The Read-Couturier-Downie line has been pretty good for the Flyers, who play the crummy Panthers tonight

The Read-Couturier-Downie line has been pretty good for the Flyers, who play the crummy Panthers tonight

As you may have heard, the Flyers are 6-0-1 in their last seven games, have earned 13 of a possible 14 points during the successful stretch and have clawed their way out of the Metropolitan Division basement to currently sit just two points behind the New York Rangers for the division’s last playoff spot.

That’s quite an accomplishment considering the way the Orange and Black didn’t exactly start off on the right foot. You know what I’m talking about. No need to rehash the horror scenes and kill the good vibes we’ve got going here.

How have they turned things around?

There are plenty of reasons, but a particularly vital cog in the Flyers’ resurgence has been the “third” line of Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Steve Downie.

Since head coach Craig Berube put the trio together on Nov. 12 when Downie returned to action from a facial injury, they have been running roughshod over opponents.

In that six-game stretch, the line has produced six goals and 12 assists. Five of those goals belong to Read, who has scored two goals in each of his last two games and is tied with Vinny Lecavalier for the team led in goals with eight. The other goal belongs to Couturier, who finally broke his 25-game goal-less drought when he scored last week against visiting Ottawa.

While Downie hasn’t scored, he’s contributed six assists to the cause. The Flyers are 6-1-1 with Downie in the lineup since he was acquired on Halloween for Max Talbot.

Part of the success is due to the line often seeing favorable matchups and taking advantage of them with their skill.

They are so good defensively that the trio usually plays against opponent’s most-skilled line. For example, they’ll see Alexander Ovechkin’s line when they play the Capitals or they’ll see John Tavares’ line when they play the Islanders.

Sometimes, those highly-skilled lines don’t feature the most defensive-minded players.  Read, Couturier and Downie take advantage of those defensive deficiencies and put points on the board.

The trio scores timely goals too.

Take for example last Thursday’s win over the Sabres. The Flyers had a lackluster first 30 minutes against a terrible team. That was until the “third” line got out there, went to work on the forecheck, forced a few turnovers, netted two goals courtesy of Read and lit a fire under both the team and the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

They did it again in Saturday’s 5-2 win over the visiting Islanders. The Flyers were sloppy in the first period but the “third” line ignited a three-goal second period when Read scored 46 ticks into the frame.

They are almost reminiscent of the Scott Hartnell-Danny Briere-Ville Leino line that was put together during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the way they gel despite different styles.

Read is the speedy scorer. Couturier is the defense-first center who is slowly starting to get his scoring talent on track. And Downie is the gritty winger who isn’t afraid to get physical and get into the dirty areas to make a play.

Call them a “third” line if you want, but they’ve been the Flyers’ top line during the team’s recent hot streak.

The softer schedule as of late certainly hasn't hurt either.

During the team’s seven-game point streak, the opponents the Flyers have faced have a combined 54-78-14 record. The only team of any relevance and that currently holds a playoff spot that the Flyers have played in this stretch was those filthy Penguins.

That trend continues tonight when the Flyers visit the Panthers to begin a quick two-game jaunt through Florida.

The Panthers are not a very good team.

With a 6-13-5 record and spared only by the mess with that is the Sabres, they currently sit in second-to-last place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.

They feature solid, young talents in this past draft’s second-overall pick Aleksander Barkov and last year’s rookie-of-the-year Jonathan Huberdeau, but that’s about all there is to write home about them.

But, hey, insane politico goaltender Tim Thomas is the Panthers’ goalie, so there’s that, I guess.

Steve Mason will get the call between the pipes for the Flyers.

The Flyers beat the Panthers, 2-1 during the teams’ first meeting back in October and that was when the Flyers were in full tailspin mode coming out of the gate. In fact, that win was the Orange and Black’s only win in their first seven games.

The Flyers are 4-3-2 away from home this season and have a glorious chance to improve that record and grab two more points that are ripe for the picking.

It’s not 25 freakin’ degrees in South Florida right now like it is here so they won’t have that for an excuse.

Instant Replay: Cubs 6, Phillies 2

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USA Today Images

Instant Replay: Cubs 6, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs, on the strength of three home runs, hammered the Phillies, 6-2, at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon/evening.
 
Phillies starter Adam Morgan was hit hard.
 
The loss dropped the Phillies to 26-22. They are 1-3 on this road trip and have lost five of their last seven overall.
 
The Phillies entered the day averaging just 3.3 runs per game, the second-lowest mark in the majors. They have been held to two or fewer runs 16 times in their 48 games. 
 
The Cubs have the majors’ best record at 32-14. They are averaging a National League-best 5.7 runs per game.
 
The game was delayed 56 minutes by rain in the seventh inning.
 
It was delayed again for 37 minutes in the top of the ninth.
 
Starting pitching report
Morgan was tagged for six runs in four-plus innings as his ERA swelled to 6.67 in six starts. He was bruised for eight hits. Five were for extra bases and three were homers. One of the homers, a mammoth blast by Jorge Soler, traveled 461 feet.
 
Lefty Jon Lester got the win. He gave up just two runs over 6 1/3 innings and one was unearned.
 
Bullpen report
Andrew Bailey, Brett Oberholtzer and Colton Murray pitched scoreless ball for the Phillies.
 
Trevor Cahill and Hector Rondon finished it out for the Cubs.
 
At the plate
Maikel Franco drove in both of the Phillies’ runs with a sacrifice fly and an infield hit.
 
The Phillies had 10 hits, but only one for extra bases, a double by Odubel Herrera.
 
Tommy Joseph started at first base against the lefty Lester. He singled in his first at-bat, grounded out and struck out twice. Ryan Howard entered the game after the rain delay and struck out in his only at-bat.
 
Soler, David Ross and Kris Bryant all homered for the Cubs against Morgan. Ross’ was a three-run shot with one out in the fourth.
 
In the field
Freddy Galvis made several outstanding plays at shortstop.
 
The Cubs made two errors in the third inning and the Phillies capitalized for an unearned run.
 
Health check
Cody Asche (oblique) and Mario Hollands (elbow) both had their injury rehab assignments shifted to Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
Asche’s 20-day rehab assignment is set to run out on Wednesday at which time the Phillies can bring him to the majors or option him to Triple A. Actually, the Phils could bring him to the majors before if they choose.
 
Right-hander Mark Appel, pitching at Lehigh Valley, was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, which might explain the big drop in velocity he experienced in his last start.
 
The Phillies promoted Ben Lively to Lehigh Valley to take Appel’s spot. Lively was off to a tremendous start at Double A. The 24-year-old righty was 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP in nine starts.
 
Up next
Jerad Eickhoff (2-6, 3.86) pitches Saturday afternoon against Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks (2-4, 3.30).

Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added to World Cup rosters

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Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added to World Cup rosters

Turns out the hip and abdominal surgeries for both Flyers captain Claude Giroux and rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere weren’t a deterrent from making their countries’ respective World Cup of Hockey rosters.
 
Also going will be center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who was added to Team Europe’s roster.
 
All three Flyers were “add-ons” to Team Canada, Team North America and Team Europe as the final rosters were announced on Friday night.
 
The World Cup of Hockey tournament begins in September 17 and ends on Oct. 1.

Giroux, 28, has twice represented Canada at the World Championships and once in World Junior competition.
 
Gostisbehere, 23,  represented the U.S. internationally once the World Juniors. Team North America is all players 23-and-under or “Young Stars” as some refer to them.
 
Despite his poorest offensive output in three years, Giroux still led the Flyers with 67 points this season, playing in his 500th career game and scoring his 500th point. He won the Bobby Clarke Trophy as team MVP.
 
Gostisbehere took the NHL by storm as a November fill-in for the injured Mark Streit and ended up becoming a Calder Trophy finalist. That award will be announced in late June. 
 
He quickly ended up as the team’s first unit power play quarterback, and led all rookie defensemen in points (46), while establishing several club rookie records, including goals by a Flyers defenseman (17).
 
Gostisbehere was voted the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the team’s best defenseman and the Gene Hart Memorial Award, given by the Flyers’ fan club to the players possessing the most “heart.”
 
Bellemare, 32, had 14 points this season as a valuable fourth line checking center and penalty killer. He also celebrated his 100th game as a Flyer. He figures to be a role player for Team Europe.
 
Ghost and Giroux both had off-season surgery on May 17. Their recovery is approximately 10-12 weeks. Both are expected at Flyers’ training camp in September.
 
Incidentally, the Flyers had just 167 man-games lost due to injury this past season. That’s the fewest number of injuries since 1998-99 when they had 120.
 
In all, the Flyers will send eight players – Bellemare, Giroux, Gostisbehere, center Sean Couturier (North America), defenseman Mark Streit (Team Europe), and three players from the Czech Republic – defenseman Radko Gudas, goalie Michal Neuvirth and forward Jakub Voracek.
 
Eight teams will compete in the tournament with every game being played at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
 
Philadelphia was one of the host cities for the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 when the Wells Fargo Center first opened as the CoreStates Center.

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.