Game 3: Will Regular Season Lessons and Home Ice Advantages Prove Meaningful?

Game 3: Will Regular Season Lessons and Home Ice Advantages Prove Meaningful?

We've discussed it here before, a certain reality we'd almost rather not know… 
The NHL's regular season is little more than a really long, entertaining preseason war of attrition. If a team doesn't make the 16-slot playoffs in the NHL, it had an extremely poor chance to win a Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the parity among teams that do make it can be staggering. Without getting into some existential debate on the relative meaningless of all things, let alone sports, we watch the regular season simply because we love hockey, our local team, and the players that make it up at any given time. So I'm not taking anything away from our time spent watching, analyzing, debating, and enjoying the 82 games that spanned from October to April. But so little of it matters once the playoffs begin. Or does it…?
You can say they're playing for home ice, for seeding, for experience as a team in understanding their strengths and weakness and those of their opponents. I increasingly feel that only the latter really means much once the second season begins. An eighth seed is up 2-0 in the Western Conference. The Flyers are up 2-0 after a pair of games in a frenzied, hostile building. Home ice often means nothing when it comes to the outcomes of games despite player proclamations to the contrary. 
With the series set to resume in Philadelphia this afternoon, can the Flyers find an advantage that the Penguins could not in Pittsburgh?  
Home ice is a reward for fans and franchises, particularly if the series goes the seven-game distance. For those fortunate enough to have a ticket into the building today, just getting dressed and driving to the Wells Fargo Center, having a few beverages with friends, sharing the playoff atmosphere with your kid for the first time, and seeing the place lit up in that glowing orange will be a transcendent experience. 
For everyone from season ticket holders to casual-fan friends of corporations with catered suites, the feel of the building during the playoffs is completely different. In the regular season, the realities of the long 41-game schedule are more apparent than we want to admit. The building feels big, at times hollow. Every seat isn't quite as filled as attendance reports might indicate on some nights. But once the playoffs begin, it's like the building has been dropped out of a huge plane, and everyone's reality outside of it is suspended amidst an adrenaline rush that lasts for a few hours. The game is the only reality that exists. The camaraderie among the orange-clad masses is more palpable. The hatred of the opponent even more so. As soon as you enter the gate, you can see, hear, and feel it. 
For 60 minutes, the chants are louder, particularly if it's a close game or one decidedly in favor of the Flyers. If they win… The chants as fans file down the stairs and elevators can give you that feeling in your ears where it's like you temporarily lose hearing. 
It really doesn't get any better. 
It's a different story if they lose… one the folks out in Pittsburgh can recount with painful detail. It's also a different story on the ice. The Penguins seemed to be playing with one perceived advantage of being on home ice—getting out to early leads and "keeping the building in the game." The Flyers were completely unfazed though, taking their first period beatings only to assume the bully role sometime in the second period. 
Today we'll watch to see if the Flyers—who were better on the road than at home in each of the past two seasons and haven't always played well in afternoon starts—can put together an effort that obviates all elements that are outside of the game itself. 
We all enjoyed Lavvy's tirade after the Flyers got off to another slow start in game 2. And, they're up 2-0 despite continuing a regular season trend everyone said would sink them if still present in the playoffs. But we wouldn't mind seeing a hot start for a change, even if this team's identity and winning formula seems to be the Comeback Kids. 
How long can they keep that up? Are the Pens strong enough to clamp down once they get a lead, or is their defense and goaltending simply unable to withstand the Flyers attack for a full 60 (or more) minutes?
Hopefully the building is a factor in a huge game 3 win. Sidney Crosby-led teams have fared well in Philly, our ill-conceived "Crosby Sucks" chants seemingly having an effect not unlike earth's yellow sun on the son of Jor-El. But lately, the Flyers haven't been affected by the Pittsburgh captain's stellar play early in games. On Friday, he scored 15 seconds in but was victimized later in the game. Are the Flyers finally in his head? I wouldn't bet on it. They may not need to be in order to win though.
To continue winning in the playoffs, the Flyers need to continue making their regular season experience meaningful. In 82 games, six of which were against Pittsburgh, the Flyers learned that no matter what the Penguins throw at them, it is surmountable. The Penguins are strong but flawed—strong enough to win a pair of games in Philly and flawed enough to be swept out. 
In the first two games of the series, we saw that over the course of the regular season, a young, untested group had become seasoned and fearless. They're playing the team heavily favored to win it all, and they're winning. Rookies are sneering in the faces of superstars. Gritty players are mocking diving in their counterparts. The passion of a coach who climbed on top of the dasher boards in anger is flowing into every forward line and defensive pairing. 
If you're headed to South Philly, enjoy one of the greatest parts of being a Philadelphia sports fan. If you've never been to a Flyers playoff game, this is your annual full-throated recommendation to change that. 
Today should be one hell of a battle. 
Photo the Igloo's remains by Ryan Lawrence of the Delco Times. 

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  -- Dustin Hopkins kicked a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter for his fifth of the game and the Washington Redskins avoid a near-disastrous 0-3 start with a 29-27 win over the penalty- and error-prone New York Giants on Sunday.

Kirk Cousins threw touchdown passes of 44 yards to DeSean Jackson and 55 to Jamison Crowder as the banged-up Redskins (1-2) handed new coach Ben McAdoo his first loss with the Giants (2-1).

Su'a Cravens ended the Giants' final drive with an interception in New York territory. It was Eli Manning's second pick of the quarter, with the other coming in the end zone by Quinton Dunbar after New York got to the Redskins 15 on a big play by Odell Beckham Jr.

This was a wild NFC East matchup that see-sawed the entire second half after Washington rallied from a 21-9 deficit (see full recap).

Prescott, Cowboys rout Bears on SNF
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dak Prescott led scoring drives on all four Dallas possessions in the first half before throwing his first career touchdown pass, and the Cowboys beat the Chicago Bears 31-17 on Sunday night to snap an eight-game home losing streak.

With his second straight win, Prescott doubled the number of victories the Cowboys (2-1) had in 14 games without injured quarterback Tony Romo over three seasons before the rookie fourth-round pick showed up.

Prescott's first TD pass was a 17-yarder to Dez Bryant for a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and he's up to 99 throws without an interception to start his career. Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz has 102, and those are the two highest career-opening totals in NFL history.

Brian Hoyer had trouble moving the Chicago offense early with Jay Cutler sidelined by a sprained right thumb as the Bears fell behind 24-3 at halftime and dropped to 0-3 for the second time in two seasons under coach John Fox (see full recap).

Vikings stop Newton, snap Panthers' home win streak
CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- The Minnesota Vikings keep finding ways to overcome injuries --and keep finding ways to win football games.

Sam Bradford threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a score and the Vikings snapped the Carolina Panthers' 14-game home winning streak 22-10 on Sunday.

The Vikings put the clamps on Cam Newton, intercepting the league's reigning MVP three times and getting eight sacks, one of those resulting in a safety by Danielle Hunter. The eight sacks were the second-most ever against Newton.

"We have a great team -- the best team I have been a part of," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who had three sacks. "We come from every area on the field and we get sacks."

Said Newton: "They were dictating to us after they got the momentum."

The Vikings improved 3-0 despite losing running back Adrian Peterson and offensive tackle Matt Kalil to injuries last week. They lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the preseason (see full recap).

Bills bounce back with win over Cardinals
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.  -- LeSean McCoy scored twice and safety Aaron Williams returned a botched field-goal snap 53 yards for a touchdown in leading the Buffalo Bills to a 33-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also scored on a 20-yard run at a time the Rex Ryan-coached Bills spent the past week taking the brunt of criticism after opening the season 0-2.

The win also came on the heels of Ryan firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replacing him with running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

McCoy scored on 24- and 5-yard runs, and finished with 110 yards rushing after combining for just 117 in his first two games. Taylor had 76 yards rushing, including a 49-yarder, the longest by a quarterback in team history (see full recap).

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Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

On his way to the locker room following his team's stunning 34-3 victory over the Steelers, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson reacted, well, like you probably did.

Pederson had to be surprised by what had just transpired. After all, this wasn't the Browns or the Bears. This was the Steelers, who entered the game with the second-best odds behind New England, per Bovada, of winning the Super Bowl (the Patriots were first). 

And the Eagles didn't just beat them. They clobbered them.

But minutes later, when Pederson met the media for his postgame press conference, he tried his best to act like it was no big thing.

“I told the team way back in OTAs that it just takes a little bit of belief," Pederson said. "Belief in themselves. Trust the process. Believe in the coaches and the coaches believe in one another. That’s what they did tonight. 

"Am I surprised? A little. But at the same time, I know that locker room, I know those guys and I know what they are building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves that they are coming together as a football team.”

Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Doug. It's OK to be surprised. Scratch that. Make that stunned. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But now? Forget that. 

At least for the next two weeks. The Eagles are on their bye week and don't play again until Oct. 9 at Detroit. 

“It is still a young season, only three games. This was a good benchmark," Pederson said. "That’s a good football team, the Steelers are a great football team. They are going to be there at the end, they always are. Coach (Mike) Tomlin always has those guys ready to play. 

"But for our guys, it is just a little glimpse of that belief that I have been saying since the spring and summer. If they just do their jobs, I just feel that good things can happen. We just protect each other in that dressing room in there and keep coming to work everyday.”

Pederson is the only head coach in team history to win each of his first three games. It's only the ninth time the Eagles have started 3-0.

And of course, a big reason they've done so is their prodigy quarterback Carson Wentz, who became only the second rookie in team history to record a 300-yard passing game (Nick Foles is the other).

More impressively, Wentz now has attempted 102 straight passes without an interception, the longest streak ever begin an NFL career (per ESPN). Dallas'  Dak Prescott is at 99 after the Cowboys beat up the Bears.

But don't ask Pederson to admit he's amazed by Wentz or the fact he had the presence of mind to make plays like the riveting 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles (much more on that here).

“You know, you just put on his college film. Just watch him," Pederson said. "We exhausted his college tape and those were the plays that he made at North Dakota State. That play tonight was just a tremendous play by both he and Darren Sproles. Those are the types of things that we know he can do. He just keeps gaining confidence every single week.”

As does the defense, which kept one of the league's most potent offenses out of the end zone

"They just weren’t going to be denied," Pederson said. "They just weren’t going to bow their necks. They weren’t going to let them in the endzone. It just came down to our will versus theirs and I was just so happy with the way the guys played. Just a great team effort.”