Its Chester vs. Lower Merion (again): Fridays Battle at Nova is a Rematch of Last Years District and State Finals

Its Chester vs. Lower Merion (again): Fridays Battle at Nova is a Rematch of Last Years District and State Finals

styles make fights, then Friday’s matchup between No. 1 Chester and No. 2
Lower Merion should be like a bonkers battle of the Klitschko brothers.
Chester, with their fast-paced, get up in your grill, crash the boards,
stuff it down your throat style, take on Lower Merion, with their
fast-paced, get up in your grill, crash the boards, stuff it down your …
wait, what?

this year’s Lower Merion squad is different from years past. Sure, they
still take charges, and execute pump fakes, and wear Kobe’s sneaks, and
box out, and dive on the floor, and tuck their warmups in, but Coach
Gregg Downer has his team playing at a feverish pace, pressing full
court, pushing after makes and blitzing their opponents, not unlike
their arch enemy Clippers.

of course doesn’t care. No matter who they’re playing, be it Lower
Merion, Neumann, Temple, Princeton or Orlando Woolridge’s Denver
Nuggets, Chester is going to play however the freak they want. Watch the
defending state champs strut out in their neon pink, Under Armour high
tops and you’ll understand. Swagger is an understatement. Coach Larry
Yarbray’s Clips ooze confidence, luring opponents into playing at their
pace, and then strangling them like a Black
Pink Mamba. Just ask Abington, their victims Tuesday night in the
District Semis, who stayed within three points of the Clips midway
through the 3rd quarter before Chester went on a 20-1 run and ended up
winning BY THIRTY THREE POINTS. Even if the Aces suited up the Black
Mamba himself, the Clips would still walk into Villanova’s Pavilion
like they owned the place. Because, well, they do.

The History

1994 (Kobe’s sophomore year and Downer’s fourth), Chester has won
ELEVEN district championships and finished runner up three times. Lower
Merion won the tourney in 1996 and finished as runners up three times
(2012, 2006 and 1995), all losses to Chester. In that same span, Chester
has won 5 state championships (2011, 2008, 2005, 2000 and 1994) and
finished runners up twice (2007 and 2003) while Lower Merion has won 2
state crowns (2006 and 1996) and finished second twice (2011, 2005). In
case that was the most confusing paragraph in the history of paragraphs,
here’s the Cliffs Notes version: these two teams are very good at

Since 1995, Chester leads the series between the two teams, 6-4.

The Players

Lower Merion - The Aces are led by silky smooth 6’5” swingman and Syracuse signee, BJ Johnson.
The back-to-back Central League Player of the Year busts it at both
ends of the floor, jumping passing lanes, forcing deflections, all his
master attempt to GET BUCKETS. The son of former La Salle Explorer,
Bobby Johnson, BJ struggled last year against the Clips and will look to
redeem himself under Villanova’s bright lights.

LM also features
another Johnson, junior point guard Jaquan Johnson,
a lightning quick lefty (yep, another lefty) who moved to Ardmore from
Chester before his Freshman year. Jaquan relishes big money matchups and
will undoubtedly be up for playing against his childhood buddies. (He’s
been exchanging tweets with them all week.) He’s also been known to do a
little jawing on the floor WHICH I LOVE. In last year’s state title
game against the Clips, Jaquan seemed to be the only LM player who knew
there was a title on the line.

Up front, the Aces will have the biggest
man on the floor, 6’8” Yohanny Dalembert,
younger half-brother of yup, you guessed it, Slammin’ Sammy. The
younger Dalembert, who moved to Lower Merion after the 2010 earthquake
in his native Haiti, has only been playing hoops for three years, but
seems to improve with every trip down the floor. Division I coaches are
starting to take interest. Not to be forgotten is senior guard, Raheem Hall, maybe the Aces best all-around player. A long, do-it-all slasher with go-go-gadget arms and a quiet mean streak.

Chester - Ohhhh, Rondae -- Rondae Jefferson
-- McDonald’s All American, 16th ranked prospect in the country,
Arizona signee, the area’s premier talent, ANOTHER LEFTY, and a walking
triple dubb. Last year in this game, playing primarily as a point guard,
Rondae pulled down 24 rebounds in the Clippers’ win. This year, he’s
added a low post game to his arsenal, punishing smaller opponents around
the bucket AND I LOVE IT. But Jefferson (younger brother of Temple’s
Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson) is at his best in the open court, pushing the
rock, finding teammates, or finishing himself. Lower Merion will have no
individual answer for Rondae. No one does.

Running alongside Jefferson
is Darius Robinson,
a shooting guard / bowling ball who plays the game like my Uncle Ivan
gets out of bed, niiiiiice and eeeeasy. Robinson is the essence of cool,
wapping threes, drawing fouls, rarely showing emotion, always putting
up numbers. There’s also tenacious rebounder, 6’7” Richard Granberry,
who seems to gobble up missed free throws and stick in put backs
whenever the Clips need him to. Oh, and Chester also has around 6 other
players who can fill it up. THEY ALSO WEAR PINK SNEAKERS.


The Fans

Lower Merion - If
you can’t stand the Cameron Crazies, then you will LOATHE the Dawg
Pound. A pack of 500 rabid teenagers, barking the entire game, taunting
their opponents, bee-bopping around, wearing ridiculous outfits, and
making you laugh maybe 17% of the time.

Chester - Old
heads, young heads, every kind of heads, Chester-lifers who have
forgotten more big games than you’ve ever been to. The Clipper cheering
section is filled with neighborhood legends, friends, family members,
each one decked out in Clipper orange -- often wearing custom made
t-shirts and sweatshirts that say things like, “Clipper Club since
1955.” How someone has not yet done a documentary on Clipper Mania is
beyond me. 

The Cheerleaders

No disrespect to the
Lower Merion squad, I'm sure they're a very nice group of young women,
but Chester's Cheerleaders ARE INCREDIBLE ... and will probably be way
more entertaining than any alley-oop rams or three-point bombs or
slop-filled nachos that you'll get at the game.

The Season

Lower Merion - The
Aces went undefeated in the Central League en route to what seems like
their bazillionth title in a row (it’s actually only their second).
Along the way, they defeated two nationally ranked teams (St. Frances of
MD and Bishop O’Connell of VA) as well as St. Joe’s Prep and St.
Raymond’s of NY. Their two losses were to Philly powers Neumann Goretti
and Imhotep Charter (who play each other in the District 12 AAA final).

Chester - The
Clippers (23-3) are ranked 24th in the NATION and have knocked off a
bucket-load of top teams including Lincoln (NY), Reading, Penn Wood and
Gonzaga (DC), but the Clips dropped three games during national
tournaments. Imhotep also came within two points of the big bad Clips.  

The Game

Friday night, 9pm, at Villanova’s Pavillion.

Merion (although at their best when they’re pressing full court) will
look to calm the game down, spread the floor and value every possession.
Chester will pressure the Aces, pound the glass and look to blow the
game wide open. I will sweat my butt off in Villanova’s rafters,
complain about lower back pain, and love every minute of it.

Chester 66, Lower Merion 59, number of scouts in attendance: 487.  

The Sneaks

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers vs. Hurricanes
7 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Another season, another slow start for the Flyers.

After dropping their home opener Thursday, the Flyers (1-2-1) welcome the Hurricanes (1-1-2) to the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night looking to snap a three-game losing skid.

Here are five things to know for Game 5 of 82.

1. Slow starts
Through four games, there are a few areas behind the Flyers' lousy start.

The defense continuing to abandon the goaltending and the lackluster power play are near the top of the list, but look no further than the first period of games.

The Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in first periods through four games. Only Tampa Bay and Vancouver have scored fewer first-period markers with zero. The six first-period goals allowed are tied for the second most in the NHL. Only Calgary has more with seven.

It was an issue last season as well. In 2015-16, the Flyers were outscored, 62-50, in first periods, and the 50 goals ranked in the bottom five of the league. We've talked about slow starts in terms of wins-losses, but this issue extends to first periods too.

While the Flyers have exerted far greater efforts in second periods — leading the league with eight second-period tallies — getting behind so early results in playing from behind, and while resiliency is a trait of winning teams, it's ultimately cost them thus far.

On Saturday night, it doesn't get any easier for the Flyers, either. Carolina is an improved club from last season, which it, too, struggled scoring in opening periods.

That hasn't been the case this season. The 'Canes have outscored opponents, 5-2, in first periods, so it'll be important for the Flyers to come out of the gate with more authority.

2. Read-emption Song
One of the highlights of the early season for the Flyers has been the play of Matt Read.

Read scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season during the Flyers' 3-2 loss to the Ducks on Thursday, dusting off a play that brought back memories of years past.

The 30-year-old got behind the Anaheim defense on the backhand, drove to the net and deposited the puck into the net past John Gibson for a go-ahead score. It was very much a play we saw Read make a few years ago, but has been missing the last two seasons. Read came into training camp early this season hungrier than the previous two seasons, and on Wednesday, general manager Ron Hextall said Read knew he had to get back to the brand of hockey he was playing in 2013-14.

After the game Thursday, Read said his self-evaluation this offseason resulted in him realizing he has to get into the greasy areas to score and avoid playing the outside.

"I think that's something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player," Read said Thursday. "It's easy to be a perimeter player if you're going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you've got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks."

3. Not so special
Special teams so often decide hockey games and it should factor into Saturday's game, too. Carolina comes into the game with a power play and penalty kill both in the top five.

The Hurricanes' man advantage has found twine five times in 16 chances, and their penalty kill has killed off 15 of 16 power plays against. On the other hand, the Flyers have had their struggles on special teams in the early going.

On Thursday night, the Flyers’ PP played a huge role in their loss. They finished 1 for 7 on the man advantage against Anaheim but were 1 for 5 in the second period alone. With Anaheim asking to be beaten, the Flyers couldn’t make the Ducks pay. 

“I thought we had pretty good power plays, our first power play,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I thought we had a good power play during the second, scored a good goal. Had opportunities to stretch to 3-1. It’s disappointing we couldn’t.

“We had one poor power play at the end of the first, where we weren’t able to get set up at all. Our power play was OK. The bigger thing for me is the goal we gave up a few seconds after the last power play in the second period. Those are the type of goals that as a team we can’t give up.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: It hasn't been the smoothest transition to the NHL for Ivan Provorov, one of two 19-year-olds on the roster. Provorov has shown glimpses, but there have been hiccups, as expected. He had a nightmare of a game in Chicago on Tuesday, and followed it up with a not-so-great effort against Anaheim. But we have to remember he's a teenage rookie. Patience is important. Still, the spotlight should remain on him Saturday. How does he respond after a pair of games in which he's made visible mistakes?

Hurricanes: Carolina has a few young players that are a joy to watch, but let’s highlight defenseman Justin Faulk, who quarterbacks the power play. The 24-year-old has a goal and three assists in four games, with two of the helpers coming on the man advantage. An extremely gifted blueliner, Faulk has scored 15 and 16 goals, respectively, the last two seasons, but that wasn’t enough to get him on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. We all know how that panned out.

5. This and that
• Read has 14 points in 20 career games against the Hurricanes.

• Dale Weise was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Anaheim defenseman Korbinian Holzer. Roman Lyubimov will replace Weise in the lineup.

• Carolina has killed off its last 11 penalties and has scored at least one power-play goal in three of its four games and two power-play goals in two of its four games.

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

To Matt Read’s credit, his hockey education never stopped.

Through a second straight subpar season with a murky summer ahead, Read realized he had to change, even on the cusp of his 30th birthday.

It was in late April when the much-maligned winger met with head coach Dave Hakstol and turned in his homework, almost like a student-teacher conference to address troubled grades.

Read vowed he had learned.

Now, nearly six months later, he’s off to the best start of his six-year career.

“He has always been a hard-working guy,” Hakstol said Thursday. “He is a guy that is doing things with a lot of confidence. For me, it started with Reader back in late August. He was in here working early, getting ready, getting prepared and he has carried that through everything he has done so far this year.”

What he has done is rip off a team-high four goals in four games, attacking the net at will and with an undeniable bravado. Really, it’s a Matt Read we haven’t seen before. On Thursday night in the Flyers’ 3-2 home-opening loss, he took a bouncing puck at the blue line, careened toward the net on a sharp, decisive angle and buried his fourth goal with skilled stick work.

“For myself, I’m just trying to play with speed and get to the net,” he said. “I had all the speed and kind of beat the goalie to the back post.”

Last season, the bottom-six forward needed 26 games to score four goals. The year prior, it took 54 games.

So Read studied. What exactly did he grasp?

“Even my linemates, we talk about that if we’re in the offensive zone, we’ve got to get somebody in the blue paint there,” Read said Thursday. “I don’t know the stat, but I think it’s near 90 percent of all goals are within 10 feet of the net. So if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get in that area.”

This offseason, Read looked in the mirror and, with some self-evaluation, knew what had to be done.

“I think that’s something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player,” he said. “It’s easy to be a perimeter player if you’re going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks.”

A new outlook has brought renewed confidence. It’s fair to question whether over the last two seasons if Read ever makes the play he made Thursday. He also knows it’s early and more can be accomplished.

“I feel good out there right now,” Read said. “Hopefully I continue to have good health, keep working out and being strong on my feet. A lot of it has to do with confidence. If you’re shy or not having the confidence, you probably won’t go to that far post.

“I know for myself in the last two years, I know I’ve got to be better. Even going into last year, I knew I had to be better and I did as much I could in the offseason to have a good season and I guess it didn’t go my way, or over the course of the season, it took its toll.”

Read amassed 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. The 26 points were a personal low for a full season. Those figures didn’t sit well with Read and general manager Ron Hextall noticed.

“You know what, Reader came in early before camp, he's absolutely worked his tail off,” Hextall said Wednesday. “He understood that he hadn't been as good a player as he should have been last year. He understood it, he took it upon himself, put in a great summer, came in early, got himself in great shape, and he's a hungry hockey player right now and he's been back to where he was.”

When signed by the Flyers in 2011 out of Bemidji State University, it was uncertain where Read projected. Over the past two seasons, he’s fallen to a fourth-line role and was even healthy-scratched last season. More buzz surrounding his status within the organization heated up entering training camp as the Flyers made additions and Travis Konecny blossomed.

Thus far, however, Read has won himself a promotion to the third line because of his early success. He played only 16 power-play seconds Thursday, but if goals keep coming and the Flyers produce more 1-for-7 results on the man advantage, maybe Hakstol increases the 30-year-old’s minutes there, as well.

“When Matt Read is playing like he can play,” Hextall said, “he's a helluva player.”

Not a bad student, too.