Fleury, Penguins Grind Flyers to a Nub

Fleury, Penguins Grind Flyers to a Nub

Tough loss, but nowhere near as bad as Game 4. It'd be hard to sink lower than that one… The good news is, the Flyers' effort was leaps and bounds better in Game 5. The bad news is obvious—the Pens are absolutely back in this series after winning a tight battle, 3-2. 
Recappish notes, video, below.  
We're not going to linger too much on this one. It's Friday night after a long week of hockey, and there's not actually a lot to dissect here. After a game like that, the recap is a few more beers and maybe a back yard fire. 
Again buoyed by their success on the power play, the Flyers got out to an early lead in Pittsburgh. The game looked like it would be called tight, which benefits the Flyers so long as they're getting the calls. All three of their Game 4 goals came on first period power plays, and in Game 5, they punched in two more on the man advantage. 
Again, they'd be the only goals the Flyers would score on the night. Five-on-five play wasn't dominated for 60 minutes by the Pens, but they held the even strength advantage on the scoreboard, and that's all that mattered on the night. 
The first period was a tease. The Pens appeared ready to come unglued, taking dumb penalties and paying the price. Deryk Engelland's mauling of Danny Briere led to the first goal, a sharp wrister by Matt Carle. After Steve Sullivan scored on a Pittsburgh power play (after a Braydon Coburn interference we never saw on replay), Evgeni Malkin would take the first of his two dumb penalties. Geno mugged Brayden Schenn into the net, and after Craig Adams was sent to the box for a slash on Jaromir Jagr (one I didn't agree with), the Flyers scored on a 5-on-3 for the second time in the past two games. 
It was gorgeous too, despite the caveat that it was a 5-on-3. Watch how the umbrella draws the Pens' top pair up, then drops the puck down to an open Danny Briere, who saucers a pass over the outstretched stick of Brooks Orpik to Scott Hartnell for the water bottle shaker…

At that point, it felt like the Flyers really had the edge. The second period's been their jam frame all season, but not on Friday night… They looked gassed, with forwards and defenders double-shifting to compensate for injured regulars. 
A pair of Penguins goals in the second changed the landscape in that middle period. Jordan Staal tallied off a great outlet relay from Kris Letang to Tyler Kennedy through the neutral zone, and a Kennedy blast beat Bryz as a weary shift of Flyers failed to challenge an open shooter. 
The power play gravy chain was halted, with only one call for each side in the frame. Malkin went hunting on Sean Couturier and drew a call, but the Flyers couldn't score on the advantage. Fresh out of the box, Malkin put a shot on Bryz, then ran him over, but didn't get a second call. 
The Flyers looked better in the third, controlling play for much of it, but Marc-Andre Fleury came up huge. No matter what they threw at him, he was square to it. In two games, MAF hasn't been beaten at even strength, and two of the five goals he's allowed came on 5-on-3's. 
Neither side scored in the third, and only one penalty was called. After showing a strong hand in the first period, the officials really let them play as the game went on, and it didn't necessarily favor the Flyers. [Watch JVR get mugged in plain sight.]  
To close out this series, they'll need to get their even strength scoring back on track. And, they'll need better luck. They appeared to have MAF beaten a few times early (ping!) and late (whiff!). Connecting on just one of several missed opps would have meant a different game altogether. But when isn't that true? 
Hat's off to MAF for being the difference in a pretty good hockey game. 
Notes:Bryz came up big in the third period, but clearly looks slowed by his pair of injuries. 
How's this for an ice time breakdown for the Flyers: Per Flyers PR, "Matt Carle played 29:40 in the game; Braydon Coburn played 29:11 and Kimmo Timonen 25:01. Pavel Kubina, Andreas Lilja and Erik Gustafsson played 25:52 combined." Hope Nick Grossmann makes it back for Sunday's game 6. 
Riemer was eased back in, playing sparsely early but showing some legs late. He still played just 7:31 in the game. 
At least Malkin put a huge hit on Crosby. Yes, really. 
Game 6 will be at noon on Sunday. 
I've about had it with talking about that pair of losses. Not the end of the world, but the Pens earned their way back into the series, winning the least laughable game of the series to date. The Flyers rebounded in the third though, showing they're nowhere near ready pack it in. 
Photo: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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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

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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

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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.