Tough Weekend of Matinee Hockey Ahead for Flyers

Tough Weekend of Matinee Hockey Ahead for Flyers

The Flyers aren't exactly coming off their best performance of the season, a 4-1 beheading at home under the axe of the division's last place team. Today they face another divisional foe up in middle Jerz at 1PM, after which they'll host the Bruins at 3PM.

We're still far enough from the finish line that the outcomes of any two games aren't likely too pendulous in their impact. But, we don't have to look too far back to remember how quickly a good season can turn to garbage. Right around this time of year too…

Two wins this weekend, on the other hand, could help to right a listing ship entering the stretch run. Below, a look at what the Devils are packing.

Charting the Atlantic
New Jersey's one of the quiet success stories of the Eastern Conference this season, just four points behind the Flyers with 54 points on a 26-18-2 record. Not bad for a team that missed the playoffs by 12 points last season. The Atlantic is a tight place, with only eight points separating the top dog Rangers (62) from the Devils in fourth (54).

The Devils are having a solid January. They lost against Boston on Thursday, but won their previous three and five of their last seven.

It's been a while since the Flyers have seen the Devils. They grabbed a 3-0 win in opening night at the Rock, spoiling the evening for dozens of New Jerseyans. Then, in early November, there was that painful shootout loss at home that happened to coincide with the Union's final playoff loss to Houston. Banner night, that.

The Killers
The Devils are a middle of the pack team in more than just the standings, ranking 17th in both goals and goals against per game, with the 21st ranked power play. But, they do boast the top penalty killing unit in the league, snuffing out just more than 90% of all opposing man advantages and ripping off 11 shorthanded goals. Adam Larsson runs the show on the blue line. Beast. For a Flyers team that struggled mightily in transition and gaining the zone on Thursday, that's something to worry about this afternoon.  

Sniper Alert
Patrick Elias leads the team in scoring with 45 points, and Ilya Kovalchuk has the top mark in goals with 19. There's been no sign of Koval-choke lately. The Russian sniper has 10 points on seven goals and three assists in his last seven games.

Their Little Pony
The team brought in winger Alexei Ponikarovsky on a Friday night trade, dealing away AHL defenseman Joe Sava and a fourth round pick. Pony will play today.

Pipers
Tom Gulitti (good Devils beat follow) says it'll be Martin Brodeur between the pipes for the Devils. Not exactly the dooming sentence it once was. Still awaiting word on whether he'll face Bob or Bryz at the other end. Bob played his ass off in the loss to the Isles, but Bryz notched the team's only shutout in this building to start the Devils' season. Who you hoping for today? Tomorrow?

Update: It's Bryz.

Who Steps Up?
The top line's struggles lately have had many wondering whether Peter Laviolette would split them up in hopes of re-igniting them. At least for now, he's keeping them together, perhaps in part due to their request.

The rookies have been doing their part to keep the scoring coming, led by Sean Couturier and Matt Read.

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

The Sixers (4-15) continue their homestand against the Boston Celtics (11-8) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night (7:30 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup.

1. A green giant-sized challenge
Just crumple it up and move on.

That's about the only thing the Sixers can do after getting ran out of the gym by the Orlando Magic on Friday. Instead of looking like a team that hadn't played since Monday, the Sixers appeared flat in a 105-88 loss.

Outside of Joel Embiid's first 20-point, 10-rebound game (he had 25 points and 10 boards) and a strong effort from Jahlil Okafor (16 points and 13 rebounds), not much else went right for the Sixers.

Now Embiid will sit the second game of a back-to-back set and Okafor will be thrust into the starting lineup, as the Sixers try to deal with Boston big man Al Horford. 

Horford, the Celtics' prized free-agent acquisition, is coming off his best game so far for his new team. He recorded 26 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in the Celtics' 97-92 win over the Kings on Friday.

2. Little big man
Even with Horford coming off a productive performance, the Sixers' game plan against the Celtics has to focus on slowing down Isaiah Thomas.

The 5-foot-9 guard continues to put up big numbers in the scoring department. Despite his shooting percentages taking a dip this season, Thomas still ranks ninth in the NBA with a career-high 25.7 points per game. 

And even though he is a willing passer (averaging a career-high-tying 6.3 assists), expect Thomas to try and score early and often against the Sixers. After all, the reserve-turned-All-Star has put up 21.5 points per game against the Sixers during his career, his highest mark against any opponent.

3. Dial up the long-distance defense
The Sixers need to be aware of Thomas and just about all of his teammates when they toe that three-point line.

The Celtics rank fifth in the league in three-pointers attempted (31.1), three-pointers made (11.3) and eighth in three-point percentage (36.3) per game.

The C's have four players shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc, and perhaps a bit surprising, three of them are big men. Jonas Jerebko (46.4 percent), Horford (42.4 percent) and Amir Johnson (40.0 percent) have all been on target from long range.

4. Injuries
Robert Covington (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are both questionable. Embiid (rest), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

The Celtics have no players listed on the injury report.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost five games in a row overall and eight straight to the Celtics.

• The Celtics rank 25th in rebounding with 42.2 a night.

• Dario Saric had two points Friday against the Magic and has failed to reach double digits in scoring five of his last six games.

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.