Who are these Flyers? Tonight's visit to Chicago could go a long way in answering that question

Who are these Flyers? Tonight's visit to Chicago could go a long way in answering that question

Patrick Kane… Michael Leighton’s five hole… Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final... Yada, yada, yada.

Whatever. That all happened three-and-a-half years ago.

Snap back to reality and focus on the here and now because the Philadelphia Flyers finish up their six-game road trip tonight with a visit to Chicago to take on the once-again defending Stanley Cup champion and red-hot Blackhawks, who have the most points in the NHL with 49.

The Blackhawks are the most well-oiled machine the league has to offer.

They lead the league with an average of 3.58 goals per game. They’re second in the league with 33.7 shots on net per game. Don’t forget their lethal power play, which is fifth-best in the league with a 22.9 percent success rate.

Kane is well on the way to having the best season of his career. With 40 points, he trails Sidney Crosby by just three points for the league lead. He’s also scored 17 goals, which puts him at fourth-best in the league. Captain Jonathan Toews is one of the best players in the universe. Duncan Keith is second among all defensemen with 27 points, third among defensemen with a plus-15 rating and is back playing at his 2010 Norris Trophy-winning form.

To wrap things up here in Christmas paper and put a pretty little bow on top, this is one of those litmus test games for Flyers that could help us figure out of the they are contenders or pretenders. Tonight help show us who these Flyers really are.

The up-and-down road trip has pretty much been a microcosm of the season so far.

On this trip, the Flyers won a shootout (!) in Nashville, sleepwalked to a shutout loss in Minnesota, exploded in the third period to win in Detroit, got blitzed in the second period of a loss in Dallas and blew a third-period lead and lost in a shootout in Ottawa.

The trip really hasn’t shed much light on what the team is or isn’t. The same questions about goal scoring, defense and consistent play still linger. It doesn’t help that second-line center Vinny Lecavalier was injured on the trip could miss up to a month.

Getting back to tonight’s visit to Chicago, look for Sean Couturier and his line to play a big role.

If Flyers’ head coach Craig Berube has his way and gets the matchups he wants, Couturier and his line will be out there as much as possible against Toews and his line.  Whichever line gets the best of the other will have a huge say in the way the game goes. Keep in mind that Couturier’s line has been the Flyers’ best offensive line recently, too. If the matchup evens itself out, it’ll be up to the respective teams’ secondary scoring. With guys like Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw, just to name a few, it’s a clear advantage to the Blackhawks.

Ray Emery goes tonight between the pipes for the Flyers. Steve Mason has allowed eight goals in his last two starts – the first two times he let in more than three goals as a Flyer – so he gets the night off. Expect Mason to be back in net tomorrow night when the Flyers finally come home and face the Montreal Canadiens in the second game of a back-to-back.

Emery, of course, won a Cup with the ‘Hawks last season and will be facing his old mates for the first time since. Last season with the ‘Hawks, “Razor” went 17-1-0 with a .922 save percentage and a 1.94 goals-against average in 21 games played. This season in his second stint as a Flyer, Emery is 3-5-0 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average in 10 games played.

Let’s just say the quality of defense in front of the goaltender helps. But that’s another story for another day.

The last time the Flyers had a big game like this, Emery started and the Flyers won, 2-1, in Pittsburgh.

Long story short, this game will go a long in proving whether the Flyers can hang with the big boys of the NHL or whether they aren’t much better than a middle of the pack team.

Either way, it’s never a bad thing to have an excuse to look at the Blackhawks’ beautiful sweaters. Best uniform in pro sports right there.

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity. Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

The Toronto Raptors were the latest victims of the red-hot Sixers on Wednesday.

The Sixers held the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference to more than 20 points below their average in a 94-89 win at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay).

The visiting Raptors were visibly and vocally frustrated after the game.

"They're a good team, they've been playing well, no disrespect to them, but we missed a lot of wide-open shots," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Those are shots we normally make but we knew we had our hands full coming in here. We knew it was gonna be a grind-it-out game."

Blaming it on bad luck and missing "wide open shots" seems to be oversimplifying it just a tad. Toronto was held to 39.5 percent from the field and went just 6 of 24 from three.

A big factor in slowing down the Raptors is containing the dangerous backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Villanova product Kyle Lowry. DeRozan finished with 25 points, below his average of 28.2, which was in the top five in the league coming in.

Lowry was even more frustrated by the Sixers' swarming defense. He finished with 24 points but on just 5 of 13 from the field. He also committed five turnovers, picked up a technical foul and fouled out in the final seconds. When asked what the Sixers did to slow him down, Lowry wasn't buying into the hype.

"I think we got everything we wanted," Lowry said. "We got every shot we wanted. We just didn't convert it.

"They won the game. Give them credit. They played with passion and energy. That's one thing they got us on tonight."

You don't win seven out of nine games and take down the second-best team in the conference with sheer will. The Sixers have become a strong team on the defensive end of the floor.

They're currently 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. A big part of that has been the emergence of Joel Embiid as an elite rim protector. For as great as "The Process" has been offensively, his largest impact is really on the defensive end.

He wasn't the only rookie engaged on defense Wednesday night. Dario Saric came through with consecutive blocks of Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger in the early fourth quarter, denying the Raptors a chance to cut into the Sixers' lead (see video).

"Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row," Embiid said. "Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years."

Taking the torch from Saric, Embiid's block on a Lowry drive with 22.9 seconds left sealed arguably the Sixers' biggest win of the season, moments after Covington rejected a Lowry three (see video).

"One thing I care about is defense," Embiid said. "Everybody around me has to follow my lead because I am the last line of defense. One thing I care about in my career is winning Defensive Player of the Year. These guys know they can go for steals, and make stops, since I am the last guy there to block the shot.

"I don’t think it’s a fluke. We’re competing, playing great defense, winning games, and we found what we’re looking for. Everybody was trying to find themselves, and we all still have a lot to learn. We have some great players that are coming together."

Prior to the game, Casey had some lofty praise for the rookie big man. He compared Embiid to a former Rookie of the Year and 2016 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Shaquille O'Neal.

He walked away from this game even more impressed.

"He's a very talented player," Casey said of Embiid after the game. "He made a difference at the rim. Challenging shots. Offensively, he's different because if you go out on him too quick, he's gonna drive by your big. His ability to attack the rim and shoot the three, his post play. And again, he's becoming a better passer so he's gonna be a handful. We know that."

Like any season, there are going to be ups and downs. For the Sixers it's been mostly downs for three straight years. This recent run has breathed new life into this franchise and this fan base.

Embiid's ascension into a legitimate superstar has been a huge help. Dario Saric coming from overseas to provide his grit, skill and basketball IQ has been key. T.J. McConnell's promotion to the starting lineup and the additions of veterans like Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson have steadied the ship.

But as Brett Brown has said many times, the Sixers bread is buttered on the defensive end of the floor.

"I get very excited and proud of our group when they hear me talk so much about defensive identity," Brown said. "You know, who are we? How are you going to build a program? How are you going to grow the program? Words are cheap. I think results are real. And lately, they're buying in and executing our defensive game plan and they're playing with a tremendous spirit and togetherness, they really get into playing defense. That is beyond exciting for me."