Flyers-Bruins Game 7: . . .

Flyers-Bruins Game 7: . . .

I really can't remember the last time the whole town was this excited about a single playoff game. The diehards are ready to explode, the casual fans have joined the party, and people who don't care ... well, they're mostly wondering why I keep wearing orange to work. But the build-up to this game over the past week, the anticipation of a series finale that could put the Flyers in the history books as just the third team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit...! You've heard all this before. It's all anyone's talking about today. 

Confidence is rarely this high for a team trying to pull off the type of win that is so unlikely that it only happens every 30+ years, but the Flyers' rattling off three straight wins despite a slew of injuries has us all pretty fired up. It also seems to have the Bruins fans worried about being on the wrong end of the trivia question. Can they pull it off? Of course they can, for a variety of reasons. But it's by no means a foregone conclusion that they're headed to the Conference Finals this weekend. 

Breaking down the first six games of the series, we shouldn't be too surprised that the Flyers were still alive after the first three games, which were of course all losses (unless we're focusing on the mounting-injury factor). They lost very evenly played games, earning them that "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln" sentiment of being on the losing end of just about the closest 3-0 series imaginable. Getting Simon Gagne back and letting the lines gel back together might have been just enough to tip the scales. But factor in those injuries to key forwards and, later, the goalie that dominated the Devils in the first round, and yeah, we're pretty shocked this series has a game 7. 

However, if you listen to the coach and the players, they don't seem to be surprised at all. Down three games, two, one, and even up, they've continued to prepare and practice for every one like they expected to win; even now, they're saying they need to play better than they have. 

Momentum or Microcosm?
One of the big questions tonight is whether the Flyers will benefit from the momentum of having won three straight, or if we're really looking at a one-game series now. The team is saying it's the latter, and that's probably the right way to prepare. Don't expect a repeat of game 5, which ended with an embittered crowed littering the ice and booing their team into the locker room, but know that it's definitely possible.

That was the fluke game in this series though. In game 6, the Bruins played much better, owning the better play for a good 25-30 minutes, including most of the second period when they were already down a goal. That fact could be the undoing of the currently popular line of thinking that the Bruins will shrink if the Flyers score first. I agree it'd be pretty awesome, and I think being scored on first in that particular building would be a lot worse than doing so on the road. But based on what we saw in game 6, this won't be a one-period game. 

To win like that again, they'll need to be able to weather the storm a second time, which is a lot harder than doing it once. However, if the Flyers find themselves down a goal, we've at least seen that they can put enough pressure on the very good defense of the Bruins to keep them in it barring a catastrophic scoring outbreak by Boston. 

Scoring just once in the past two games, they're either due or they're done. 

Battles
One of the matchups the Flyers are winning in this series is the Zdeno Chara-Mike Richards duel. Boston's giant has spent a lot of energy trying to control Richie, which has not only benefitted the Flyers' other lines by seeing them consistently facing Boston's lesser pairings—it also just hasn't worked. Richards has 8 points through 6 games, including 3 goals. Chara's still on the plus side on even strength, but as the series has worn on, he's increasingly looked like a man skating with a small tree in his hands (which isn't far from the truth). 

Meanwhile, after successfully muting the scoring stars of the Devils by putting their defensive efforts into the proverbial "taking away their time and space," the Flyers opened the second round against a team that doesn't have easily recognizable snipers like Ilya Kovalchuk. As such, it wasn't as easy to employ the same system and account for the likes of the dagger-wielders like Mark Recchi and Miroslav Satan in the first three games. But they've been able to do it since, tying up sticks and pressuring the puck carrier to force offside calls or turnovers, or otherwise keeping the play in their zone on the perimeter, without much garbage in front. 

Seeing a few Bruins join the injured Flyers in the press box didn't hurt either. 

The Leight Show
Hate to put the whole series and beyond on one guy's shoulders, but the fact is it often comes down to which goalie plays better and gets luckier. In just over a game and a half of playoff backstopping, Michael Leighton has been outstanding, and has only needed to be a little lucky. Keep that up, and the Flyers should be able to beat Rask a few times tonight and move on. 

I'm watching the game at home with some friends and a fridge full of beer. In the event of a win, you'll probably see a post consisting of a few words and maybe a picture. If not, well... Have a great weekend doing something other than watching hockey.

Predictions? At the start of the series, I called it for the Flyers in 7. I think I'll stick with that.

Game 7 Flyers art by reader Mike Brooks. 

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

MONTREAL -- Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens' offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday's wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price's woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games (see full recap).

Red Wings' Vanek, Nielsen score in 6-5 SO win over Bruins
DETROIT -- Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen scored in a shootout, lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a comeback 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

The Red Wings rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits in the first period, and with 3:04 remaining in regulation, Gustav Nyquist scored to pull them into a tie.

In the shootout, Tuukka Rask and Petr Mrazek stopped the first shots they faced before Vanek scored for the Red Wings and Brad Marchand countered with a goal for the Bruins. Nielsen, who like Vanek joined the team last summer as a free agent, scored on the team's third attempt and Vatrano missed the net with a chance to extend the 1-on-1 duels.

The Bruins were dominant early before blowing a chance to keep Detroit at a distance in the Atlantic Division standings (see full recap).

Burns, Pavelski lead Sharks past rival LA Kings, 3-2
LOS ANGELES -- Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels scored in the San Jose Sharks' seventh win at Staples Center in their last eight trips, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Joe Thornton had two assists and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who wrapped up their regular-season series against their biggest rivals with three victories in five games.

After Burns scored his 19th goal in the opening minutes, San Jose hung on through a scoreless third period to continue its recent domination in downtown Los Angeles, including three victories in last season's first-round playoff series.

Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik scored for the Kings, who ended a seven-game homestand with four defeats (see full recap).

McDavid scores in overtime to lead Oilers past Panthers 4-3
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid scored the winning goal in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth game in a row, 4-3 over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.

McDavid, who also had two assists in the game, got a breakaway late in overtime and got the puck away with 2.6 seconds left. Florida's James Reimer made the glove save, but the puck was ruled to be across the line via video review.

Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle also scored for the Oilers, who have their longest winning streak since December 2015.

Vincent Trocheck, Michael Sgarbossa and Greg McKegg had goals for the Panthers, who have lost two straight (see full recap).

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 (see story). 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."