Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Having already been assured a playoff spot,
the Flyers technically have little more to play for than the pride of
conference and division titles, the latter of which can be wrapped up
tonight (based on this scenario), and of course home-ice advantage. But there is also plenty they can unofficially gain over their final three games. 

A few weeks ago, the only uncertainty with this team was which goalie
would be in net. Today, that's about the most concrete answer we know
(btw, Bob starts again tonight in Ottawa). All of sudden, there are a
few new injuries, though none are believed to be too serious, and Chris
Pronger is still out after a setback of sorts with his hand. Other
sources of uncertainty include the team's record at home recently, their
inability to do anything on the power play, an overall tapering off in
scoring, failure to beat teams seven or more slots below them in the
standings, and what, if anything, can be divined from all of these games
ending in shootouts recently.

Let's take a look at a few of these questions, as well as the recent
news on Michael Leighton, with absolutely no promises of actually
answering them. That's presumably what the next three games are for,
although I'm betting we probably won't know anything for sure about this
team until the first round of the playoffs. 

Bob, Boosh, and... Leights? 
First, Sergei
Bobrovsky is your playoff starter, and he'll probably play two of the
remaining games, or all three. After a swoon, he's been quite good
lately, and there's little reason to think Peter Laviolette is wavering
on him. Not even the surprise placement of Michael Leighton on re-entry
waivers should affect the playoff goalie situation, although I
admittedly am not sure why the team is exposing him to the process at
this time. If claimed by another team, the Flyers will be on the hook
for half of the AHL-hot Leighton's salary for another team. However,
Leights is ineligible to play for any of those teams in the upcoming
playoffs, so it's no slam dunk he'll be picked up in the next day. Are
the Flyers just looking to add him for injury depth? Clear half his
salary and some space for AHL goalie development of another goalie with a
longer-term timetable? I assume it's the insurance angle, but I'll tell
you when someone else tells me, because I'm really not sure what the
goal is here. The sting of seeing the roster hit by several injuries at
once is a good reminder of the wear and tear that is on the way though.
CSN's Sarah Baicker says that if Leighton clears, he'll play in one of
the two remaining games. 

Shootout Obscura
We've already gone over the
reasons we don't like the shootout, and yesterday, Peter Laviolette said
essentially the same thing about them—it's really quite hard to evaluate the outcome
of a game that ends in a shootout. Even those of us who are
dyed-in-the-wool shootout haters can lapse into counting any loss
collectively as an L. But as we've pointed out before, these particular
outcomes have very little to do with what will occur when it really
counts, as there is no shootout format in the playoffs. I say "very
little" as opposed to "not at all" because one fact still haunts the
Flyers more than the sight of a gifted scorer tripping over his own
stick to blow the decisive shot attempt—the Flyers should have been
winning many of those games in the first 60 minutes of play.

While the homer in me has been leaning toward the shootout results
obscuring the Flyers' not actually losing, those outcomes have done just
as much to hide the fact that the Flyers aren't winning by two and
three goals against teams they should be clearly better than. When the
shootout is removed, will these games still be going into OT, or can the
Flyers get back to outplaying their opponents enough in regulation to
just effing win? In any case, I'll be ecstatic when the regular season
is over, because the shootout will be gone with it, and we'll actually
be able to discuss who did or didn't win on the morning after. 

Superiority Complex
In all likelihood, the Flyers
will play either one of the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference
in the opening round. If not, we'll have seen a dreadful week.
Considering both the seventh and the eighth seeded teams won round one
last season, being a top seed is not necessarily a sunrise on the
horizon. We don't presently know which direction the Flyers are headed
in, and it's suddenly not out of the question that they might be last
year's Capitals. I'm not inclined to think so, but I can safely be
labeled an optimist when it comes to these things. It's rare that a one
seed backs its way into the playoffs, but the Flyers will fit that
description almost regardless to what happens in these final three
games, short of three straight decisive wins. Even then, we've seen
enough lackluster play that there will be concerns come game one.

The Flyers face three supposedly inferior teams this week, starting
tonight in Ottawa. On Sunday, we went over the reasons why a matchup
with the Rangers should be the perfect catalyst to get their blood
moving. The Flyers were decent in the game, but it wasn't the showing we
were looking for. Considering the amount of Flyers-Senators footage you
can find on YouTube, maybe tonight is a little more what the doctor
ordered?

PECO Has a Complaint About Its Bill
Watching the
Flyers' power play, I can't help but think what a microcosm of the
team's issues this is. Their overall dip in scoring can be tied to the
fact that they're not doing a damn thing on the man advantage lately.
Why is this microcosmic to me? Because I can't understand at all what
the freaking problem is. Part of it comes with the fact that most people
who follow hockey, fans and media alike, lack a true understanding of
the X's and O's of this very fluid sport at the professional level. I
admit to being in this camp, and the power play is how I know my
shortcomings. I cannot for the life of me figure out why a team stacked
with 20-goal scorers and a few 30/30 men can't score when the other team
has fewer players on the ice than they do, nor what they should be
doing differently to fix it. I'm this close to becoming one of
those fans who just yells SHOOT because I have no idea what else to say.
(Incidentally, it's not "Shoot!" The Flyers have been doing that, but
not with any amount of success.) 

In any case, if there's any one thing this team needs to get in order
above all else, it's the power play. Another goal a game would really
change the complexion of regulation play, which right now has the Flyers
going end to end with opponents scrapping for scoring chances and then
sitting back on defense. With the game tied, opposing teams seem to be
taking fewer chances, which gives the Flyers less ability to use their
great counter-attack to generate offense. There's also no margin of
error for the fluke goals that have plagued the Flyers, such as the
three that have gone in off skates in the past two games.

Will the return of Pronger and Briere help? It should, as they're
among the better PP guys on the team. However, this dip in man advantage
productivity pre-dates Pronger's injury and certainly Briere's. 

The Final Three
Only one of the Flyers' remaining
three games comes against a possible playoff opponent, and that's
Friday in Buffalo. The Sabres could be hungry for their playoff lives
(currently the eighth seed) but Ryan Miller is dealing with an injury
and his availability is uncertain. There is no good reason for the
Flyers not to win at least two of three here and finish with the top
seed in the East. However, they've been losing for bad reasons ranging
from the stupid shootout to the woes on the power play, and a penchant
for making backup goalies look like Dominik Hasek.

More than anything, I'm hoping the final three games serve to get us
ready for the playoffs. I'm not sure that, win or lose, these outcomes
can change much for the team. But it felt great when we were all riding
high, and I want that shit back heading into the playoffs.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies (60-72) vs. Nationals (77-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

For the second time in less than a week, the Phillies try to avoid a sweep by winning the final game of a series against a division opponent. Adam Morgan will try to overcome the Phillies struggles as well as his own while the Nationals toss out veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez. 

Here are five things to know for Wednesday night.

1. Close to quality
For just the fifth time this year, Morgan put together a quality start for the Phillies on Aug. 19 against the Cardinals. In his follow up start against the Mets on Friday, he came quite close to another one.

If it wasn't obvious from his 1-8 record and his 6.50 ERA, Morgan has been pretty absymal this season. He's shown glimpses of his talent, such as his strong start vs. the Cards or his seven innings of one-run ball on May 10 in Atlanta. Yet for the most part, his outings have been filled with hits and home runs.

Back to Friday. He had gotten through the Mets lineup with just two runs in five innings, keeping the Phillies in the game while Bartolo Colon held them at bay. But a grand slam ended his night and gave him an ugly six-run, eight-hit line in five innings of play. While he tied a career-high with eight strikeouts, he allowed three home runs. That simply won't get it down.

In his final start of the month, he needs to put together a strong outing to prove that he's worthy of a rotation spot even after rosters expand in September. If he keeps allowing more runs than innings pitched, it'd be tough to keep handing him the ball.

2. Lefty in decline
In the first two games of the series, the Phillies saw two starters that they will see plenty of in the future: Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer. Now they face a man who headed their rotations of the past.

Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals in 2012 for his age-26 season after becoming an All Star for the first time. Not only did he come up with another All Star appearance in 2012, he won a league-high 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote.

However, that was pretty clearly Gonzalez's peak. His ERA has declined every season since 2012 and he no longer strikes out more than a batter an inning. When he was truly at his best, he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark at a very solid rate (0.4 home runs per nine innings in 2012). He was able to match that mark in 2015, but he's given up his most home runs per nine innings (1.0) since his rookie season in 2009. 

The bad news for the Phillies is that Gonzalez has a solid track record against the Phillies. He's 8-6 in 18 starts against them with a 2.82 ERA. He strikes out almost exactly a batter an inning in those games while not walking as many batters as he usually does. He's even better at Citizens Bank with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts. 

Despite giving up just two earned runs over 13 ⅓ innings against the Phillies in April, he did not earn a win in his two starts. In fact, he lost his second start against them while the Nationals lost both games. 

3. Outperforming expectations
The Phillies are nowhere close to their 14-10 start, but that was to be expected. Very few thought the Phils could begin the season on such a strong run, which lasted into mid-May. 

Right now, they have a 60-72 record. However, their pythagorean record (which uses their runs scored and runs allowed to project what their record should be) is 51-81, nine games worse. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals are 77-55, comfortably in first place in the NL East. But their pythagorean record is 81-51, four games better than their current pace. 

There are plenty of reasons why teams can outperform or underperform compared to their pythagorean record. A team that outperforms can have a series of blowout wins that inflate their runs scored despite a 10-run outburst only contributes to one win. Teams that underperform tend to have lot of success in close games (or have suffered a few blowout losses), yet they also usually regress and start playing more towards their projected record.

The easiest way to explain why the Phillies and Nationals would have the out or underperformed is their bullpens. The Phils have had a strong backend of their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris, who have been able to close out many close Phillies wins. Meanwhile, the Nationals had Jonathan Papelbon closing for them. Papelbon had a poor enough season to be designated for assignment after blowing a few games this summer. 

The other reasons are the ones listed above: the Nationals offense has produced some big outbursts thanks to hitters like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and the Phillies have had some blowout losses (that Mets series last week was a great example). 

However, the main takeaway from this may be the surplus wins that the Phillies have produced thanks to their bullpen. Without Neris or Gomez, the team would not be where they are because close leads wouldn't have been as safe as they've been. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With the news that Ryan Howard will be getting less playing time, Tommy Joseph is the man who will benefit. He takes on a lefty tonight, although he hasn't faced Gonzalez before because he was not in the majors in April.

Nationals: Despite going 0 for 4 on Tuesday, former Phillie Jayson Werth has been on a tear this month. He's hit seven home runs, including one on Monday. He also has a .346 average against lefties.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 1-7 against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this year. That includes a sweep by the Nationals from May 30-June 1, the first sweep by the Nationals at CBP since Sept. 20-22, 2011 (a four-game series).

• Freddy Galvis has the most at-bats of any current Phillie against Gonzalez. He's 8 for 31 with a home run, two doubles and a walk. Currently in Triple A, Darin Ruf is 10 for 28 against Gonzalez with three homers and eight walks. 

• Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa is 2 for 6 against Morgan with two home runs. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBI. 

• The Phillies are 12-13 in August despite have allowed 150 runs and scored just 111. The Nationals are 16-11 this month. 

Undrafted CB C.J. Smith still has 'a lot of room for improvement'

Undrafted CB C.J. Smith still has 'a lot of room for improvement'

Covering Colts receivers T.Y. Hilton or Donte Moncrief is a daunting task for just about every cornerback in the NFL, let alone an undrafted rookie. That's precisely what the Eagles were asking of C.J. Smith on Saturday when they plugged the North Dakota State product into the game with the first-string defense.

And the results weren't bad. Hilton and Moncrief made some catches, but each time, Smith was right there to challenge them, wrap them up and get them to the ground. No busted coverages. No missed tackles. No backing down.

"I think I did all right, but I think I have a lot of things to improve on," Smith said of his performance Saturday. "The game was a little faster than when I played in the preseason before, so I definitely think I have a lot of room for improvement."

All right would be a fair assessment. Smith wound up finishing with a team-high seven tackles, which is not a great stat for a corner because it usually means passes were being completed. Although once again, consider his background and the opponent. This 23-year-old hasn't even been practicing with the first-team defense, then one day all of a sudden Andrew Luck is throwing in his direction.

"Coaches gave me a little heads up," Smith said. "They didn't give me too many reps in practice with the ones, but I think they just wanted to see if I could handle being out there, thrown in the fire in my situation."

Nobody could've blamed him if he was nervous, if he would've made a mistake or got beat.

"A little nerve-racking at first, but things started to settle in," Smith said of facing a dangerous Colts passing attack. "My teammates had my back, so that was the biggest thing. And then the coaches said everything translates from practice to the game, you just have to trust it."

Seeing Smith out there with the first-team defense was something of a surprise. There's already a logjam at cornerback, where Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Eric Rowe and Jalen Mills are jockeying for position. Smith getting a shot might mean the Eagles are considering keeping six corners, or that one of the others could be on the move.

The 5-foot-11, 189-pound defensive back impressed throughout training camp as well as in the Eagles' preseason opener, where he recorded three pass breakups and an interception. Smith also notes he played a lot of man coverage in college, a skillset he believes is attractive to this coaching staff.

Perhaps Smith getting a shot with the ones shouldn't have been a surprise based on the summer he's had. He's starting to build the case he shouldn't have gone overlooked in the draft either.

"I was hurt going into my senior year with a pretty bad knee injury, so I had to overcome that," Smith said of going undrafted. "And then I still think playing at the FCS level, it's tough to overcome that too."

Smith will have at least one more opportunity to show the Eagles what he can bring to the table Thursday when the preseason schedule wraps up against the Jets. Now that he's gone up against Pro Bowl-caliber talent, he should really shine in a game typically reserved for backups and fringe NFL talents.

Maybe that's expecting too much, but Smith probably won't mind.

"You try to expect a lot of yourself," Smith said. "I'm just taking things day by day, trying to get better every day, trying to control the things I can control."

Jake Metz enjoying 'amazing' ride, ready for dream audition with Eagles

Jake Metz enjoying 'amazing' ride, ready for dream audition with Eagles

As Monday turned into Tuesday, Jake Metz laid awake in his bed. The 25-year-old Souderton Area High School graduate knew he needed a good night’s sleep before starting his new job in the morning, but he just couldn’t shut down. 

After a crazy few days, all he could do was stare at the ceiling. 

“I’m in shock,” Metz said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m just trying to do the best I can.”

On Friday night, Metz was in Glendale, Arizona, playing a key role in the Soul’s ArenaBowl XXIX championship (see story). On Monday afternoon, he and a teammate (wideout Darius Reynolds) worked out at the NovaCare Complex. Several hours later, at 9 p.m., the phone call came. 

He showed up to his new job the next morning, and was given a new uniform: a No. 74 Eagles jersey. 

It’s not hard to figure out why the 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive end couldn’t sleep. It really has been a crazy few days. 

“It’s amazing,” said Metz, who played his college ball at Shippensburg and played for the Soul the last two seasons. “I grew up here in Philadelphia, so to win a ring with the Soul and to be able to play with the team of my dreams the next couple days is amazing. I’m on cloud nine right now. It’s awesome.”

There’s not too much time to sit in awe, though. Metz practiced Tuesday for the first time as an Eagle and expects to play “a good amount” in the team’s fourth and final preseason game on Thursday night. 

That leaves just two days to prepare for what could be the biggest and most important audition of his life. How much can he learn in a couple days? 

“We’re going to find out,” Metz said. “I’m going to do everything I can. I’m going to be first guy here, last one to leave, do everything I can to take in as much as I can to make this team.”

Making the team doesn’t seem likely. The Eagles will only get to keep 53 players on their final roster and there’s a logjam of sorts at defensive end. It’s possible Marcus Smith or Steven Means could be left off the roster, so don’t expect Metz to jump both of them in a week’s time. 

But the Eagles saw enough in the AFL’s Defensive Linemen of the Year to sign Metz and at least allow him to play in one game. 

“I tell you what: I love his length and size,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “He's got good athleticism. He's coming right off of a championship season, so he's in shape and ready to go. With Alex McCalister going down, we needed some depth there and he gives us that rotation that we're looking for up front. And it gives him an opportunity to get himself on film.”

The young defensive end said the Eagles coaches and players have been very helpful upon his arrival. A few players in particular — he named Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin and Bryan Braman — have been helping him even as plays were going on in practice. With such a short time to get ready for game action, coaches and players have told him to worry less about scheme and more about just playing to his athleticism. 

Getting some NFL film from Thursday’s game could be huge for Metz. While a roster spot isn’t going to open up along the Eagles’ defensive line anytime soon, 31 other teams will get a chance to see Metz showcase his skills in an NFL game. 

Plenty of other folks are going to be watching him too: his family and friends in the area. 

“Oh, you have no idea,” Metz said. “I have so many friends and family that have already said they’re getting tickets to the game. They’re gonna be there. You’ll see them for sure.”