Tonight's game in New York against rival Rangers a must-win for Flyers

Tonight's game in New York against rival Rangers a must-win for Flyers

Don’t touch the Philadelphia Flyers, because they’ve been on fire.

It’s no secret around town and, more importantly, around the NHL how well the Flyers have been playing in recent weeks. As a matter of fact, to say they are playing well could be an understatement.

Since March 1, the Flyers have posted an impressive 8-2-1 record and have been the hottest team in the league this side of the Boston Bruins, who just had a 12-game winning streak snapped this past Monday.

You don’t have to look back too far to notice the Flyers have won five of their last six games, all against some of the NHL’s best in the Pittsburgh Penguins (twice), Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. The only blemish in that stretch was this past Monday’s hard-fought, 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings that the Flyers should feel no shame about.

Their torrid run throughout this month has put the Flyers in prime playoff positioning in the Metropolitan Division and given them some cushion in the Eastern Conference wild-card race in case they do fall off a bit down the stretch.

But crumple all those joyful, good feelings about the hometown team into one big paper ball and throw it in the trashcan because the Flyers’ game tonight in Manhattan against the New York Rangers is a must-win game.

Say what?  A must-win for a team that comes in on that kind of a roll?

Yep. You read that right.

Not only is it a must-win, it very well may be the Flyers’ biggest game of the season.

If the season ended before Wednesday night’s games, the Flyers and Rangers would meet in the first round of the playoffs with the Rangers having home ice since they currently have a one-point advantage over the Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan.

As the season winds down, the odds of a first-round matchup between the two longtime rivals grows increasingly likely by the day. Don’t discount the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets or the desperate Washington Capitals, both of whom sit three points behind the Flyers in the Metropolitan, from throwing a wrench into those plans, but a Flyers-Rangers opening-round series looks like a distinct possibility.

The teams haven’t met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 1997 Eastern Conference Final, which the Flyers won four games to one.

It sounds like an enticing matchup until you realize the Flyers have lost seven straight games at Madison Square Garden and haven’t won there since Feb. 20, 2011. For those not well-inclined in the field of mathematics, that’s a stretch of over three years.

To make things worse, many of the games haven’t been close. The Flyers have been outscored 28-8 during their seven-game losing streak at the World’s Most Famous Arena and only one of those games was decided by less than two goals.

Tonight’s game in The Garden is must-win for the Flyers’ psyche. They don’t want to go into a playoff series knowing they haven’t won in the opponent’s building in over three years, especially a hated rival’s building.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are tough enough. The last thing the Flyers will need is a mental obstacle to hurdle and something to have to constantly answer questions about.

Tonight’s game is one the Flyers need to get under their collective belt and get out of the way now. If for nothing else, they need it to erase any lingering doubts they may have about winning in New York.

As for something a bit more tangible, this is a huge game in the race for home-ice advantage.

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As mentioned above, the Rangers would currently have the home ice but they only lead the Flyers by a point in the standings. The Flyers obviously want that home-ice advantage in the playoffs so what better way to get it than to snatch it with a win against the team directly ahead of them?

A regulation win tonight would put the Flyers one point ahead of the Rangers with two games in hand. That would be one point ahead and two extra games to lock up that home-ice advantage for the first round.

So, needless to say, tonight’s game may very well be the biggest of the season for the Flyers.

They’ll catch a bit of a break as winger Chris Krieder, who is tied for third on the Rangers with 17 goals and plays on their top line with fellow winger Rick Nash and center Derek Stepan, will miss the game with a hand injury.

Known Flyers tormentor Henrik Lundqvist will start between the pipes for the Rangers. In 44 career games against the Flyers, Lundqvist has a 26-13-3 record along with a 2.53 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. But the Flyers did get four past him in a 4-2 win when the teams last met on March 1 in South Philly.

After getting the night off this past Monday, Steve Mason returns to the net tonight for the Flyers. No surprise there with what is riding on this game.

Philadelphia holds a 2-1 lead in the season series but, as you may have been able to decipher earlier in this article, both wins came at Wells Fargo Center.

That’s cool and all but now’s the time for the Flyers to get that MSG monkey off their backs, especially since some more important visits to The Garden could be looming on the horizon.

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski woke up Saturday and drove to work in Voorhees, New Jersey.

It was just an ordinary morning for the 23-year-old, a Temple graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

Little did he know, in a couple of hours his world would turn upside down.

Semborski, who works for Snider Hockey and at Flyers Skate Zone running goalie clinics and roller leagues, hadn’t played competitively since suiting up for the Owls’ club team in the spring of 2015.

That was until Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, where, someway, somehow he was draped in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and squaring up blazing shots off the sticks of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, just to name a few.

Quite the promotion, huh?

“It’s surreal, really,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

Could anyone?

“I couldn’t imagine the rush,” Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling said.

Incredibly and astonishingly, Semborski turned into an NHL goaltender for a day as Chicago’s second string to Darling, who suffered a 3-1 loss to the Flyers.

How Semborski was found and summoned by the Blackhawks is still somewhat of a mystery, even to the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, native himself. Once Chicago received word that regular starter Corey Crawford had to suddenly undergo an appendectomy at a Philadelphia hospital, the Blackhawks started scrambling for an emergency backup to Darling.

“I was at work, at the rink in Voorhees just coaching,” Semborski said. “My boss called me and I missed it. I walked off the ice and started talking with someone from the Flyers, he started asking me, ‘Where’d you play hockey, what’s your playing history?’” 

Semborski was confounded.

“I didn’t even know what he was getting at,” he said. “I asked, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Chicago needs a goalie.’ I just lost it. He said, ‘Go home, get your stuff and if they’re going to use you, they’ll call you.’ I left right away.

“I was like, OK, this probably isn’t going to happen, there’s no way.”

Ten minutes later …

“I’m in the truck and I got a call from Chicago,” Semborski said.

Who was it?

“I just know his name’s Tony,” Semborski said. “That’s all I know.”

How the heck did the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups since 2010, find a regular, hard-working guy living in Manayunk to be their reserve netminder?

“No idea,” Semborski said, still in awe talking after the game outside the locker rooms. “I think it had something to do with me working with Snider Hockey, working at Voorhees. They asked around and people just threw my name out I guess. I really don’t know how it happened. I’ll have to get to the bottom of that and thank some people. I have no idea who gave them my info, but whoever did, thank you, because it was awesome.”

So Semborski hustled from Voorhees to Manayunk, packed up his gear — including his old Temple mask, sporting the words “Philly Proud” and “Temple Tuff” — and quickly made his way to the Wells Fargo Center. He arrived around 12:30 p.m. before puck drop at 1.

“I hit some traffic on 76 (Schuylkill Expressway), of course,” Semborski said. “I got here as fast as I could in my street clothes. No time to put on a tie.”

Once Semborski signed his amateur tryout, it became real. He walked into the visiting locker room and there were the Blackhawks and his NHL jersey, a makeshift uniform with Crawford’s No. 50.

“It was hanging up when I got in there,” he said. “I guess they took Crawford’s and threw a name on it and made it work.”

Prior to hitting the ice for warmups, Semborski got acquainted with his teammates.

“Dream come true,” he said. “That was so cool, just hanging out with those guys. They made me feel welcomed right away, started joking around.

“When I got there, they put my number on the board and said I’m throwing in $200 for the holiday party. That was pretty good. I told them, ‘You better take credit because that’s all I got.’”

What about his big-money contract?

“No, I should be paying them for this,” Semborski said. “That was awesome.

“I signed some stuff when I came in, I don’t know what it was. I’m happy with a hat and the memories.”

Especially taking the net in warmups.

“I was a bit rusty, but no matter how much I play, I’m not going to be ready for them,” he said. “It was fast and I couldn’t even catch my breath because I was trying to take it all in. That was the best 20 minutes of my life out there skating with them.

“You’re playing against the best guys in the world. I knew I wasn’t going to stop most of them. I was lucky if it hit me.”

As for the game, Semborski didn’t play.

“Well you almost saw it,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said, referring to his frustration with a three-goal second period by the Flyers.

“That probably would have been a big mistake,” Semborski said with a laugh.

“That would have been so cool, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The experience was awesome.”

What did Quenneville think?

"That’s part of the process with all of the teams, they have the local amateur guys or sometimes guys who have played pro before," he said. "But with our cap situation, we needed an amateur, so he fit all the criteria and it was a good opportunity for him. ... It’s kind of a cool experience for the kid."

So Semborski sat on the bench, padded and ready. He smiled and watched, supporting his new team.

He, of course, is a Flyers fan, but …

“Not today,” he said with a smile. “Every other day, yeah, but not today.

“When I first got out there, I was like, ‘Alright, if [the Flyers] score, don’t stand up. Just relax.’”

Semborski admitted to Chicago breaking his heart in 2010 when it beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final.

“That was one of the hardest things I ever watched,” he said. “But today, that’s all forgotten. I’m a ‘Hawks fan today.”

Afterward, Semborski said his phone was flooded with 70-something text messages and 20-plus phone calls.

“I’m going to have to start calling some people,” he said.

His first will probably be to a special loved one.

“It’s my dad’s birthday,” Semborski said. “So, happy birthday, Dad. Best present ever for you.”

Temple, Matt Rhule deliver AAC championship with win over Navy

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Temple, Matt Rhule deliver AAC championship with win over Navy

BOX SCORE

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The genesis came nearly four years ago when Matt Rhule walked down the cheerleader and band-lined hallway at the Liacouras Center, greeting fans and shaking the hands of those who took the time to come as he made his way to the to the podium for his introductory press conference. In previous days, he was named Temple’s head coach after leaving the previous regime at Temple for a one-year stint on Tom Coughlin’s staff with the New York Giants.
 
When Rhule spoke that cold December day in 2012, he promised he would bring Temple a championship. Any type of championship. Hardware that the long-suffering program, its players, its fans and its alumni could be proud of.
 
Along the way, there were bumps in the road that brought ridicule to that promise.
 
There was the 2-10 season from hell in 2013 that included losses to Idaho and Fordham. There was the 6-6 season of frustration in 2014 when Rhule had to tell his players, notably his heartbroken seniors, that no bowl wanted anything to do with them even though they were eligible to play in one. There was the hoopla of a dream 2015 season that ended with the nightmare of losses to Houston in the conference title game and Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl. And then there was earlier this season when the Owls seemed without a sense of direction after a painful 3-3 start.
 
But through all of the muck and grime, Rhule kept his players believing in his promise.
 
And on Saturday afternoon, nearly four years to the day he made that promise, he and his players delivered, at the Naval Academy, of all places.
 
Phillip Walker, the four-year starter at quarterback who’s been with Rhule the entire way, was stellar with 16 completions for 199 yards and two touchdown passes and Temple’s defense shut down No. 19 Navy’s vaunted rushing attack as the Owls won the American Athletic Conference title game on Saturday with a 34-10 victory at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium (see Instant Replay).
 
The triumph pushed the Owls’ record to 10-3 and marks just the second conference title in Temple football history and first since the Owls brought home a Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 1967.
 
“For me, it means the promise has been fulfilled,” Temple’s victorious head coach said after the game. “[Athletics officials] were sitting there with me there in the locker after we lost to Fordham our first year. And to bring it full circle, so that to me, is almost a relief of a job well done.
 
“But the true thing for me about this is just to have these players to be able to call themselves champions. That’s the way they live their lives. When you win this conference, you’ve done something special. This a fantastic conference with great teams from top to bottom.
 
“For us to say we did it, that’s the accomplishment. … The competitors we have on our team, the men we have on our team – they were ready to take one more step. And that’s what they did. ”
 
It’s fitting that the seniors who’ve been with Rhule the last several years led the Temple charge from the moment the ball was kicked into the windy air on Saturday.
 
Walker took command on the game’s opening drive with five completions, including a huge 4th-and-7 throw to Keith Kirkwood after Kirkwood dropped an easy catch on the previous play. Walker and Kirkwood later admitted the Owls ran the same play again on fourth down. One play later, Jahad Thomas, another senior, scampered into the corner of the end zone from 15 yards out to open the scoring.
 
On the Owls’ next drive, Walker hit Ventell Bryant on an out route for a 22-yard touchdown that made the score 14-0 in favor of Temple.
 
As time wound down in the first, Temple junior safety Sean Chandler made a touchdown-saving tackle on Navy’s Dishan Romine at the Temple 25-yard line after a 34-yard catch. On the next play, Chandler stripped Navy’s Darryl Bonner after a screen pass and the Owls recovered at their own 30.
 
On the ensuing drive, Walker threw a lovely deep ball with perfect touch to a wide-open Kirkwood, who glided into the end zone and put Temple up 21-0 just over a minute into the second quarter.
 
You could have started polishing the trophy then and there because the rout was on.
 
“This means a lot to the program,” Walker, the namesake of numerous Temple quarterback records, including touchdown passes (72), completions (802) and passing yards (10, 272) said of Temple’s win on Saturday afternoon. “I told Coach Rhule before I got here that this was going to happen. That was the process of me just trusting and keep doing what I’ve been doing. I go out there every day and bring my effort and my energy every day. And hopefully everyone else around me will follow.
 
“Going in there every day and playing and competing at a high level, it shows that we had a really good team that was capable of doing a lot of good things.”
 
Thomas and Walker were teammate’s at North Jersey’s Elizabeth High School before coming to Temple four years ago. Their high school careers followed the same story arc of their college careers – misery as freshmen, improved mediocrity as sophomores, falling just short as juniors and championship glory as seniors.
 
“You definitely hit lows coming from an 11-0 season in high school to a program that was known for losing,” Thomas said before he boarded the team bus Saturday evening. “But we know with all the young guys we had coming in that we had an opportunity to be something special as we got older.
 
“So we just worked and worked in the offseason and continued to get better. We continued to buy in to Coach Rhule’s process. And now, as seniors, we won.”
 
Needless to say, Temple’s defense did more than its fair share against a Navy team that entered second in the nation with 342 rushing yards a game and dropped 75 points on SMU last week.
 
Facing that potent Navy attack and the mental roadblock of the 328 yards a similar-style Army team ran for in a season-opening 28-13 defeat at The Linc, Temple stuffed Navy to the tune of 168 yards on the ground.
 
Navy senior quarterback Will Worth, who entered Saturday leading the nation with 25 rushing touchdowns, injured his ankle in the second quarter and did not return. He was replaced by sophomore Zach Abey. But still, quite the impressive showing from Temple’s defense nonetheless. Or a “good ole fashioned butt whipping,” as Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo put it.
 
“We just made it simple. Just don’t overthink it,” Temple senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said of the Owls’ Saturday performance against Navy’s triple option. “It’s football at the end of the day.  Everybody did their job, just like coach was saying.
 
“This is a program that has never won. So to actually see it happen is just unbelievable with how far we’ve come. There’s a lot of people involved in that. Not just us, but the previous years before us. And it’s incredible to see this happen.”
 
While the Owls will soak in the feeling of championship glory Saturday night, they’ll find out their postseason fate on Sunday afternoon when the bowl selections are announced.
 
And that’s where things get interesting.
 
As a conference champion, Temple is eligible for the New Year’s Six at-large bowl bid to the Cotton Bowl. And the Owls should be in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings after stomping the No. 19 team in the country on its home turf.
 
But No. 17 Western Michigan of the MAC completed its season with a spotless 13-0 record after holding on for dear life against Ohio in Friday’s conference title game in Detroit.
 
So now it’s up to the committee to weigh the resumes of 10-3 Temple and 13-0 WMU for that Cotton Bowl berth. And not to get too far ahead, but that berth could well mean a meeting with Penn State if the Nittany Lions don’t represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
 
WMU’s signature wins this year are victories at Northwestern (6-6) and at Illinois (3-9), both of the Big Ten.
 
The Owls’ top wins are at home against then-No. 24 South Florida (10-2) and Saturday’s triumph at No. 19 Navy (9-3). There was also September’s seven-point defeat at No. 7 Penn State mixed in there as well, if you want to discuss strength of schedule.
 
While logic with the records says the odds may not be in the Owls’ favor, Rhule left his message for the committee on Saturday evening.
 
“I think we can say we’re one of the top teams in college football right now based on the way we’ve played,” Rhule said.
 
“I’ll never talk down about another team. And I think any team that goes undefeated, I wish them all the best. But we are the sixth power conference. If you win this league, you should go to a New Year’s Six Bowl. That’s neither here nor there. And when you’ve seen what [AAC] teams have done in New Year’s Six Bowls, you should want to have us there.
 
“Over the last half of the year, I would say we’re as hot as any team in the country. Again, I’m not saying anything negative about anyone else, but we should be playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl."