Gut It Out: JVR, Flyers Win Nail-biter, But Timonen Leaves With UBI

Gut It Out: JVR, Flyers Win Nail-biter, But Timonen Leaves With UBI

Flyers fans in need of a win over an elite opponent to wash away the memory of a heartbreaking Winter Classic third period got just that on Thursday night. It looked for a moment like the Classic's third would happen all over again, but the Flyers didn't wilt despite some lapses in their own end (and crease) and finished strong for a 5-4 win. The Blackhawks were in town for the first time since they left the building with the Stanley Cup in June 2010, but they left with only their chins on their chests after this one.

The rookies played well, and James van Riemsdyk scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner. It was a fast-paced game between two of the best teams in the league, as entertaining as it was enervating.

Unfortunately, the Flyers may be dealing with an injury to the defenseman they can least afford to lose, especially considering the goaltending was once again shaky despite the win.

GAME ACTION
Chicago struck just three minutes in, forcing a turnover with some pressure on Zac Rinaldo as he tried to clear the zone. Jamal Mayers flipped a quick pass to rookie Jimmy Hayes, who redirected it past Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryz tried to go for a poke check, but got caught between the poke and the save attempt.  

Rinaldo must have felt inclined to make amends, because he threw down with fellow rookie Andrew Shaw on the ensuing face-off. Say what you will about fighting in the NHL, but it often still serves a purpose, for better or worse. [Video and some great pics from that scrap here.]

But Rinaldo didn't stop there. Along with linemates Sean Couturier and Harry Zolnierczyk—all rookies—the Flyers fourth line played its ass off in this one. The momentum they helped create got the Flyers back in the game quickly and kept them there.

Jake Voracek opened the scoring for the Flyers, collecting a long bounce after a Braydon Coburn shot caromed off the end boards and putting it into a fairly open net. Voracek has been playing some good hockey, so it was nice to see him get on the G board. The first period ended with the teams knotted at one.

Blown Wide Open
Indecorous guests that they are, Chicago opened the scoring in the second as well.     
After fighting Rinaldo in the first, Shaw scored in the second. The Flyers didn't wait long to even it up again though, with Scott Hartnell scoring on a golf shot, picking a floated pass out of midair with a swipe toward the net. The goal came on the very next shift after the Shaw goal, and featured great work behind the net and along the boards by the Flyers. Matt Read, playing with G and Hartnell while Jagr is out, worked a a give-and-go with Giroux, who flipped it in front of the crease to Hartnell. Harts was absolutely surrounded by Blackhawks but still managed to get enough wood on it to beat Emery.

Just under four minutes later, the fourth line struck with their contribution. This one was something else too, featuring a great setup by Couturier, some acrobatics by Rinaldo, and a nice finish by Harry Z. Rinaldo went absolutely skates up in his effort to crash the net (legally mind you) and make the goal happen. Twenty-five seconds later, JVR found the net to put the Flyers up 4-2. Both goals in the video below:

Winter Classic Flashbacks...
Heading into the second intermission, the Flyers seemed to have complete control of the game. The Blackhawks stars hadn't really been a big factor in the game, and the Flyer were winning battles and skating hard. This is of course when the wheels came off.

Brent Seabrook beat Bryzgalov on an uncontested shot, nearly freezing him in place. Some goals, including the first two in this game, can be blamed at least in significant part on what's going on outside of the crease. Not this one. Whats worse, it seemed to deflate the Flyers, and 25 seconds later, Patrick Kane scored after the Blackhawks forced a turnover with some hard forechecking. This one we won't blame on Bryz. Kane was all alone in the slot, and despite his struggles this season, he's more than likely going to make that shot.

However, with the game tied at 4, Kane did his best to make amends for once again putting Flyers fans hearts in their throats. He committed the 'Hawks' second high-sticking penalty of the period, and the Flyers went on the power play with less than 2 minutes to go.

According to Peter Laviolette after the game, Giroux was yelling on the bench, "It's not going to happen again!" in reference to the Flyers' handing over a third period win to the Rangers in the Winter Classic. On the power play, G, Hartnell and JVR created one hell of a gorgeous opportunity, with Giroux passing down low to Hartnell, who found JVR streaking toward the goal. Once again he potted it, taking advantage of the penalty taken by the player he'll always be linked to.

More on JVR to come. Great to see him finding chemistry tonight, working with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. The RSS Line?

OH NO KIMMO
Kimmo Timonen hurt his wrist in the first period, missing much of it while getting tended to by the trainers. He returned for the start of the second, but quickly disappeared again. The Flyers will probably give an update tomorrow, but for now, they're just calling it an upper-body injury.

SUMMING UP…
It wasn't all hearts and flowers out there, but a win's a win, and the Flyers beat one of the top teams in the league without a top line
winger and losing their best defenseman early in the game. They pummeled Ray Emery with barrages and played one of the fastest-paced games we've seen all season. The goals they let up weren't the end of the world given the quality of the opponent and end-to-end action, but we're still waiting to see Bryzgalov get his game back. He made some pretty huge stops tonight, so there's hope it could be soon, but on the goals, he just looked frozen. Once he commits, he has trouble readjusting. Ya got some work to do with this one, Coach Reese.

Hey, at least Bryz got to wear his Winter Classic mask and pads at least once. The Drummond Custom mask looked pretty outstanding, wouldn't mind seeing it more often.

The Rangers topped Florida again, so the Flyers are still four points behind them. They'll get a chance at two more points on Saturday, when they host the Eastern Conference All-Star Senators.

FULL VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

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.