Danny & The Kings Ransom Duo Shred Leafs

Danny & The Kings Ransom Duo Shred Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs may not be the best barometer for a playoff-bound team. They've already been eliminated from playoff eligibility for the seventh consecutive season, and on Thursday, they had a first-time NHL starter in net due to a fluke injury to Jonas Gustavsson in pregame warmups. In terms of competition, the best they had to offer was the "dangerous team with nothing left to lose" riff. 
The Flyers were also without their starter in net, a situation Kulp took a good look at prior to the game. Would a change in goal reverse the Flyers' recent fortunes? At least for a night, no… Not at all. Sergei Bobrovsky was as good as anyone could've asked, and the line of Danny Briere, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn led the way in a 7-1 decimation. 
Some must-see goals below, if you didn't catch the game live. Even if you did, this was a fun one to relive. 
Danny Briere didn't score on the night, but he continued his warming trend in a huge way. Centering the two players the Flyers got from the LA Kings in return for Mike Richards, Briere notched a career-high four assists, and they weren't just the "last guy who touched the puck before the scorer" variety. 
Schenn and Simmonds each scored a pair, giving them 11 and 25 on the season, respectively. Matt Read ripped his 23rd of the season, Eric Wellwood his fifth, and Jake Voracek his 15th. Seven goals on the board, and none came from the tape of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, or Jaromir Jagr. No objections here. 
Schenn opened the scoring before 6 minutes had ticked off the clock, gathering a misfired puck off the stick of his brother Luke, and sniping it past Rynnas. The Flyers have proven that early deficits aren't fatal, but it's still a relief when they're the side with the early goal. 

The Good Schenn also scored the second goal of the game, this time benefiting from the play of the team's elder statement. Killing a penalty, the Leafs managed a frantic lobbing clear, but couldn't control it in the neutral zone. With the patience of a 664-goal scorer, Jaromir Jagr held it up at the blue line while the forwards cleared the zone, then hit Briere with a pass as he regained the zone. Briere skated up the near-side slot, drawing Dion "Suck It" Phaneuf's attention, then fed Schenn on the back door. 
Psst, Dion… even on the PK, you want to be responsible for the pass there. 
Mikhail Grabovski would make it a one-goal game before the period was over, which in retrospect reminds us that this game wasn't dominated by the Flyers for all 60 minutes. The Leafs pressured the puck and torched the Flyers in transition, with Tim Connolly sending a long pass through three Flyers' defenders and setting the dangerous Grabovsky free. He put a brilliant move on Bobrovsky, one that no one will hang on Bob.


Just nasty. 
As they did in the first period, the Flyers opened the scoring relatively early in the second, with Wayne Simmonds making everyone in blue look silly on the 4-on-4. Briere fluttered a shot toward goal, where Simmonds sticked it down, then chased it behind the net. After shedding Toronto's Carl Gunnarsson and muscling it to the edge of the trapezoid, Simmonds stickhandled and made center Tyler Bozak back off, presumably thinking Simmer was going to pass it. Along with his teammates, even Rynnas was fooled, leaving his near post and getting beaten like a goalie no one's every heard of. 
If you have a weak stomach for terrible defense, do not watch this video:
Didn't it look like the Gunnarsson and Bozak were on rewind? 
I don't know why the Leafs didn't give more respect to a man with more than 20 goals, but every one of the Toronto players involved in the play skates AWAY from Simmonds, giving him an open channel toward the net. 
Plays like that, on top of eight years without playoff hockey (including the lockout season) are actually pretty good reasons for Toronto fans serenading their team with "Let's Go Blue Jays" chants for the last 10 minutes of the game. 
The Maple Leafs' defense was simply atrocious on Thursday night, and the Flyers took advantage early and often. 
Matty Boy Read also tallied in the second period, a short-handed effort aided by Max Talbot. Read made a great play to advance the puck to Talbot as the two criss-crossed the defense. Talbot attemted a pass that was blocked in on Rynnas, and Read kept his movement going toward the net, then made easy work of the rebound. 
Tremendous amount of pressure and confidence for two forwards killing a penalty to put the Flyers up, 4-1. 
There was some slop by the Flyers to start the third period, but they still managed to score within 6 minutes, just as they did in the first and second frames. This time it was Eric Wellwood's turn. He made a gorgeous move to get some space off the boards, Matt Read grabbed the loose puck, then deftly sent it back to Wellwood, who buried it far side. 
I mean, holy shit. That move by Wellwood, that perfect pass by Read… We've said/heard it all season, and it's because you really can't say enough about the contributions made by Flyers rookies. 
While not a rookie, another Flyers newcomer added the team's sixth goal, when Jake Voracek scored his 15th of the season. 
Simmonds capped it all off with just under 8 minutes to go in the game, finishing Another Danny Creation. Jagr skated it ahead to gain the zone and bring the defense in, then slid it to Briere, who grabbed his fourth assist of the night as he passed it across to a streaking Simmonds. Simmer had three-quarters of the net to choose from and didn't miss. 

So what can we take from this game? Mostly things we already knew. The Flyers have tremendous scoring depth, with a versatile group of rookies contributing in all scenarios. Sergei Bobrovsky is a capable backup, and if the Flyers are disciplined on defense, they can give whomever's in net a relatively easy night. 
Now the real tests begin though. Only five games remain, all against teams currently scheduled to play in the second season. Ottawa and Pittsburgh are on the weekend docket, then the Rangers and Sabres, and finally the Penguins again to close out the season. Buckle up. 
NOTESThe Flyers on a 4-on-4, a power play, and the penalty kill, all on plays that bullied the Leafs' defense. This, more than the loss of Joffrey Lupul, is why Toronto won't make the playoffs. Again. 
#17 had a great night, playing the enforcer role when forwards took liberties after frozen pucks and especially when Phaneuf went after Brayden Schenn. Phaneuf ducked him and kept after Schenn, drawing two minors to Simmer's one. A minute after returning from the box, Simmonds scored his 25th of the season. 
This was the second two-goal game of Schenn's rookie season, and all 11 of his tallies have come since he opened his NHL account on a baseball field. 
While praising the Flyers' rookies, we can't leave off the efforts of Sean Couturier. His line was once again slotted against the opponent's top trio, and once again they were effective.  Killing penalties and playing on a shutdown line, Cooter logged 5:36 more ice time than Claude Giroux, who got some rest in the blowout.  G played 13:08, Jagr 13:24, and Hartnell 11:19. 
Bobrovsky only had to make 16 saves all night. His defense limited the Leafs to five SOG in the first period, then just six in each of the next two. Bob seemed to get sharper as the game wore on, though it's hard to tell on so few pad-testers. 
The Flyers beat the Maple Leafs in each of their four contests this season. 
Last time the Leafs were in the playoffs, the Flyers eliminated them. The telecast showed a legendary goal, when Sami Kapanen was leveled by a hit but managed to get off the ice so that Jeremy Roenick could get on and score. 
One more road win and the Flyers tie last season's franchise record of 25. 

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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