Flyerside Chat: Rev and Matt's Flyers-Sabres Playoff Preview

Flyerside Chat: Rev and Matt's Flyers-Sabres Playoff Preview

With the Flyers set to embark on their 2011 playoff odyssey on home ice tonight, Rev and I thought we'd touch on a few of the bigger questions facing the team heading into the opening round. The Sabres are a good team that could be dangerous coming out of the same seventh seed the Flyers rode to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. The Flyers have a team built to win it all. We should be in for one hell of a series. 

Matt: Starting off with a look at the past, the Flyers have faced the Sabres as much as any other team in their playoff history, including defeating them in the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals. Personally, I'm not one to put much weight on past outcomes when trying to get a handle on what's about to happen, and the previous matchups between these two are somewhat dated given the current rosters. I mean, a young Brian Boucher beat Buffalo over 10 years ago, and the Sabre who scored an OT winner in 2006 just had his career-best goal scoring season—as a Flyer.

Do you think past playoff series are a factor when there's this much time between them and any bad blood harborers have either retired or are on other teams entirely? I could see if they'd played last season, or even the year before, but with all the personnel turnover, is there any reason besides the fun of reminiscing to dig through the past series for meaning?

Rev: No. Unless of course the post-traumatic stress of Roman Cechmanek suffering a meltdown against Buffalo gives you enjoyment. Other than providing a convenient walk-down-memory-lane pre-series talking point, the past playoff history between these teams means absolutely nothing. It's fun for fans to discuss, but much like those money management commercials on TV are forced to state, "past performance is not an indicator of future success." However, I'll never tire of the memory of John LeClair being credited for a goal which went through a hole in the outside of the mesh net against the Sabres back in the 2000 playoffs. It almost makes me feel bad for Buffalo.

Matt: Although for the moment Brian Boucher isn't penciled in to play a major role in this series, Danny Briere very likely could. His best moments last year came in the postseason, when he led the Flyers' top scoring line. Known for being clutch in the playoffs, Danny also seems to enjoy playing against his former club, with 3 goals and 5 assists in 4 games this season and 15 points in 18 career games versus Buffalo. The Briere-Hartnell-Leino line slowed down a bit after Danny's appearance at the All-Star Game, but he and Hartnell seemed to catch a little fire down the stretch. I doubt will see last year's playoff numbers from this line, but  I do expect them to set the tone in the opening series.

Rev: The Flyers obviously struggled down the stretch. They enter the playoffs having won just seven of their last twenty. I don't think anyone would argue that they played with any sense of urgency over the last month or so. Do you have any faith that they can simply flip the switch and up their intensity?

Matt: Midway through what was an amazing run for most of the regular season, it didn't feel like we were going to have to worry about this. Fortunately, it was only this time last year where we saw that they can in fact flip the switch the moment the playoffs begin. As excitingly improbable as that run was though, I didn't want to have to count on it twice in two years. The other thing in play here is that the Sabres are coming in pretty hot, having won four straight and eight of their last ten. The end of the regular season doesn't benefit the Flyers in this season, if it factors in at all. 

Also, not to beat a dead horse, but removing the shootout and OTL-point safety net that hangs beneath each regular season game may also change the stakes once the playoffs start. Mixed into the awful stretch to end the season was a four-game string of shootout decisions. That's over now, and I'm hoping, perhaps foolishly, that knowing these win-or-go-home games will be decided by actually playing hockey will benefit the Flyers, who seemed to forget that something was on the line as the season wore on.

Rev: I am all over the place on this. On the one hand they have a ton of depth and talent. They won their division, finished second in the conference, and are coming off of a pretty remarkable regular season. You pretty much have the exact same group of guys who made the run to the Finals last season. They've paid the price and know what it takes to win in the playoffs. I hate saying this, but based on their performance and Peter Laviolette's less than rigorous practice schedule down the stretch it certainly seemed like they were pacing themselves. So, perhaps they will be able to flip that proverbial switch.  On the other hand playoff seeding means less in the NHL playoffs than any other sport. It seems like teams who have to scratch and claw to make the playoffs, who play with a level of urgency night in and night out, enjoy more success in the postseason. I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but it certainly feels that way. You'd think that their improbable comeback against Boston last season would have earned them the benefit of the doubt in terms of their heart and willingness to go all in, but you never know.  Can you tell I have absolutely no idea what to expect?

Matt: No doubt. And while I'd love to still have that feeling I had a few months ago, when I was sure the Flyers were among the absolute elite in the league, uncertainty breeds excitement too. I'm definitely not in the "one and done" camp, though I imagine that's true of most fans.

Moving on, the Flyers once again enter the playoffs without the mythical "true number one goalie." Although Sergei Bobrovsky has earned a lot of fans in a fine rookie season, the guy at the other end of the ice is without a doubt the type of established, dominant goaltender that Flyers fans have sought for two decades (although 2010-2011 wasn't quite as good as his Vezina-winning season in the prior campaign). No one, including me, is giving the Flyers a check mark in the goalie matchup. But this team wasn't built to rely on its goalie to win them a Cup, and lately, the latter hasn't necessarily been a winning formula. That's not to say it isn't a major factor from the opening puck drop though.

Which are you more concerned about—that the Flyers goaltending will let them down in the opening series, or that Ryan Miller will dominate it?

Rev: I am more concerned that the Flyers goaltending will let them down. Now, that's not to say that I lack confidence in Bob. I think he'll be fine. It's just more a reflection of how I feel about Ryan Miller. I mean, if given the choice between either goalie you'd be crazy not to take Miller. But, as we saw last postseason strange things can happen like Brian Boucher outplaying Marty Brodeur and Michael Leighton recording three shutouts against Montreal. As a Flyers fan I suppose I am hanging my hat on the recent success of guys like Antti Niemi and J.S. Giguere. Again, I think Bob will be fine, but as you mentioned the check mark for goaltending clearly goes in the Sabres column.

Matt: And, at the same time, the Flyers had some success against Miller this season, scoring 5, 4, and 3 goals on him in his three starts against them. He also missed time at the end of the season with the ol' upper body injury. Of course, in relief of Jhonas Enroth
in that last Flyers-Sabres game, Miller hung a perfect frame to close out a Buffalo win. The Flyers' successes against Miller came when they were scoring more efficiently than they were down the stretch. I'm not necessarily as concerned with our US Olympian being the factor so much as the Flyers going cold regardless of the goalie they're shooting on. 

Rev: Finish this sentence and explain your choices: If the Flyers are going to win this series their Three Stars will be________________ , ________________, and ______________.

Matt: Danny Briere, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Mike Richards. Yeah I went chalk with the 2010 playoff hero/guy facing his old team, the goalie we're pinning our hopes on, and the captain we're charging with getting this team's head out of its own ass. There's no reason to think all three won't deliver either. Honorable mention to Andrej Meszaros, who could step up to be a force whether Chris Pronger plays or not. Big Mesz has had a great season, and I think we'll see him continue to get dangerous shots on net and play big minutes and steady D.

Your mad libs?

Rev: Danny Briere, Andrej Meszaros, and Sergei Bobrovsky. Briere because he has a knack for lifting his game come playoff time. Add in the fact that Briere has had success against his former team and the #48 arrow is pointing up. Also, unlike Richards, Carter, and Giroux, Danny does not have to worry about expending energy on the penalty kill. His shifts will come either five on five or on the power play. He has to make his minutes count. You alluded to the Hartnell-Briere-Leino earlier. As we saw last postseason they can be dominating.   I chose Meszaros because at this point I do not know how much Chris Pronger will play. Meszaros had a phenomenal regular season. In my opinion he was their best all-around defenseman. It'll go a long way towards curing their power play problems if he's able to get shots through from the point. He plays in every situation, so he'll need to be big.  Bob is my final choice...for obvious reasons.

Matt: I'd love to see it be Giroux. He showed us that potential to be great this season, but he was also one of the Flyers who did get a little too comfortable down the stretch in my opinion. Some of the more talented puck handlers on the team got too casual with their decisions, and turnovers really had a negative impact. In a game as fluid as hockey, a quick change in the direction of the action can be a great equalizer, letting a decent set of forwards blow past even a great defense pairing.  I do think G has as much potential as anyone in the NHL to be his team's playoff MVP though.

Is there any reason to think the Flyers' power play will suddenly find a groove in the postseason?

Rev: Considering their depth and talent it remains a mystery as to why they struggled so much on the power play. Yes, they obviously missed Pronger, but they're too skilled not to convert at a higher rate. My main complaint is that they lack a Mike Knuble-type who is willing to plant himself in front of the net, take the abuse, screen the opposing goalie, and bang in loose pucks. Perhaps the heightened sense of urgency of playoff hockey forces them to simplify things. Hartnell is the most likely candidate to reprise that trash man role. They don't have that traditional power forward. Perhaps JVR can be that guy down the road, but his talent almost gets in the way. He's either playing the point, or is content to hang out behind the net or along the half-boards. Beyond that, if they're going to succeed with the man advantage they'll need to win the puck battles and pay the price.

Matt: As far as concerns go, this one is high on my list. It seems so inexplicable that they can't score more on the man advantage with all that firepower and an extra man on the ice, almost like it's their Achilles heel.

Series predictions...?

Matt: Is there any chance we don't both pick the Flyers to advance? Six games-ish? I'll go with that.

Rev: Flyers in six just sounds right.

Feel free to leave your responses to the questions above in the comments below...

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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