Bad Blood, Great Hockey: Flyers Storm Back to Thrash Penguins

Bad Blood, Great Hockey: Flyers Storm Back to Thrash Penguins

For months, the Flyers have been playing a dangerous game, one rarely won in the NHL. They've frequently allowed the game's first goal, often before the fans have found their seats. And yet, they continue living to tell the tale. On Saturday, the Ottawa Senators scored three unanswered goals in the first period. The Flyers tied the game and left the ice with one point after losing in the shootout. On Sunday, the Penguins became the latest team to open the Flyers up early, scoring twice in the opening period before the Flyers returned fire.
Once again, the Flyers were backed into a corner. And once again, they successfully fought their way out. It was the second straight time they beat the Pens after conceding the game's first two goals, and they'd leave the ice with a 6-4 W after a brutal and entertaining end. 
How are they managing to win despite the odds against coming back, especially against one of the league's elite teams?
On Sunday, the Penguins certainly had the better of the early attacking, but it was luck that kept the Flyers off the board early. Despite being outshot, Philadelphia did still have some good opportunities. Pittsburgh opened the scoring with a complete fluke of a goal, though good cycling and puck work led to it. Sidney Crosby had a solid opportunity that was stoned by Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Pens retained the puck and got it to Steve Sullivan in the high slot. Sullivan's shot knuckled very oddly and popped over Bob and into the net. 
A much cleaner shot by Matt Carle caught iron a minute later, then slid past a perfectly positioned Scott Hartnell on the doorstep of an open net. Sometimes the bounces don't go your way, and the Pens had both the better luck and the better work in the early goings. 
It paid off for the home side again before 5 minutes had ticked off. James Neal scored his 39th when the Penguins' top line caught the Flyers looking. Evgeni Malkin skated under the goal line with the puck, slammed on the brakes, and fed it back to Neal. Despite Malkin being alone behind the net, the Flyers had inadequate coverage in front of it. 
It appeared a rout had begun. The top scoring team in the league had drawn blood and were circling like sharks (not the San Jose variety). But anyone who's watched the Flyers this season should know the game was just getting started. They've won seven of the 24 games in which they've trailed by two goals at any point, getting at least a point in 10 of them. In games they've trailed 2-0, they have either tied or taken the lead four out of five times, according to Sam Carchidi. 
So let's get on to that part, shall we?
Ten minutes after the Neal goal, the Flyers' top line answered. Jaromir Jagr, Claude Giroux, and Scott Hartnell put a load of pressure on an outmatched Penguins unit in the Pittsburgh zone. Jagr helped keep the puck free with an active stick, and Giroux powered through a flat-footed Aron Asham. G turned inside and put it on goal, where Marc-Andre Fleury was screened by Hartnell. Exactly how this line is designed to work, complete with a #hartnelldown. 
The building grew quiter, the Pens swagger tucked a bit tighter between their legs. They still had the lead, but it was a new game. 
Five minutes into the second, the scoreboard was reset. The Flyers' checking line was managing the Penguins' top line well, with their most effective tactic being to generate offensive pressure. They worked the puck around the Pittsburgh zone, and Sean Couturier sent it into the slot, where Zac Rinaldo gloved it down, turned, and shot it toward goal. None other than former Penguin Max Talbot was open on the back door, and he chipped it home. 
Remember when Dan Bylsma teased his former checker for finding a goal-scoring touch? That's 19 on the season for Talbot, whose career best with the Penguins was 13. 
Sergei Bobrovsky shook off a less-than-stellar start, just as he did against the Senators on Saturday. The Pens came close to breaking through a few times, including with a second left in the period, but Bob kept the gate shut. 
The Flyers would take the lead and keep it in the third. Wayne Simmonds scored his fifth goal in four games, a power play tally quarterbacked by Giroux. G first passed to Hartnell in the highslot, where he's had success this season, but he couldn't convert. The Flyers kept the puck, and G again set up to lay ruin. This time he passed it to a poaching Jake Voracek, who was on the right point. Vorch sent it down low, where Simmonds was waiting on the back door. 
Voracek would score the first of his two goals next, a slick breakaway off a nice touch pass from Eric Wellwood. Marc-Andre Bourdon piled an insurance goal on after that, shooting from the point after G beat Crosby in a Pens-zone faceoff. Bourdon's shot hit Zbynek Michalek on the way, changing direction considerably to beat Marc-Andre Fleury. 
The Penguins got on the board again with another Sullivan goal, making things momentarily interesting, but it was too little too late for the Pens. 
The game was far from over though. These teams will close the season together, then very likely meet in the first round of the playoffs. As detailed, with video, here, the Pens wanted to send a message that this game was over, but they'd be ready to swing next week. If you haven't seen it yet, go watch Lavvy go apeshit on Dan Bylsma's crew, with both coaches standing on the boards as their players brawled on the ice. 
Anyone not ready for the next meeting?
NotesThe Flyers are now 4-1-0 against the Penguins, who are leaking goals and playing a dangerous, gambling game of their own. They're very loose, confident their scoring can carry them. But they're surrendering too many goals, and and MAF has been very human lately. 
The Flyers played most of the game without Nick Grossmann, who took a knee-on-knee hit from Joe Vitale. No word on his status yet, but he didn't return. Lavvy indicated in an interview that it wasn't serious, but who knows. The Flyers can't afford to lose him, despite today's winning effort after his departure. 
Kimmo Timonen also left briefly after blocking a shot with his knee. He returned though. 
Huge props to Braydon Coburn, who was double and even triple shifted throughout the game. He played nearly 29 minutes. Matt Carle was just under 28. 
Vitale was also at the center of the storm that ended the game, laying out Danny Briere with a huge, clean hit. Lavvy's beef was that his checking line hadn't played in the latter half of the third period, then was sent out for possibly the final faceoff. While legal, the hit was clearly a message. Lavvy called Bylsma "gutless" according to reports from the locker room, while Crosby defended it and the Pens complained of the hit Brayden Schenn put on their captain from behind. 
Schenn was clearly in violation of the rules, but no more than Malkin was when he did the same
to Hartnell after a whistle (only difference being Harts didn't crumble to the ice like Crosby), nor when Malkin basically cross-check/tackled Giroux. He and Crosby were the dirtiest players on the ice, with even the NBC crew pointing out Crosby's unpenalized slashes. 
15 penalties were assessed on that final fracas. Peter Laviolette was tossed from the game, and he earned it. It was pretty funny to see him shatter Talbot's stick, with part of it landing on the ice, another part in the Pens' bench. 
Among the many highlights of the game, it was particularly enjoyable to see how unfazed the Flyers' youngins were by the stars in black and gold. 
It doesn't appear any Flyer is afraid of Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center. They've won all five games they've played there. Must be the barbecue. 
Highlights

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. on Fox
Redskins favored by 2; over/under 47

When the Eagles went into FedEx Field in Week 6, they had an opportunity to leave 4-1 and in great position in the NFC East. Instead, what ensued was a stretch of three divisional losses in four weeks by a combined 18 points.

Two months later, the Eagles are out of the race at 5-7 while the 6-5-1 Redskins are still battling for an NFC wild-card spot. The 'Skins would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today — they currently hold the seventh spot in the NFC, behind the Bucs (7-5) but ahead of the Vikings and Packers (6-6).

This is obviously a crucial game for Washington, but the Eagles are just as desperate after losing by 11, 14 and 18 points the last three weeks. Don't underestimate the role desperation and a few weeks of embarrassment can have on a team's ability to bounce back. It was partly why I cautioned in these scouting reports the last two weeks not to count out either Green Bay or Cincinnati, teams that had more talent and stability than a few weeks of midseason losses indicated.

Cousins and Reed
The next time the Eagles limit Kirk Cousins will be the first time. In four games against them, he's completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 336 yards, thrown 10 TDs and two interceptions and rushed for another score. Washington has averaged 31 points and won three of the four contests.

The Eagles' margin of error on defense is extremely small in this game. To win, they'll need a better effort against a Redskins' ground game that gashed them for 230 yards last time, they'll need to generate consistent pressure on Cousins and they'll need Jordan Reed to not be himself.

Reed, the NFC's most dangerous tight end, is questionable with a Grade 3 AC joint separation suffered on Thanksgiving. Reed was a warrior on Turkey Day, leaving the game in the second quarter, standing on the sideline in a sling, probably receiving a little (ahem) help at halftime, and then dominating in the second half in Dallas. Reed finished that game with 12 catches for 95 yards and two TDs, but was hurt badly enough to miss last week's game.

The Eagles were fortunate to avoid Reed in the season's earlier matchup. Fortunate because he destroyed them last December, catching nine passes for 129 yards and two TDs in a 14-point win. Washington uses its tight ends more than any offense in the league, and Reed is a mismatch even for an Eagles team that has allowed the fewest catches (31) and receiving yards (327) to tight ends. 

With Reed out in October, backup Vernon Davis burned the Eagles for two catches, 50 yards and a TD. But it sounds like Reed will play Sunday after telling reporters that his range of motion is back.

The issue in stopping Washington is the Eagles just don't have enough defensive backs to defend everything. It's why they need Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to get consistent pressure and keep Cousins out of a rhythm. They haven't been able to do that. They had no sacks in Washington in Week 6 and have failed to sack Cousins in two of the last three meetings.

Without forcing Cousins to get off his spot and get the ball out quickly, the Eagles' secondary hasn't shown anything to inspire confidence they can stop DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, Reed and Davis at the same time.

To make matters worse, this is the first week Washington's All-Pro left tackle, Trent Williams, is back from a four-game substance abuse suspension. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed just three sacks in his last eight games against the Eagles.

Which Wentz will show?
Last week was Carson Wentz's worst game as an NFL quarterback. He missed wide-open throws, threw three interceptions and could have thrown more and barely exceeded 300 yards despite throwing the ball 60 times. 

He didn't look like the guy we saw the first four games of the season, and quite frankly he hasn't looked like a top-20 QB since October. 

The lack of weapons and occasionally poor protection are major reasons why, but Wentz isn't void of blame — he's simply missed some makeable throws.

Against Washington back on Oct. 16, Wentz was just 11 of 22 for 179 yards as the Eagles lost the time of possession battle. The best days belonged to Ryan Mathews (9 carries, 60 yards) and Jordan Matthews (three catches, 75 yards). Both are questionable heading into this one. 

Wentz didn't throw a single pass at Josh Norman in the first meeting. At times, Norman has followed the opposing team's top receiver, but don't expect him to do so this Sunday. Norman has lined up on the left side 64 percent of the time this season and in the slot just nine percent. 

Slot matchup
Matthews has run 73 percent of his routes from the slot and should draw third-round pick Kendall Fuller. As long as Matthews is sufficiently recovered from his ankle injury, this should be a good matchup for the Eagles. 

Fuller has been beaten repeatedly this season, allowing 42 catches (on 53 targets) for 542 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a 123.9 rating against him, third-worst among all slot corners. (Malcolm Jenkins is actually worst in this category with a 137.9 QB rating allowed in the slot.)

Fuller has also struggled to wrap receivers up after the catch, allowing an NFL-high 213 yards after the catch. Picking up yards after a reception is something the Eagles have struggled to do all year.

Run game
The Eagles were shutting running backs down until they played the Redskins in October. Since-demoted RB Matt Jones rushed for 135 yards, current starter Rob Kelley rushed for 59, and both had a run of 45-plus yards.

Cox, Barwin and LB Nigel Bradham had awful games that afternoon against the run. It also didn't help that the Eagles were credited with 12 missed tackles. 

Run-stuffer Bennie Logan left that game early with a groin injury and missed the next three weeks. Since returning, however, Logan hasn't been himself, struggling to rush the passer and stop the run.

The Kerrigan factor
The Eagles always have trouble containing Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who had three sacks in the first meeting. 

Kerrigan has been a force in 2016 with 44 QB hurries, which is three more than Kahlil Mack and second-most among outside linebackers to Von Miller.

Kerrigan has nine sacks in 11 career games against the Eagles, and Washington is 5-1 when he has at least one against them.

Prediction
Close game, better performance from Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with Jackson and Crowder, over the middle with Reed and short with Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27

Nearly back from injury, Mathews hopes to rejuvenate Eagles' running game

Nearly back from injury, Mathews hopes to rejuvenate Eagles' running game

It’s been a fairly rocky season for Ryan Mathews, who cost the Eagles the Lions game with a late fumble, was demoted by head coach Doug Pederson for a spell, hurt his knee against the Seahawks and missed two games and is on pace for a third straight season under 600 rushing yards.

Mathews, who missed the double-digit losses to the Packers and Bengals, is expected to return on Sunday, when the fading Eagles face the Redskins.

Mathews is an interesting case. When he’s gotten at least nine carries this year, the Eagles are 4-2. When he’s gotten fewer or hasn’t played, the Eagles are 1-5.

Here’s the Mathews conundrum: He’s averaging a healthy 4.2 yards per carry and ranks eighth in the entire NFL with seven rushing touchdowns. Yet he’s gotten more than 11 carries only three times – in wins against the Browns, Vikings and Falcons.

Without him the last two weeks, the Eagles ran 37 times for a total of 134 yards, just 3.6 a pop. And lost.

He’s no Shady, Westbrook or Duce, but he does move the chains.

“I think Ryan brings definitely a different dimension,” center Jason Kelce said. “He’s an extremely powerful, explosive back. He hits the hole hard. There’s been some games he’s been absolutely dominant when he’s gotten the opportunities. 

“He’s done a great job for us. Good to have him back, glad he’s healthy and back out there and hopefully we can get something going for him up front.”

Mathews actually ranks 11th in the NFL since 2010 with 36 rushing touchdowns.

He said he feels 100 percent three weeks after injuring his knee in Seattle.

“I feel good,” he said at his locker after practice Thursday. “Tried to get back out there with my teammates and get back in the groove of things. 

“I’m good enough to practice and go. It’s just getting back in the rhythm, getting the timing down. I missed two weeks and it’s kind of hard. Just trying to get back in the groove of things.”

The Eagles take a 5-7 record and three-game losing streak into their 1 p.m. kickoff Sunday against the 6-5-1 Redskins at the Linc.

The Redskins have won four straight over the Eagles. A win would give them their first five-game winning streak over their NFC East rival since a six-game stretch from 1981 through 1984.

“It’s hard,” Mathews said. “We just have to learn from the mistakes and push forward. We can’t change anything in the past, we can’t undo the games. We get another chance Sunday to go out there and play our best.”

Rookie Wendell Smallwood has been the Eagles’ leading rusher the last three weeks, but the Eagles haven’t had anybody run for as many as 50 yards since the Atlanta game – the last time they won.

The Eagles have only some very faint playoff hopes at this point. But it won’t hurt to get Mathews back.

“Well, he's definitely a bigger back,” Pederson said. “He's a little bit more between-the-tackles and has that veteran experience that you see out of him. 

“It will be good to get him back out on the field Sunday and get him some more work.”

This has been a weird year for the Eagles’ running game, which has generally been fairly effective when Pederson commits to it. 

But that rarely happens. 

Either the Eagles find themselves too far behind to stick with it or Pederson just decides to have Carson Wentz throw the ball 50 times and the running backs whither on the bench.

“It’s tough,” Mathews said. “We as a group have to do our job and when our number is called we have to make plays. We’ll get it going.”

The Eagles haven’t had anybody get 20 carries in a game since opening day. Nobody’s gotten more than 13 carries since Mathews against the Falcons.

Mathews, twice a 1,000-yard rusher, could well be playing his final few games as an Eagle.

Curiously, his 4.64 average in an Eagles uniform is fifth-best ever by players with a minimum of 200 carries behind three quarterbacks – Michael Vick (6.70), Randall Cunningham (6.62) and Donovan McNabb (5.67) – and LeSean McCoy (4.65).

So with a strong final few games, he could actually own the highest rushing average in franchise history by a running back.

Mathews, who’s only gotten nine or more carries in back-to-back games twice in two years with the Eagles, said his only remaining goal is to finish strong.

“It would be awesome,” he said. “That’s the main thing you want to do. Take it one game at a time and just try to get better and finish off strong.”