Flyers-Pens: Where Backlund At?!

Flyers-Pens: Where Backlund At?!

We've already bitterly admitted overall ownership at the hands of the Penguins in recent years. The Flyers owned them for decades, but for this stretch, we've on the losing end. 

A win today won't undo that, it won't clinch the Flyers a playoffs spot (the Pens can clinch, however), nor will it really instill any lasting confidence—at least not on its own. The best we can hope for is a win that will remind the Flyers of the team they were expected to be this season. That, and beating the Pens is always a great thing no matter what the circumstances. If I remember correctly, that is.It's probably safe to say that the Flyers are at the lowest point of their season right now. Four straight losses against teams that aren't among the league's elite, including Thursday's lose-from-ahead debacle against the Wild. They finally looked good to start a game, going up 2-0. Then they took their foot off the gas offensively, lapsed defensively, and got pathetic goaltending at the worst possible time. 

Play like that today and they may leave the building with a 7-1 loss and somehow even less confidence than they took to Pittsburgh, even if the Penguins aren't at their best either. 

The Pens are likely to be without Evgeni Malkin, a major break in favor of the Flyers, and Sergei Gonchar could be out too. They've also lost three straight heading into today's action, and six of their last eight. There's no doubt Pittsburgh will make the playoffs, and be a true contender when they do. But at least for the moment, heading into a huge game for the Flyers, the Pens are struggling somewhat. They did battle hard in their last one though, a 4-3 loss to the best team in the league. The Capitals may have reaffirmed their dominance, but it took a shootout to dispatch the Penguins. 

While two rivals on losing streaks will faceoff today, one is still playing at a higher level than the other. 

Among the myriad concerns of the Flyers, they currently have no answer at goaltending. Pick yourself up off the floor

Perhaps this isn't the ideal opponent or setting to toss Johan Backlund out there for his NHL debut, but does anyone really want to see Brian Boucher face the Pens today?

Backlund isn't your ordinary NHL rookie. The Swedish import is 28 years old, and he won't be wide-eyed when he sees #87 skating during warmups, having played for his country nationally and for years in the Elite league. I won't bother throwing his stats with the Phantoms at you. They mean nothing today, and they're not particularly stunning in one direction or the other anyway, although the team has been impressed enough with him. Left with no real choice in the matter, we're looking at Backlund's start as a positive for the Flyers, who need any change they can get right now. 

We've already seen them initially step up their game in front of the likes of a cast-aside in Ray Emery, as well another in Michael Leighton this season. Leighton played well in his own right, but his successes were about as surprising to me as Brad Lidge's 2008 run was. With those guys though, we had some book on them. I got nothing on Backlund, and I don't have a clue what to expect. 

Paul Holmgren wants to see him play, and so do I, for two reasons—curiosity and desperation. Whether we'll know much about him after today remains to be seen. Pittsburgh can light any goalie up, and in order to give Backlund a fair grade, we'd have to see the guys in front of him play at least a pretty good game for 60 minutes. Their lapses lately have certainly exposed the inadequacies of Boucher.   

So in yet another gamethread, we'll say the same thing again, because the Flyers haven't bucked the trend yet: If they can't take the ice ready for 60 or more minutes of battle-oriented hockey today, they simply can't do it at all. Their backs have been against the wall for weeks, yet the results haven't improved. They need to play physical hockey, if nothing else, and they need to find a way to get better shots on goal. 

Crosby will likely get his points—he always does against our guys. Say what you will about The Kid. The guy is highly visible when it matters most, as much as it pains a hater to say that. The Flyers need to answer that with some step-up of their own. From the sounds of it, even they don't know if they can. 

We'll see today at 1 PM. 

Photos By Dave Sandford, Len Redkoles for Getty Images. 

NFL Playoffs: Matt Ryan, Falcons dismantle Packers to reach Super Bowl LI

NFL Playoffs: Matt Ryan, Falcons dismantle Packers to reach Super Bowl LI

The Atlanta Falcons are headed to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after routing the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game.

Matt Ryan threw for four touchdowns, including a 73-yard catch-and-run for a highlight-reel score by star receiver Julio Jones. The defense played just as crucial a role in containing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense.

Rodgers had 287 yards with three touchdown passes and an interception. But the Falcons got to Rodgers with pressure and forced two Green Bay turnovers. Rodgers was outplayed by Ryan, who even ran for a 14-yard touchdown.

Atlanta will play either New England or Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Houston.

The only other time that Atlanta made the Super Bowl was in the 1998 season. The Falcons lost 34-19 to the Denver Broncos.

The Packers fell in the NFC title game for the second time in three seasons.

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

Two of the country's top prospects faced off in the Pac 12 this week while a top 10 forward saw his season come to a premature close. However, we begin this week with the breakout performance by Jonathan Isaac.

Jonathan Isaac, forward, Florida St. (6-11/205)
Isaac's potential had everyone in the basketball world's curiosity. Now his play on the court has their attention. The Seminoles hosted No. 15 Notre Dame, which had yet to lose in ACC play before the Wednesday game. 

The freshman forward dominated in the 83-80 win. He had 23 points on 7 for 9 shooting from the field. He made both his threes, all seven of his free throws and also had one assist. His other stats were also otherworldly. He picked up 10 rebounds and had seven(!) blocks, including one on a late Notre Dame shot to get back into the game after he'd put the Seminoles ahead with a three. All this was in just 25 minutes

He followed it up with a similar game against Louisville. In 28 minutes, he had 16 points on 4 for 7 shooting, making one three and, again, all seven free throws. Add in two assists and two blocks to aid in the 73-68 win. Isaac has shown himself to be an athletic freak, a potential stretch-four at the next level and one with tremendous defensive potential, displayed with his nine blocks this week.

OG Anunoby, forward, Indiana (6-8/235)
Anunoby has had an uneven season, but he, at the very least, showed flashes of the ability that make him a top player for this year's draft class. However, a knee injury suffered on Wednesday finished off Anunoby's season, forcing him to undergo surgery that will keep him off the court for the rest of Indiana's schedule.

This may knock him out of the 2017 draft entirely. As a freshman last year, his NCAA Tournament performance was enough to make him a lottery pick in an even weaker draft field than the upcoming one. He chose to remain in school and it isn't farfetched to believe he will return to Indiana for his junior year to get more seasoning, a better draft field and another year of education.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
There are going to be quite a few marquee matchups in the Pac 12. One of the first this year came in the form of UCLA-Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday. The No. 3 Bruins lost, 96-85, but that had nothing to do with Ball's standout performance (more on the Wildcats below). He pushed the ball in transition, drove to the hole with ease and made 4 of 8 threes with his quirky shot. 

He had 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting and had eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block. When you watch Ball score so naturally, it's easy to forget his potential as a point guard, but then he whips up beautiful assists as he did many times on Saturday. The freshman has everything you want in a point guard.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
The No. 14 Wildcats picked up their biggest win of the year, moving to 7-0 in conference play. As you can expect, Markkanen had a big game to push Arizona past UCLA. He had 18 points on 6 for 10 shooting, was 3 for 3 from three and made three free throws, all which grabbing seven boards. Like Isaac, he is a tantalizing talent as a stretch-four, hanging out around the perimeter and spotting up for threes well.

He now has 16 made threes in his last four games and has averaged over seven boards in that stretch. He's not unbelievably thin like many fours his age. The freshman really can battle down low and get his shot, and he justifies his prospect status on a game-by-game basis with his ability.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington (6-4/195)
Washington lost on Saturday, moving to 9-10 and 2-5 in conference. But it's worth talking about Fultz's standout Wednesday night. The freshman willed his team back from 17-points down with a 37-point performance en route to an 85-83 OT win over Colorado. In 43 minutes, he was 13 for 24 from the field and 11 for 15 from the free throw line.

Don't think he's just a scorer, though. He had eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks, doing it all for the Huskies as he usually does. The freshman sensation was 0 for 2 from three, but he is normally efficient from beyond the arc. He alone is the reason to watch the under .500 Huskies.

While the 9-10 Huskies are unlikely to make a late run towards March Madness, the strong Pac 12 should provide many marquee matchups for Fultz. He faces off vs. a stout Arizona team next Sunday afternoon. Six days later, the long awaited matchup between Fultz and Ball up in Seattle goes down with presumably many scouts in attendance.

Quick Hits

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
Twenty-seven points on 9 for 14 shooting, 4 for 7 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, two steals and four turnovers in an 85-69 win over No. 24 South Carolina.

Josh Jackson, guard/forward, Kansas (6-8/203)
Fifteen points on 6 for 14 shooting, 2 for 5 from three, 1 for 3 on free throws, five rebounds, two assists, four steals and six turnovers in a 79-67 win over Texas.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
Fourteen points on 4 for 9 shooting, 1 for 4 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, three turnovers and five fouls in a 70-58 win over Miami.