar performance.

The beautiful thing about all three of Simmonds’ goals is that they all were scored from within about five feet of the crease. And that’s just what the Flyers need him to do.

Flyers fans know that bad things happen when Mr. Simmonds is in his office. Lundqvist and the Rangers found that out the hard way in Game 6. After containing Simmonds to just an empty-net goal in the series before Game 6, the Rangers now have to deal with a Wayne Train that’s moving full-speed ahead into Game 7.

 

Forget anything that’s happened in this series so far. Forget any of those historic Game 7 stats you’ll hear about until puck drop on Wednesday night. None of those things matter because Game 7 is a total crapshoot.

But the Flyers have the one thing that will matter: momentum. That’s especially true considering the way they handily won on Tuesday and the fact that Game 7 is less than 24 hours away.

It’s on at the Garden tonight.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

052616-ben-simmons.jpg

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

pederson-kelly.jpg

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

052716-appel-slife.jpg

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.