Ilya Bryzgalov Still Proving His Worth to Flyers Nation

Ilya Bryzgalov Still Proving His Worth to Flyers Nation

Philadelphia can be hard on star athletes, especially those
perceived as being vastly overpaid. So when the Flyers traded for Ilya Bryzgalov's rights and signed him to a nine-year
contract at $51 million in the summer of 2011 – a whopping $5.67 per year – naturally
many fans became incensed before he ever played a game in Orange & Black.

Never mind Bryzgalov was one of the primary reasons a small-market
franchise in Phoenix was able to compete year after year, posting a record of
78-40-16 during his final two seasons with the Coyotes. And forget the
three-ring circus that had been booked in the Flyers’ crease the previous
two Aprils, with the likes of Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, and Michael
Leighton getting the call during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

No, the concern was the length of the contract and the
amount of money, and to a lesser degree, that this Bryglaov fellow might be
overrated.

He did little to dissuade those fears during the first few
months of the 2011-12 campaign. In what was clearly an adjustment period for
Bryz, he posted a pedestrian .890 save percentage during the months of October,
November, and December, looking generally out of sorts while doing so. There
was a soft goal against him on an almost-nightly basis, often immediately after the puck
dropped.

Bryz also made several strange comments, at times sounding
defeated, like when he confessed to being “lost in the woods” following one
particularly dismal outing. He didn’t handle the increased media scrutiny that
comes with playing in Philly very well at all, and there were more cameras than ever
thanks to the upcoming Winter Classic – where head coach Peter Laviolette would bench Bryzgalov
in favor of Bobrovsky on a national stage.

Then something clicked in the second half. The young Bob
wasn’t playing great either, and the organization had loads invested in Bryz,
so he began starting with more frequency. And the more he played, the more
comfortable he looked.

Bryzgalov’s save percentage crept up along with his time on
ice to .923 over the final four months of the season, his stellar play reaching
its pinnacle in March when he set the Flyers’ record for most consecutive
minutes of shutout hockey. He finished the month with a 10-2-1 record, holding the
opponents to zero on four occasions.

This is what the Flyers gave him that huge contract for.
This is the quality of netminder nine years, $51 million buys you.

Don’t think Bryzgalov’s suddenly stellar play was a
coincidence, either. It was anything but. The front office had just shored up
some concerns along the blue line through trades for Pavel Kubina, and
especially Nik Grossmann. Part of the problem all along had been the Flyers’
inability to overcome Chris Pronger’s absence from the lineup, and the club was
struggling defensively across the board. Reinforcements helped.

Not only that, but numbers suggest Bryzgalov is at his
absolute best the more he is in net. His best season was 09-10, when
he appeared in a career-high, league-leading 69 games, setting personal bests for wins (42), shutouts (8), and
goals against average (2.29). He's also played 68, 65, and 64 in a season. But early on with the Flyers, Bryz was getting
jerked around, in part because he wasn’t doing so hot, but also because
Laviolette was trying to find adequate time for Bobrovsky. Bryz finished at 59 games in 11-12.

That’s why GM Paul Holmgren went cheap on a backup this
season, going with Leighton and adding Boucher as insurance. As long as he’s
healthy, Bryz should play over 40 games this season easy.

Of course, there were still plenty of questions surrounding
Bryzgalov coming out of the lockout. He suffered a chip fracture in his foot down the
stretch last season, and while he came back in time for the playoffs, the
momentum was gone, and he could not have been at 100%. Still, his performance in the tournament left a bad taste. There was even some talk
that the Flyers could use their compliance buyout on Bryz this offseason to get
out from under his contract.

I would seriously doubt the Flyers have any intention of
doing something so drastic though. The nine-year, $51 million contract you hate
so much – which by the way, makes him only the eighth-highest paid goalie annually in the NHL – it was a measured response to years of Leightons, Bouchers, Bobrovskys,
Marty Birons, Ray Emerys, Robert Esches, and Antero Niitymakis, and many more
fill-ins, stopgaps, and disappointments who served between the pipes for this
franchise over the past couple of decades.

They chose this route for a reason.

So far this year, Bryzgalov has given us nothing to complain
about, on the ice or otherwise. He’s been one of the few guys wearing Orange & Black that has
demonstrated some consistency.

Through five games, Bryz is 2-3 with a .923 SV%,
2.21 GAA – and the numbers probably don’t even really do the effort justice
given that several goals and opportunities weren’t his fault. It's been the big moments, too, like when he helped kill 5-on-3 and 5-on-4 power plays back-to-back in their win over the New York Rangers last week, or his multiple post-to-post saves against the Florida Panthers over the weekend.

Then again, there probably remains a fairly large group of people out
there just waiting for him to slip up. Neither five games, nor one
record-setting month are going to convince every fan Bryz was worth it. Maybe
nothing short of hoisting the Cup will.

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Eagles in awe of Carson Wentz after another stunning performance

Eagles in awe of Carson Wentz after another stunning performance

Carson Wentz clearly had some 60,000 fans cheering for him during Sunday’s 34-3 drubbing of the cross-state Pittsburgh Steelers (see Instant Replay).

He had a few fans on the sideline too. 

During Sunday’s game, when the Eagles’ offense was on the field, defensive teammates couldn’t help but stop to watch the electrifying rookie. 

“I watch him all the time,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, cracking a smile. “It’s impressive what he’s doing, man. I think everybody is waiting to see him fall off or see a bad decision or see a rookie mistake. But so far, they haven’t come. He’s been the key reason why we’re 3-0. 

“What he’s doing is great. It’s amazing. It’s something that I think he’ll downplay, but there’s no doubt about it, what he’s doing is special. I think it’s a testament to his preparation, his demeanor.”

Against the Steelers, Wentz put forth his best game of his young three-game career. He completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and had a passer rating of 125.9 (see 10 observations)

Wentz became the first NFL rookie ever to have a game with 300-plus passing yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a completion percentage above 74. He also became the third rookie in Eagles history to throw for 300-plus yards with two touchdowns in a game.

Wentz actually out-performed Pittsburgh starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. 

"I thought he played great,” Roethlisberger said. “He won the game."

What Wentz is doing is special. 

So special even his teammates on the other side of the football are taking time to notice in between preparing for their next series. 

“You find yourself hearing the crowd getting excited,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “You’re watching the plays and we’re jumping up and down getting excited with them. You find yourself doing those things. When the offense is doing what they’re doing and then we’re doubling back and doing what we’re doing, it’s just tough to spot.”

“Oh yeah. It feels good,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “It’s great for them to move the chains and Carson does a good job. He’s seasoned. It’s only his third game in the NFL but he’s seems like a vet.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 769 yards. He has five touchdowns and still hasn’t thrown an interception in 102 career passes.  

On Sunday against the Steelers, he continued to wow onlookers. His best feat of the night came on an off-schedule play in the third quarter. With the Eagles still just up by 10 points, Wentz rolled right and found Darren Sproles, who caught the ball and ran the rest of the way for a 73-yard touchdown pass.

“We always say, hey a play’s never dead,” Wentz said. 

It was just the 16th 73-yard-plus touchdown pass in Eagles history. 

Maybe Wentz has always been this confident in himself, but now his teammates are undoubtedly behind him. 

“He continues to blow my mind away,” receiver Josh Huff said. “The poise he has, the way he commands the huddle, all the guys listening to him. He brings a ton of energy every day, especially on game days. … The team’s with him right now and that’s one of the reasons we played so well today. We have a good quarterback … a great quarterback.”

While the Philadelphia will certainly be engulfed in Wentz-mania in the coming weeks, the buzz within the locker room is palpable too. 

“I told [head coach Doug Pederson] being 10 years in, this kid is inspiring me,” tight end Brent Celek said. “He’s adding youth to my game just by the way he’s acting, being in the huddle, taking command, it’s beyond impressive. It’s great. We have to keep it going. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re the greatest team but I’m excited with how he’s playing and he’s elevating everybody else’s play by the way he’s handling it.”

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Arnold Palmer dies at 87, made golf popular for masses

ap-arnold-palmer.jpg
The Associated Press

Arnold Palmer dies at 87, made golf popular for masses

Arnold Palmer brought a country club sport to the masses with a hard-charging style, charisma and a commoner's touch. At ease with both presidents and the golfing public, and on a first-name basis with both, "The King" died Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was 87.

Alastair Johnson, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed that Palmer died Sunday afternoon of complications from heart problems. Johnson said Palmer was admitted to the hospital Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the last few days.

Palmer ranked among the most important figures in golf history, and it went well beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins. His good looks, devilish grin and go-for-broke manner made the elite sport appealing to one and all. And it helped that he arrived about the same time as television moved into most households, a perfect fit that sent golf to unprecedented popularity.

"If it wasn't for Arnold, golf wouldn't be as popular as it is now," Tiger Woods said in 2004 when Palmer played in his last Masters. "He's the one who basically brought it to the forefront on TV. If it wasn't for him and his excitement, his flair, the way he played, golf probably would not have had that type of excitement.

"And that's why he's the king."

Beyond his golf, Palmer was a pioneer in sports marketing, paving the way for scores of other athletes to reap in millions from endorsements. Some four decades after his last PGA Tour win, he ranked among the highest-earners in golf.

"Thanks Arnold for your friendship, counsel and a lot of laughs," Woods tweeted Sunday night. "Your philanthropy and humility are part of your legend. It's hard to imagine golf without you or anyone more important to the game than the King."

On the golf course, Palmer was an icon not for how often he won, but the way he did it.

He would hitch up his pants, drop a cigarette and attack the flags. With powerful hands wrapped around the golf club, Palmer would slash at the ball with all of his might, then twist that muscular neck and squint to see where it went.

"When he hits the ball, the earth shakes," Gene Littler once said.

Palmer rallied from seven shots behind to win a U.S. Open. He blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to lose a U.S. Open.

He was never dull.

"I'm pleased that I was able to do what I did from a golfing standpoint," Palmer said in 2008, two years after he played in his last official tournament. "I would like to think that I left them more than just that."

He left behind a gallery known as "Arnie's Army," which began at Augusta National with a small group of soldiers from nearby Fort Hood, and grew to include a legion of fans from every corner of the globe.

Palmer stopped playing the Masters in 2004 and hit the ceremonial tee shot every year until 2016, when age began to take a toll and he struggled with his balance.

It was Palmer who gave golf the modern version of the Grand Slam -- winning all four professional majors in one year. He came up with the idea after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960. Palmer was runner-up at the British Open, later calling it one of the biggest disappointments of his career. But his appearance alone invigorated the British Open, which Americans had been ignoring for years.

Palmer never won the PGA Championship, one major short of capturing a career Grand Slam.

But then, standard he set went beyond trophies. It was the way he treated people, looking everyone in the eye with a smile and a wink. He signed every autograph, making sure it was legible. He made every fan feel like an old friend.

Palmer never like being referred to as "The King," but the name stuck.

"It was back in the early `60s. I was playing pretty good, winning a lot of tournaments, and someone gave a speech and referred to me as `The King,'" Palmer said in a November 2011 interview with The Associated Press.

"I don't bask in it. I don't relish it. I tried for a long time to stop that and," he said, pausing to shrug, "there was no point."

Palmer played at least one PGA Tour event every season for 52 consecutive years, ending with the 2004 Masters. He spearheaded the growth of the 50-and-older Champions Tour, winning 10 times and drawing some of the biggest crowds.

He was equally successful off with golf course design, a wine collection, and apparel that included his famous logo of an umbrella. He bought the Bay Hill Club & Lodge upon making his winter home in Orlando, Florida, and in 2007 the PGA Tour changed the name of the tournament to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The combination of iced tea and lemonade is known as an "Arnold Palmer." Padraig Harrington recalls eating in an Italian restaurant in Miami when he heard a customer order one.

"Think about it," Harrington said. "You don't go up there and order a `Tiger Woods' at the bar. You can go up there and order an `Arnold Palmer' in this country and the barman -- he was a young man -- knew what the drink was. That's in a league of your own."

Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children. His father, Deacon, became the greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club in 1921 and the club pro in 1933.

He had two loves as a boy -- strapping on his holster with toy guns to play "Cowboys and Indians," and playing golf. It was on the golf course that Palmer grew to become so strong, with barrel arms and hands of iron.

"When I was 6 years old, my father put me on a steel-wheeled tractor," he recalled in a 2011 interview with the AP. "I had to stand up to turn the wheel. That's one thing made me strong. The other thing was I pushed mowers. In those days, there were no motors on anything except the tractor. The mowers to cut greens with, you pushed.

"And it was this," he said, patting his arms, "that made it go."

Palmer joined the PGA Tour in 1955 and won the Canadian Open for the first of his 62 titles. He went on to win four green jackets at Augusta National, along with the British Open in 1961 and 1962 and the U.S. Open in 1960, perhaps the most memorable of his seven majors.

Nothing defined Palmer like that 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. He was seven shots behind going into the final round when he ran into Bob Drum, a Pittsburgh sports writer. Palmer asked if he could still win by shooting 65, which would give him a four-day total of 280. Drum told him that 280 "won't do you a damn bit of good."

Incensed, Palmer headed to the first tee and drove the green on the par-4 opening hole to make birdie. He birdied the next three holes, shot 65 and outlasted Ben Hogan and 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus.

Palmer went head-to-head with Nicklaus two years later in a U.S. Open, the start of one of golf's most famous rivalries. It was one-sided. Nicklaus went on to win 18 majors and was regarded as golf's greatest champion. Palmer won two more majors after that loss, and his last PGA Tour win came in 1973 at the Bob Hope Classic.

Tom Callahan once described the difference between Nicklaus and Palmer this way: It's as though God said to Nicklaus, "You will have skills like no other," then whispered to Palmer, "But they will love you more."

"I think he brought a lot more to the game than his game," Nicklaus said in 2009. "What I mean by that is, there's no question about his record and his ability to play the game. He was very, very good at that. But he obviously brought a lot more. He brought the hitch of his pants, the flair that he brought to the game, the fans that he brought into the game."

Palmer combined power with charm, reckless abandon with graceful elegance. Golf no longer was a country club game for old men who were out of shape. He was a man's man, and he brought that spirit to the sport.

It made him a beloved figure, and brought riches long after he stopped competing.

That started with a handshake agreement with IMG founder Mark McCormack to represent Palmer in contract negotiations. Palmer's image was everywhere, from motor oil to ketchup to financial services companies. Even as late as 2011, nearly 40 years after his last PGA Tour win, Palmer was No. 3 on Golf Digest's list of top earners at $36 million a year. He trailed only Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Palmer's other love was aviation. He piloted his first aircraft in 1956, and 10 years later had a license to fly jets that now are the standard mode of transportation for so many top players, even though the majority of them are merely passengers. Palmer flew planes the way he played golf. He set a record in 1976 when he circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds in a Lear 36. He continued flying his Cessna Citation 10 until he failed to renew his license at age 81, just short of 20,000 hours in the cockpit.

Through it all, he touched more people than he could possibly remember, though he sure tried. When asked about the fans he attracted at Augusta National, Palmer once said, "Hell, I know most of them by name."

Only four other players won more PGA Tour events than Palmer -- Sam Snead, Nicklaus and Woods.

Palmer's first wife, Winning, died in 1999. They had two daughters, and grandson Sam Saunders plays on the PGA Tour. Palmer married Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop in 2005.

Palmer was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, which was caught early. He returned to golf a few months later, winking at fans as he waded through the gallery, always a smile and a signature for them.

"I'm not interested in being a hero," Palmer said, implying that too much was made about his return from cancer. "I just want to play some golf."

That, perhaps, is his true epitaph. Palmer lived to play.