5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5. Playoffs!

2013 came and went, and not one of the big four managed to reach their respective sport’s postseason. In fact, we have to go all the way back to May of 2012 when the Flyers and 76ers both advanced to the quarterfinals.

Philadelphia did have some postseason representation in 2013. La Salle’s men’s basketball team enjoyed a memorable run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Merion Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open. Still, those experiences don’t unite the city in quite the same way.

Thankfully, the New Year is going to get started right, with the Eagles hosting an NFL playoff game this Saturday. The Flyers have turned their season around as well, and currently appear on track to make their postseason return as well. Who knows, the Phillies could even steal a Wild Card this summer.

The point is, Philly sports have enjoyed a marked turnaround compared to where we were even six short months ago. Don’t take that for granted.

4. Jesse Biddle / Maikel Franco

The Phillies figure to go into 2014 with one of if not THE oldest roster in Major League Baseball. Nobody is expecting much from the aging core that helped produce the city’s last major championship in 2008. Some would laugh at the mere suggestion they could sneak into the playoffs.

Admittedly, there’s a decent chance we’ll have to slog through another summer of meaningless baseball from a franchise spinning its wheels. Thankfully though, there is some help on the way. A pair of quality prospects are looming in the minors, both of whom could potentially find their way to the big-league roster sometime in 2014.

For Maikel Franco, a September call-up at least seems likely as long as his stroke is anything like it was in 2013. The 21-year-old third baseman swatted 31 home runs between Clearwater and Reading last season with a .320 batting average, earning MiLB’s Breakout Prospect of the Year honors. He should be at Triple-A Lehigh Valley by summer, if he doesn’t start the season there.

Jesse Biddle’s ascension to the show might not be much closer, but he’ll be another name to watch this year. The 21-year-old Philly native didn’t have a great 2013 at Reading with a 5-14 record and 3.64 ERA, but it turns out the lefty was pitching through various maladies, including plantar fasciitis and whooping cough. With an offseason of rest, the 2010 first-round pick should return to form in the new year.

Biddle will probably begin the year at Triple A as well, and both he and Maikel are long-shots to make meaningful contributions to the Phillies this year. Both young men have bright futures ahead though, and there’s a good chance fans could get their first glimpse of one or both of them this summer.

3. Steve Mason

Ilya Bryzgalov had his moments when he was in Philadelphia, but it rarely felt like he stole victories from the jaws of defeat. Since the Flyers acquired Steve Mason at April’s deadline, the new guy has frequently put the club on his back.

The orange and black acquired Mason from the Columbus Blue Jackets for the discount price of Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, though for good reason. Since winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in ’08, the 25-year-old’s numbers plummeted every season until last when Sergei Bobrovsky finally replaced him between the pipes.

Mason’s fortunes began turning around immediately upon his arrival. Hell, he was the only reason the Flyers won any games at all during the early portion of this season's schedule, as the offense struggled mightily to light the lamp more than once or twice per game.

The scoring has improved, and so too has Mason’s record in net. Since getting off to a 1-5-0 start in goal, the lefty’s record has improved to an incredible 17-4-4 to go with a solid .922 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. They haven’t all been easy, either.  Mase has frequently stood on his head to bail out his mates.

With the Flyers rising in the standings and looking like a surefire playoff team again, it feels good to have a promising, young netminder in the crease. Who knows how deep they could run if Mason gets hot at the right time of the year.

2. 2014 NBA Draft and Offseason

Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two forward. That seemed to be Sam Hinkie’s philosophy when he took over as 76ers general manager in May, as he quickly engineered a draft-day trade that sent the franchise’s best player packing.

Jrue Holiday was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to sixth-overall pick Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected first-round pick in 2014. The move guaranteed two things: first, that the Sixers would be so awful as a result, they would have an excellent shot at landing the No. 1 pick with their own ping-pong ball. Second, they would likely have two lottery picks in that draft.

The Sixers’ future already looks brighter than most thought. After a hot start, the club is well on its way to tanking, but exciting 2013 first-round pick Michael Carter-Williams has already made fans forget about Holiday.

With some quality pieces already in place, Hinkie will have an opportunity to make a big splash next offseason. Besides a pair of first-round picks, the Sixers are way under the salary cap, so they should be players in free agency. Plus, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young may be tradeable assets that land more picks and pieces for the future.

Right now, the Sixers blow, and that’s unfortunate. Come this summer though, they are going to be a franchise to watch as Hinkie’s blueprint continues to unfold.

1. The Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles’ rebuilding process is way ahead of schedule. In a season where most fans and experts predicted 6-8 wins, the Birds won 10 and a division title. They unearthed a franchise quarterback almost everybody had overlooked at some point, and successfully transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 faster than expected.

We’ll find out just how good the Birds are right now in a matter of days. They may still be a piece or two away from the Super Bowl, but they’re in the playoffs. Anything can happen.

That’s not even the best part. The way the landscape looks at the beginning of 2014, the Eagles are poised to be contenders for a long time.

Recent drafts have produced quality contributors and budding stars all over the roster. The class of 2012 really came into its own this season, with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin key pieces of a defensive turnaround, while ‘13’s class received promising campaigns from Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.

Some of the game’s brightest stars are in their primes right now, such as NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy (25), DeSean Jackson (27), Jason Kelce (26) and Connor Barwin (27).

And, of course, there’s Nick Foles. Only into his second season, the 24-year-old still has much to prove,  but it certainly appears the Eagles have found their franchise quarterback. It’s tough to win the Super Bowl without stability under center, something the organization may have unexpectedly walked into for the next decade with Foles.

Even the head coach is just getting started. The job Chip Kelly did of turning this team around in one season is amazing. Just imagine what he could do in year two.

No matter what the Eagles do in the playoffs this year, they only stand to improve with another offseason. Add a quality free agent or two and another solid draft, and Philadelphia could become an NFL powerhouse again in no time—if they aren’t already.

The Eagles are three wins away from the Super Bowl in 2014. Considering where they were last year at this time, you can’t ask for much more than that.

Best of NHL: Senators beat Blues, jump Flyers to take over 2nd wild card

Best of NHL: Senators beat Blues, jump Flyers to take over 2nd wild card

ST. LOUIS -- Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone each scored twice to lead the Ottawa Senators over the St. Louis Blues 6-4 on Tuesday night.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Bobby Ryan also scored for the Senators, who won their fourth straight at Scottrade Center for the first time in team history. Mike Condon made 19 saves.

Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund scored for the Blues, who had their two-game winning streak snapped. Carter Hutton made 18 saves.

Stone's third goal in four games at the 2:35 mark of the third period was the winner. Exactly a minute after Steen tied it, Stone stole Jaden Schwartz's pass to score his 14th goal of the season, giving the Senators a 4-3 lead.

With the win, Ottawa is currently in possession of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot, leapfrogging the Flyers, who are idle this week (see full recap).

Stars hold on for 7-6 win over Rangers
NEW YORK -- The Dallas Stars gave up an early goal for the third straight game. However, this time they quickly bounced back, took two big leads and held on for a win.

Patrick Sharp scored twice, Jamie Benn and Patrick Eaves had a goal and two assists each and the Stars got a wild 7-6 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night.

Dallas fell behind just 27 seconds in as Derek Stepan scored on the Rangers' first shot. On Monday, the Stars gave up a goal 19 seconds into a 4-1 loss at Buffalo, and Minnesota scored 1:19 into a 5-4 win at Dallas on Saturday night.

In this one, the Stars rallied and led 4-1 and 7-3 before pulling out their third win in nine games (3-5-1) (see full recap).

Dubinsky scores twice as Jackets beat 'Canes
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Brandon Dubinsky hadn't scored a goal since Dec. 9 at Detroit, a 17-game stretch during which he had chances but couldn't find the back of the net. The drought ended Tuesday night, maybe helping Columbus end a team-wide lull in the process.

Dubinsky scored in the second and third periods, Boone Jenner had a goal and an assist and the Blue Jackets beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1.

The Blue Jackets got their third win in seven games since ending a 16-game winning streak and pulled even with Washington atop the unforgiving Metropolitan Division.

"We wanted to reset for sure," Dubinsky said. "We haven't played that well, obviously, in the last six or so games. We wanted to get back to the way we play,” (see full recap).

Matthews caps 3-goal burst, Leafs top Sabres
TORONTO -- Auston Matthews, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin each scored in a nine-minute span in the second period and the Toronto Maple Leafs rallied to beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 on Tuesday night for their 10th win in 13 games.

Toronto came back after trailing 2-0 through 20 minutes, getting its first victory this season when behind after one period (1-8-1).

It wasn't all rosy for the Leafs, though. Top defenseman Morgan Rielly left after the first period with a lower-body injury.

Frederik Andersen made 24 saves for Toronto, and James van Riemsdyk also scored.

Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane and William Carrier each scored for Buffalo. Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson allowed four goals combined on 32 shots (see full recap).

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores 36 as Raptors down Nets, 119-109

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores 36 as Raptors down Nets, 119-109

NEW YORK -- DeMar DeRozan had 36 points and 11 rebounds, Cory Joseph scored a career-high 33 and the Toronto Raptors beat the free-falling Brooklyn Nets 119-109 on Tuesday night.

Toronto won its fourth straight game and extended Brooklyn's losing streak to 11 in a row. The Nets have not won since Dec. 26.

Terrence Ross added 15 points for the Raptors, who opened the game with an 11-0 run but fell behind after the first quarter.

Brook Lopez had 28 points for the Nets. Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 14 apiece.

Toronto took a 92-85 lead into the fourth quarter and never looked back. DeRozan led the way with 10 points in the third period, equaling LeVert's total in the quarter.

Lopez and Joseph each scored 14 in the second (see full story).

Mavericks edge Bulls, 99-98, for 3rd straight win on late Matthews' 3
CHICAGO -- Wesley Matthews made a go-ahead 3-pointer from the wing with 12 seconds left, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the Chicago Bulls 99-98 on Tuesday night for their first three-game winning streak of the season.

Six players scored in double figures for the Mavericks, including all five starters. Harrison Barnes had 20 points, Seth Curry added 18 and Dirk Nowitzki finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Dallas trailed 98-96 after Jimmy Butler made a long jumper over Matthews with 23 seconds left, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle decided against a timeout and Deron Williams drove into the lane before kicking out to Matthews for the 3.

Chicago had one last chance, but Dwyane Wade missed a potential game-winning jumper from the corner on his 35th birthday as time expired (see full story).

Dragic scores 21 and Heat stun Rockets, 109-103, despite Harden's triple-double
MIAMI -- Goran Dragic had 21 points and eight assists, Wayne Ellington scored 18 off the bench and the Miami Heat overcame another triple-double from James Harden to beat the Houston Rockets 109-103 on Tuesday night.

Dion Waiters scored 17, Tyler Johnson had 16 and James Johnson added 15 for the Heat. Hassan Whiteside finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds.

Harden had 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for the Rockets (32-12), his 13th triple-double of the season. He shot 12 for 30 from the field and got his triple-double with an assist to Montrezl Harrell with 12.6 seconds left, an uncontested dunk with the Heat simply waiting for the clock to run out.

Harrell had 13 points for the Rockets, who got 12 from Patrick Beverley.

There were 19 ties and 15 lead changes in a game that was back-and-forth for 42 minutes, before the Heat finally took control (see full story).

Leonard's 34 points rally Spurs past Timberwolves, 122-114
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard had 34 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a strong start by the Minnesota Timberwolves for a 122-114 victory Tuesday night.

Leonard's fourth straight 30-point game helped him become the first San Antonio player to score 950 points in the season's first half since Tim Duncan in 2003.

Coming off a career-high 38 on Saturday against Phoenix in Mexico City, Leonard was 12 for 17 from the field.

LaMarcus Aldridge added 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting, spoiling Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau's 59th birthday.

San Antonio had difficulty with Minnesota's explosive starting lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points and 16 rebounds, and Ricky Rubio added 21 points and 14 assists. Zach LaVine scored 18, Gorgui Dieng had 17 and Andrew Wiggins 10 (see full story).