Flyers Never Say Die: Voracek OT Winner Caps Comeback

Flyers Never Say Die: Voracek OT Winner Caps Comeback

We saw it throughout the season and wondered whether the Flyers could keep winning this dangerous gamble when the playoffs began. I guess we shouldn't be surprised we got our answer in the first game of the opening round: No opponent's lead is safe when the Flyers are on the ice. 
It's not exactly heart-friendly hockey, but the Flyers continue to come back and win games in which they've conceded early leads. On Wednesday, they were down 3-0 after the first period, only to come all the way back, force overtime, then win by a 4-3 count after Jake Voracek beat Marc-Andre Fleury to stun the Consol Energy Center crowd.

[PHOTO GALLERY: click here for more photos from the Flyers OT win | VIDEO: watch fans at XFINITY Live! in South Philly react to Voracek's game winner]

A closer look at the game action below. Playoff hockey doesn't get much better than this. 
In the regular season, early Flyers deficits often did not accurately reflect their level of play. As the pattern continued and they frequently opened games down a goal or two, the knee jerk reaction was to think they were outplayed. That wasn't always the case, as some combination of strong goaltending and bad luck/bounces often conspired to tilt the score the other way despite an evenly matched effort. 
That was decidedly NOT the case in the first period of game 1 against the Penguins on Wednesday. The Pens absolutely took it to the Flyers in the game's first 10 minutes, and the visitors had little in the way of a solid response in the first 20. 
1-0Pittsburgh was strong on the forecheck and opportunistic in the neutral zone. Less than four minutes in, their pressure led to the first goal of the series. Guess who. After the Flyers iced the puck for the second time, their skaters were trapped on the ice while Dan Bylsma sent in the Crosby line. Despite putting a check on Crosby and blocking an initial shot, #87 buried a top-shelf backhand. The building went crazy. 
2-0Just four minutes later, it was Tyler Kennedy's turn. After a soft Marc-Andre Bourdon advance was intercepted, Kris Letang sent a perfect pass up the seam to send Jordan Staal on the outlet. Staal then found Kennedy, who made easy work of the play. Jaromir Jagr failed to get back in coverage, perhaps thinking TK was offsides on the play. Hung out to dry in the odd-man rush, Ilya Bryzgalov didn't have much of a chance at it. 
TimeoutIf you were telling yourself this game was far from over, that we've seen this all happen before, only to have the Flyers climb back out, you were likely relieved to see Peter Laviolette call his timeout. Good things happen when his gum's in his hand. 
Lavvy started tinkering with the lines some. One player in particular was standing out—Brayden Schenn. Earlier in the day, we liked Schenn's chances of showing up in a big way this postseason, and he certainly made his mark on game 1. Watch the two hits he made on this one sequence:

The Flyers started to turn things around, but still couldn't crack Marc-Andre Fleury. Pittsburgh was efficient in clearing the porch and keeping opportunities outside of the slot, limiting the Flyers to just six shots in the first period. And, they weren't done scoring yet. 
3-0With 37 seconds left in the first period, what looked to be a sure icing call—as in, the linesman's arm was up to signal it was icing—was called off by the linesman on the opposite side of the ice. No idea why. But what followed was a fluky goal that felt like a back-breaker. It was credited to Pascal Dupuis, who rushed to the front of the net and appeared to tap in a pass from Steve Sullivan, who won a battle along the boards, then sent a pass toward the front of the goal. It caught both Bryzgalov and Nick Grossmann off-guard, and somehow wound up in the net.  
The odd waving off of the icing was vexing, but the Flyers would get it back on a similarly blown call. But not before the refs again had remotes being tossed around Delaware Valley living rooms some more. 
Claude Giroux was whistled for the first penalty of the series, and, not surprisingly, it was a questionable call. Brooks Orpik flubbed the puck as he skated along the end boards, slowing up, and Giroux checked him into the boards. Had he played the puck cleanly, it likely wouldn't have been an issue. 
3-1The Flyers killed the penalty off, something they've been successful doing against the Pens this season. When G came out of the box, he set up Scott Hartnell with what looked like a sure goal. Marc-Andre Fleury had other thoughts though, sliding across the crease and stoning Harts. But the pressure was on, the momentum in new hands, and the Flyers were soon on the board. 
Schenn sent a nice pass up the middle to Danny Briere, who admittedly entered the zone offsides, then beat MAF like he stole something.

There was blood in the water after that, the comeback had begun.  
The Flyers had to kill off another second period penalty, this time to Zac Rinaldo. He probably earned it, but James Neal clearly embellished the hit. The PK unit again held the Pens scoreless, with a huge save by Bryz on a Chris Kunitz opportunity. 
Just as the buzzer was about to sound to end the second period, Craig Adams tried to lay a hit on Schenn. He probably wasn't expecting to be the one on his ass. 

At the second intermission, the Flyers were still down 3-1, and the start of the third didn't help. Just 1:49 into the final frame of regulation, Jagr was called for interference on Crosby. Again, an embellishment by a Penguin led to a call. Crosby ran into Jagr from behind (in a mostly legal sense, just a collision), Jagr pushed him off, and Crosby threw his head back and got the call. 
Again, the PK unit stepped up and blanked the Pens' power play. 
3-2Back at even strength, the Flyers moved the puck well and generated good opportunities. The Briere line was buzzing and cycling when Schenn found Danny, who sent a shot through a possible screen by Crosby to beat Fleury and put the Flyers within one. 
3-3Keeping with the hot hand, Lavvy sent them back out, and Danny almost scored his third of the ni
ght. After the attempt, he got trucked by Orpik on what looked to be a clean hit. But, the officiating wasn't great in this one, and Orpik might have gotten the other end of a makeup call as he was sent to the box for interference. On the ensuing power play—the Flyers only of the game—the top unit had some good pressure but couldn't break through. Scott Hartnell was unable to change after the Pens forced a clear, but he was rewarded for sticking with the play after most of the night's second PP unit jumped on. Jagr sent him a nice set-up, and Harts slap-passed it toward the goal, where Schenn was the happy beneficiary of the Pens giving Jagr a lot of respect. 
Watch as Hartnell starts toward the bench, then quickly decides to stay on:
Schennnnnnnnnnnnn…
The Flyers had taken control of the game, forcing overtime. No shootouts, or gimmicks, they'll play until someone scores. It didn't take long. 
4-3!Jake Voracek was the hero in the extra frame… Although we have to give some credit to Kris Letang for the assist:

Absolute elation. There's an indescribable satisfaction borne of truly believing a team is still in a game that might appear to non-fans to be completely out of reach. Even more satisfying is the schadenfreude of seeing a rival bleed out on home ice while grown men regret wearing bear costumes to the game
Game 1 is in the books. I don't think anyone on either side lacked for interest in this series, but it's hard to ask for more from a game that we got here. 
NotesHeading into the first intermission, the road to a comeback looked rough. The Flyers would need to slow the game down and stop gambling, yet somehow put three on the board while not allowing any more. The Pens were winning the end-to-end style of play by owning the middle of the ice. Fortunately, Pittsburgh's back end is still leaky, and the Flyers took advantage. 
Voracek worked his ass off for the Flyers this year, often without the goals to show for it. A playoff OT winner has to be worth about 10 regular season tallies. Had to feel good to make Letang look bad, too. They once shared a dance.  
Despite being on the ice for the game's first goal, the Flyers' fourth line put in a great effort, keeping the Malkin line off the board entirely. Hard to pin the first goal on them after they were frozen due to an icing, while Bylsma got to send in the Crosby line. 
Pavel Kubina was a healthy scratch. After Marc-Andre Bourdon missed the third period and was labeled day-to-day after it was announced he wouldn't return, it looks like Kubina could be in the lineup for game 2. 
Bryz was a rock in net. After the opening period, he let nothing past, and he was tested. 
We can complain about the calls that went against the Flyers and the Penguins' ability to draw calls with head fakes on the refs, but make no mistake, the Flyers benefited from a blown offsides call and a questionable penalty. 
It was a great night for the players who came over in the deals that sent Mike Richards to LA and Jeff Carter to Columbus. However, the Kings enjoyed having those two in their opening game too. Richards was outstanding, scoring a goal, assisting two others, and putting some big hits on. Carter had a pair of assists, including a nifty redirection off his skate on a pass from Richards. The Kings topped the Canucks by a 4-2 count. Are you rooting for Flyers West?

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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