Flyers Depth on Display, While Penguins Go From Bad to Worse

Flyers Depth on Display, While Penguins Go From Bad to Worse

A look at how once again, scoring depth has been the key to a strong Philadelphia Flyers team. But, another spate of Pittsburgh Penguins injuries begs the question, how deep is any NHL team?

The story underlying the success of the 2011-2012 Flyers to date is that they are once again a club characterized by great scoring depth. Yesterday's chapter saw Danny Briere score three goals, giving him 13 on the season. The game before, James van Riemsdyk was the multiple lamp-lighter, scoring a pair, including the game winner. Prior to those bursts, fans had aired frustrations about each player's lack of production, particularly that of JVR.

What a difference a game makes. While both players are still a bit off pace, they each have the talent and surrounding cast to see their numbers turn around in a hurry. JVR has a ways to go before quieting his doubters, but his brace, Briere's hat trick, and the continued progress of a handful of rookie forwards has sparked a fast turnaround to a sluggish end of 2011.

Aside from losing Chris Pronger for the season and experiencing the usual complement of players missing a few games here and there, the Flyers have been downright lucky compared to their cross-state rivals. Injuries have plagued the Penguins again this season, with Jordan Staal and James Neal joining Sidney Crosby as significant offensive contributors on the shelf today.

Neal, who has stepped up in Crosby's absence and leads the Pens in goal scoring with 21, has a broken foot. Staal could miss 4-6 weeks with a knee injury suffered after a collision with Mike Rupp of the Rangers. Neal's timetable is uncertain, but head coach Dan Bylsma places it at "weeks, not days," per the team's web site.

Penguins.com clocks the number of man-games lost so far this season to 210, on pace for 431 and counting.

The Pens were able to weather last season's storm and finish with a share of the division lead, but they've sunk to fourth place after four straight losses to Atlantic foes. On December 29, the Flyers snapped a four-game Pittsburgh winning streak, and the Pens haven't won since, losing four games and three players in a week. While they're far from dead in the water, the Penguins are at least momentarily on the ropes.

With any luck, we won't have to see the Flyers' depth tested in a similar context. But, even if they don't pile up the man-games lost quite at Pittsburgh's pace, the Pens' struggles are a reminder that the Flyers could—and likely will—still face an uphill battle in the war of attrition.

Last season, the Flyers crumbled in the second half, clearly missing Chris Pronger's dominance on the blue line. It was harder to gauge, but it is assumed his lost voice of leadership was also a key void as the team lost momentum, having peaked in January.

As opposed to last season, this Flyers team began its campaign with depth questions. Not necessarily doubts, but questions nonetheless. Pronger's current injuries are new, but his health was never a certainty. And, despite the prevailing sentiment that the haul Paul Holmgren received for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter was somewhere between solid and excellent, it was hard to say whether we'd see the potential of the lineup this season.

So far, we certainly have. Despite massive turnover in the forward lines, the Flyers are currently second in the league in goals per game. Last season, they finished in a dead heat at the top, third in total goals but just two below the league-leading Vancouver Canucks. Claude Giroux trades the NHL points leadership with Henrik Sedin and Phil Kessel on a nightly basis, leading a Flyers team that has eight double-digit goal scorers just 39 games into the season. 

Heading into the season, it was believed that for the post-apocalyptic Flyers to succeed, Giroux and JVR would have to ascend to the cornerstone positions vacated by Richards and Carter. Giroux certainly has, arguably already eclipsing the impact either player ever made on a given season. While JVR has rarely shown the dominance he displayed in the 2011 playoffs, which in part earned him a new contract, the fact that the Flyers are still as potent as ever even without him being their 1-B star might actually be a good thing. As dangerous as they currently are, they're not even scoring at their full potential. Plus, one of hockey's top young players, Brayden Schenn, has in the past three games started to turn heads as well while Matt Read continues to hang with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins among rookie goal leaders and Sean Couturier currently anchors an all-rookie fourth line that can hit, defend, and score.

From the players on the ice to the man behind the bench and the oft-criticized GM up in the press box, there's plenty of credit to go around. But we don't have to look too far back to the moment when Wayne Simmonds' knee connected with Claude Giroux's head, or more recently, to what's going on in Pittsburgh, to see how quickly the Flyers' depth could  disappear.

It's pointless to dwell on that though. For now, the story is that there is sufficient scoring depth on a nightly basis. One or two lines consistently step up, and the Flyers are in virtually every game they play, the outliers being few.

However, their depth on defense is among the best in the league even without Pronger, and yet still feels perilously thin. Fortunately, blue line anchor Kimmo Timonen was able to keep his ironman streak alive and suit up somewhat surprisingly yesterday, contributing more than 25 minutes of ice time. The back end would look a whole different everywhere from even strength to both special teams units without Timonen, so hopefully he's weathered his wrist injury.

The overall depth of the team will be tested again today, the 5 PM start in Ottawa coming just 25 or so hours after the two teams left the ice in Philly. The Senators will obviously be facing the same tight turnaround, which could make for an interesting third period.

Any guesses as to which Flyers step up to carry the scoring torch this evening? Picking the Standout Star must be as simple as throwing a dart at the lineup right now.

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

The Sixers (4-15) continue their homestand against the Boston Celtics (11-8) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night (7:30 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup.

1. A green giant-sized challenge
Just crumple it up and move on.

That's about the only thing the Sixers can do after getting ran out of the gym by the Orlando Magic on Friday. Instead of looking like a team that hadn't played since Monday, the Sixers appeared flat in a 105-88 loss.

Outside of Joel Embiid's first 20-point, 10-rebound game (he had 25 points and 10 boards) and a strong effort from Jahlil Okafor (16 points and 13 rebounds), not much else went right for the Sixers.

Now Embiid will sit the second game of a back-to-back set and Okafor will be thrust into the starting lineup, as the Sixers try to deal with Boston big man Al Horford. 

Horford, the Celtics' prized free-agent acquisition, is coming off his best game so far for his new team. He recorded 26 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in the Celtics' 97-92 win over the Kings on Friday.

2. Little big man
Even with Horford coming off a productive performance, the Sixers' game plan against the Celtics has to focus on slowing down Isaiah Thomas.

The 5-foot-9 guard continues to put up big numbers in the scoring department. Despite his shooting percentages taking a dip this season, Thomas still ranks ninth in the NBA with a career-high 25.7 points per game. 

And even though he is a willing passer (averaging a career-high-tying 6.3 assists), expect Thomas to try and score early and often against the Sixers. After all, the reserve-turned-All-Star has put up 21.5 points per game against the Sixers during his career, his highest mark against any opponent.

3. Dial up the long-distance defense
The Sixers need to be aware of Thomas and just about all of his teammates when they toe that three-point line.

The Celtics rank fifth in the league in three-pointers attempted (31.1), three-pointers made (11.3) and eighth in three-point percentage (36.3) per game.

The C's have four players shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc, and perhaps a bit surprising, three of them are big men. Jonas Jerebko (46.4 percent), Horford (42.4 percent) and Amir Johnson (40.0 percent) have all been on target from long range.

4. Injuries
Robert Covington (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are both questionable. Embiid (rest), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

The Celtics have no players listed on the injury report.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost five games in a row overall and eight straight to the Celtics.

• The Celtics rank 25th in rebounding with 42.2 a night.

• Dario Saric had two points Friday against the Magic and has failed to reach double digits in scoring five of his last six games.

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.