Bitter End to Brilliant Classic: Rangers Outlast Flyers

Bitter End to Brilliant Classic: Rangers Outlast Flyers

The 2012 NHL Winter Classic lived up to every bit of hype that has been piled on it over the past year. The teams represented one of the league's best rivalries, and each side was at the top of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference for the period leading up to and including game. Unfortunately for Flyers fans, although the net result of participation in the event was positive, the finale was disappointing.

Despite a hard-fought 60 minutes, the Flyers wilted in the third period, and goaltending was—predictably—one of the deciding factors. It's also a clear difference between the Flyers and the team they trail in the division.

Below, a look at the best and worst the day had to offer.

Deep Rooted Atmosphere
There was little doubt that a Flyers-Rangers matchup on the field at one of baseball's new palaces would be met with tremendous fan response, and we've come to expect Winter Classics to be outstanding theatre no matter where they're played and who is on the ice. A crowd of nearly 47,000 surrounded a makeshift yet perfect hockey stage, and the weather behaved, with only wind providing any sort of issue. A light wave of flurries later in the game added even more to a gorgeous scene. Off the ice, the NHL, Flyers, Phillies, and Rangers did just about everything right in terms of putting on a memorable show for fans who shelled out big money for a unique experience.

The NBC announcers said it was hard for the coaches to communicate on their benches because of how loud it was.

The Roots were a highlight as well, putting on a great intermission show. All but Black Thought donned Flyers jerseys (at least he ditched his frequently worn Yankees cap), and they played "The Fire," replacing "Fire" with "Flyers." Great performance by Philly's top musical act:

Patti LaBelle... not the best anthem we've heard, and we'll leave it at that.

Flyers Are Subjects in King Henrik's Realm
Unfortunately, the result that counts is that the Flyers are still chasing a superior Rangers team in the standings and in bona fide contention for a Stanley Cup. One huge reason—although not the only one—is Henrik Lundqvist. Through a tight first period, Henrik turned aside everything sent his way, as did Sergei Bobrovsky. But a soft goal surrendered by Bob in the third will be hard to forget, whereas Lundqvist seemed to only get stronger.

The Flyers had the advantage in opportunities early, but most were not particularly dangerous. Lundqvist was square to nearly every shot, and didn't have to deal with much in the way of screens of second-effort attempts.

Through nearly half the game, neither side threatened too dangerously. Then, in a matter of 2:25, three goals were scored.

Schenn Opens His Account, Flyers Take Over
When the Flyers finally lit the scoreboard for the first time, it was a historic moment in what may become a brilliant NHL career. Brayden Schenn has battled injuries in his time as a Flyer, but earned every bit of his goal on Monday. Schenn won an offensive zone face-off, then made his way to the net as Matt Carle through the puck toward the cage. Lundqvist made the initial stop, but left the rebound at his feet, where an opportunistic Schenn put it home and celebrated exactly as you might expect.

[More on that here]
Schenn joins Danny Syvret in the realm of Flyers who have scored their first NHL goals in a Winter Classic. Hopefully that's all they'll have in common.

While we were all still high-fiving, Claude Giroux scored his 18th of the season, moving ahead of Henrik Sedin for the NHL points lead (46). Max Talbot was the playmaker who set it up, making good use of some open ice while G weaved into the slot. Talbot found him, and with two quick touches, put a great move on Lundqvist and beat him high.

Momentum Walls Out, Mike Rupp Chumps Out
Unfortunately, the Rangers got one back just 30 seconds after G's tally. Mike Rupp scored, then did a salute to mock Jaromir Jagr. One of these players will be remember for his greatness. The other will be remembered—if at all—for mocking him.

Andrej Meszaros didn't help his goalie out on this one, drifting into no-man's land and attempting to block a shot with his legs while standing straight up, stick nearly useless. The shot got past him, and a fully screened Bob had no answer for it. Probably won't need a translator to get the gist of any postage banter between the Flyers' two goalies tonight.

Third Period Hell
Short the aforementioned Jagr for part of the first, most of the second, and all of the third periods, the Flyers slowed down considerably in the final frame, appearing to lose their legs somewhat. The Rangers, meanwhile, sustained their attack. Rupp scored again less than three minutes into the third, a sorrowfully soft goal on Bob's part sure to draw more attention than it would in any other game.

Fans looking for revenge on Rupp for his disrespect of Jagr got just the opposite. Rupp scored his second of the game, just his third of the season. Lundqvist beating you is one thing… Mike Rupp is a whole lot tougher to stomach.

Brad Richards would score for the Rangers as well, putting them up by a 3-2 count. Giroux seemed to lose his man on the play, and Richards showed why he was a top prize in the off-season.

A Dramatic Finale
As the time got closer and closer to quad zeroes in the third, the Flyers kicked into a gear they hadn't seen in 20 minutes of ice time. Lundqvist remained in the gear he'd cruised in all day. The refs didn't help the Flyers out on one play in tight, blowing a very loose puck dead. But, they did award the Flyers a powerplay they didn't deserve, whistling Ryan McDonagh for delay of game after he was pushed into the Rangers' net, taking it off its moorings.

McDonagh played a key role in the final dramatic sequence as well, when, with Bob pulled, he was whistled for covering the puck in his own crease. The Flyers were awarded a penalty shot, which was taken by Danny Briere.

True to form in this one, Briere made his attempt on Lundqvist, but you could hardly say he challenged him. Briere skated straight in on net, and Henrik stayed square, not reacting until Briere made his move, going for the five hole. The shot was turned easily aside, and the game was over 20 seconds later. (Good stat by Devils beat Tom Gulitti: Including Briere's today, shooters are now 0-for-11 on penalty shots with a chance to tie game in final minute over last 15 years.)

End Result
Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

The Rangers are now four points ahead in the standings, hardly an insurmountable margin. The Flyers hung with them for most of the game, but a few key lapses proved fatal.
The injury to Jaromir Jagr bears observing (though he downplayed it afterwards), as of course does the goaltending situation.

Overall, this was not a head-hanging loss, and the weekend on the whole was a great success for all parties involved. We certainly enjoyed it. And, like the players and coaches seemed to after the game, we're looking forward to life after the Winter Classic. The Flyers have an identity to cultivate and half a season to do it.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”