Round 2: Flyers Favored, But Jersey's Devil Could Be in Their Dormant Balance

Round 2: Flyers Favored, But Jersey's Devil Could Be in Their Dormant Balance

Once again paired against a divisional rival, the Flyers' second-round matchup with the New Jersey Devils feels very little like the opening round battle against the Penguins. Despite having played the Devils as frequently as the Penguins for years and even facing off in a recent (2010) playoff series, Jersey certainly seems the less familiar foe. 
The flames of the rivalry aren't quite as intense as they were a decade ago, at least not at the moment. Something tells me by this time next week, they'll be rekindled if not roaring. 
If you're entering this series at a bit of a loss for the who these Devils are, you're not alone. Aside from the nearly 40-year-old Martin Brodeur and high-priced sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, they don't have the star power to stand out like the Penguins or Rangers. And yet, they finished right in the thick of the best division in the NHL. 
To beat the Devils, the Flyers will have to shut down an underrated offense anchored by a dominant top line but peppered with scorers throughout. They'll have to beat a goalie who once owned them but can no longer lay claim to their title and deed. And they'll have to sidestep a few agitating landmines who will aim to tilt the special teams seesaw away from the end that would appear to decidedly favor the Flyers. 
Superstitious as we are, we'd never start a series by disrespecting the opponent's ability to win it. But if the Devils do so, it will be as a decided underdog. They are not as good as the Penguins were, and the Flyers topped Pittsburgh in six games while New Jersey needed double OT in game 7 to outlast an artificially weighted Florida Panthers team. Take a look back at the first round though, around the league. Once the puck hits the ice, all bets are off, and being the favorite doesn't mean a damn thing. 
Upset the BalanceA huge reason for the Flyers' ability to advance out of the first round was their silencing of Evgeni Malkin for most of the series. Another series, another Russian to keep off the sheet. Ilya Kovalchuk is the guy whose contract was as laughable as it was illegal, the missing ingredient that ruined the stew, the man deserving of the nickname Kovalchoke. In 2010. He still posted numbers, but they rang hollow, and he disappeared for stretches of the Flyers' five-game series win in the 2010 postseason. 
But in 2012, with the Devils are playing a more attacking style of hockey while also posting a top-10 defense/goals allowed, Kovalchuk fit in better on his way to a 37-goal, 82-point season. Against the Panthers, the dangerous top line trio of Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Zach Parise (18 goals/36 pts in 40 career games vs PHI) combined for eight of the team's 18 goals. (Yes, they scored 18 goals in 7 games and won… Not quite the barn-burner we witnessed at the poles of Pennsylvania, huh?)
Kovalchuk is rumored to be playing hurt, but he still scored three times last series. He's not quite as self-destructive as Malkin proved to be either. We're looking forward to seeing Sean Couturier and Braydon Coburn try to stuff him in a sack over the next week-plus. 
To beat the Flyers, the Devils will need more of the balance they saw in the regular season. David Clarkson had 30 goals, but has yet to light the lamp in the postseason. Patrik Elias (33 goals/75 pts in 76 career games vs PHI) had 26 goals and 78 points, but scored only twice in the opening series, going completely silent in games four through seven. Adam Henrique emerged as a hero in game 7 last round, scoring a pair of goals and could be dangerous in round 2. 
Plus: Poni and ZubrusIn eight games against the Flyers this season (he got two more due to being traded from the Hurricanes), Alexei Ponikarovsky scored four goals. Since being traded away from Philadelphia, Dainius Zubrus has brandished the dagger 12 times against his former team, and while he hasn't been a dangerous threat in the playoffs since 2006, his size can still pose matchup problems. 
In the Flyers' quest to again silence the opposing top line, they'll have to be careful not to let a few dangerous scorers get loose from the Devils' second and third lines. Jersey's balance was somewhat dormant in the opening round, but it's still there. 
Special TeamsThe Devils boasted the league's best penalty killing unit in the regular season, stifling nearly 90% of all opposing power plays. The Flyers scored on more than half of their man advantage opps against a Penguins PK unit that ranked third in the regular season. This will surely be a matchup to watch, although when speaking with WMMR's Preston & Steve, Peter Laviolette warned that the regular season and opening round trends can be thrown out the window once a new series begins. The Devils showed why agains the Panthers, when their PK unit was picked apart by Florida's power play for nine goals on 27 opps. 
Again, they're still the unit that was amazingly stingy for 82 games, and their 15 shorthanded goals should be reason enough to think their first round woes may not continue in round two. We'll see.  
More Like 'Voljerkoff' Amirite?The Devil most likely to send the series into a special teams battle is Anton Volchenkov, who has a long history of agitating the Flyers. Remember the insanity he helped to cause while still a member of the Ottawa Senators in March 2010? 
Volchenkov will likely goad the Flyers into a few penalties, but also give a few of his own. He also checks in as the series favorite to land a suspension for intent to injure a far more talented player. 
Bryz vs BrodeurIn some ways, every playoff matchup comes down to which goaltender is better in the best-of-seven. Ilya Bryzgalov may have some games he wants back from the opening round, but he clamped down in the final two games, when his defense was much better than the previous four. New Jersey may have some serious weapons, but on paper, ice, stone, pavement, and any other surface, their offense is nowhere near as dangerous as the Penguins'. A week off may have helped with the pain of a chip fracture in his toe and a rumored hip injury, too. Plus, Bryz was dominant in three starts against the Devils this season. Small sample size, but it favors my argument, so I'm using it anyway. 
Martin Brodeur… Do we even need to say anything about Marty? He'll hear his name teased, taunts about his weight, and maybe even a few about his sister-in-law. But hopefully he'll also hear the deafening sound of the goal horn. This isn't the Panthers' attack, which gave Marty troubles in the opening round, and he's not the perennial Vezina favorite he once was. But did you see him in game 7? On a game-by-game basis, he can still play like a Hall of Famer, and he may steal a win or two in this series. The Devils will likely need him to. 
Call me crazy but I still like the Flyers' advantage in net for this series. You?
Overall…It's hard not to feel good about the Flyers' chances in this
series. But today, there's a possibility they come out a little flat after a long layoff. Hopefully the Pens series exorcised their afternoon-game demons too. If not, we know a crappy start won't sink the ship. The Flyers are in every game, regardless of the score after the first period. 
I might be trying to convince myself that the Devils are better than they are because I'm uncomfortable with how comfortable I feel. Sure they have more balance than they showed last series. But if you can believe it, so too do the Flyers. What happens if Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell start going off? JVR? 
The Flyers' firepower is among the best, if not the best, left in the playoffs. They clamped down on defense with the series on the line against Pittsburgh, and it appears they'll get Nick Grossmann back today. When it comes down to it, I'm more worried about the generic "anything can happen" nature of the NHL playoffs, regardless of opponent, than I am anything in particular the Devils bring to the table. 
If they lose this series, something will have gone massively wrong. 

Joel Embiid posts amazing tribute to Sam Hinkie on Instagram

Joel Embiid posts amazing tribute to Sam Hinkie on Instagram

The treasure trove that is Joel Embiid's social media presence unearthed another jewel on Saturday evening.

The Sixers' big man took to Instagram to post a picture of himself chatting with local folk legend Sam Hinkie. As if that wasn't enough, check out the captions he wrote at the bottom.

THE GOAT #HeDiedForOurSins #TrustTheProcess

A photo posted by Joel Hans Embiid (@joelembiid) on

Let us break this down.

"THE GOAT" - As in Greatest Of All Time, not an actual goat you would find at your local petting zoo.

"#HeDiedForOurSins" - St. Sam, patron saint of analytical basketball martyrdom.

"#TrustTheProcess" - The rallying cry of the masses.

Sure, they may have taken away Sam, but they'll never take away JoJo's social media platforms. Never!

Union have no answer for Didier Drogba, Impact in 5-1 loss

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Associated Press

Union have no answer for Didier Drogba, Impact in 5-1 loss

MONTREAL  -- Didier Drogba broke out with a hat trick to lead the Montreal Impact to a 5-1 victory over the Union on Saturday night.

The 38-year-old Ivorian striker hadn't scored since May 28. He returned last week after missing three games with a thigh injury.

Ignacio Piatti returned after sitting out a one-game suspension to score a goal and add two assists. Recent signing Matteo Mancuso, who went in for Drogba in the 79th minute, got his first MLS goal in added time.

Montreal improved to 7-5-8.

Chris Pontius scored for Philadelphia (8-7-6).

Odubel Herrera's bat returns, but so do Aaron Nola's struggles in loss to Pirates

Odubel Herrera's bat returns, but so do Aaron Nola's struggles in loss to Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- The good news for the Phillies on Saturday was that it finally seems All-Star Odubel Herrera's bat is returning to its typical, productive form.

The centerfielder had his second straight three-hit game Saturday as he continued to pull out of his slump, though it wasn’t enough to keep the Phillies from losing 7-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the middle game of a three-game series at PNC Park (see Instant Replay).

Yet Herrera’s suddenly hot bat gave the Phillies some reason to feel good on a day when another player who the organization believes can be a foundation player backslid. Right-hander Aaron Nola (5-9) took the loss as he allowed six runs and six hits in four-plus innings.

The bad Nola returned after pitching six scoreless innings in his previous outing Monday against the Miami Marlins. Prior to shutting down the Marlins, Nola allowed a combined 30 runs in five starts while failing to get past the fourth inning four times.

“When he’s at his best, he has control of all his pitches,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s lost his control and he needs to a find a way to get it back.”

However, Herrera improved to 6 for 9 in the series by going 3 for 4 with a triple, two runs scored and two stolen bases. He had been 4 for 41 in his previous 11 games before coming to Pittsburgh, a skid that dropped his batting average to .281 from .300.

“It was getting pretty ugly for about a week there, so it feels good to get some hits,” Herrera said. “That’s my job, to get hits, be successful and help the team win. I really don’t go into too many slumps, so it’s hard to try to fight your way through it and stay positive. When I get a hit, I am happy.”

Herrera is now hitting .290 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 98 games.

There had been a school of thought that making his first All-Star Game appearance July 12 at Petco Park in San Diego might have had an effect on the 24-year-old. The schedule for the players during the festivities is basically non-stop for two days and then Herrera had to fly across the country to rejoin the Phillies in Philadelphia for the second half of the season.

“I was concerned it might have an effect on him,” Mackanin said. “It was the first time he had participated in an even of that magnitude and it can be hard to refocus after that.”

Herrera, though, said he is not sure how much being an All-Star played into his cold spell.

“Maybe it did,” Herrera said. “It was a busy couple of days there. I don’t know what to compare it to because I hadn’t been before. Obviously, I didn’t have the same chance to rest as a lot of other players, so it could have had an effect. However, playing in the All-Star Game was a great experience and I am glad I had a chance to be there.”

If Herrera plays like he has the last two games, Herrera figures to appear in more Midsummer Classics before his career is through.

“He has the ability to win a batting title,” Mackanin said. “He’s that good of a hitter. He’s a smart hitter. When pitchers start adjusting to him, he adjusts back. I only see him getting better.

“Then you throw in that he played a heckuva center field and it’s just an impressive total package."