Things Continue to Fall Apart: Backlund Hurt, Flyers Lose to Pens

Things Continue to Fall Apart: Backlund Hurt, Flyers Lose to Pens

Discussing the Flyers hasn't been too much fun lately. They continue to lose, building on their own poor trends and getting screwed by some outside factors (including a bone in Jeff Carter's foot literally being screwed in place). It really gives me no joy to bitch about the refs, but I continue to be amazed at the decisions they make, and get away with making game after game. I'm not calling "conspiracy," because via the powers of the internet, we regularly hear about the amazing inconsistency of the officiating throughout the league. I'm just talking about our little corner of that, with the full caveat that the Flyers need to find a way to play dominant hockey so that few close calls don't matter. However, with yet another injured goalie, how much can we expect to change for the better?

For those who missed the game and those who like to relive painful experiences, here are some of the moments that made up a frustrating Saturday afternoon for Flyers fans. 

First, they started off the game fairly well. Johan Backlund looked sharp early and for most of his time in the crease during this start. Things were looking up when Arron Asham tossed a bloop shot on Pittsburgh's net, and it handcuffed Marc-Andre Fleury, falling into the goal behind him. 

That was the start of a theme for the day—weird shit happening in and around MAF's crease.

Backlund would give up two goals, both on rebounds. Judging a goalie on the rebounds he gives up is tricky business, and we'll reserve any such discussion here. They were big, but better than getting beat by the first attempt. Overall, Backlund played well, making a few saves of the "how the hell did that stay out?" variety.

It should come as a surprise to no one though, that Backlund would leave the game between the second and third periods with a lower-body injury. Tim Panaccio says it was a groin pull, which makes sense given that Backlund missed time in the AHL last week due to a groin issue. Backlund becomes the fourth Flyers goalie to miss time due to injury this season, joining Ray Emery, Brian Boucher, and Michael Leighton. We simply can't catch a break in net. No word yet on how long he'll be out, but after seeing him step up and play well for two periods today, we hope he's back very soon. Groin injuries are obviously not easy on goalies though. 

Flyers haters will enjoy this, but once again, the big bad Bullies were jobbed by the refs in this one. First, the stuff involving Fleury and his fortress of solitude. Toward the beginning of the second period, JVR was in front of the crease, tangled with a Pens defender. Their contact was fairly incidental, but JVR was spun off and into Fleury. There was no real effect on the play other than a little flop from MAF, but the arm went up, and JVR went off for the third of three straight Flyers penalties to start the game. 

The more controversial call, however, came when Simon Gagne scored on Fleury, was awarded the goal by the closest ref to the play, only to later wave it off after discussing with the other officials... 

Ville Leino came in hard to the goal area, made contact with a defender, whose stick was in his skates. Leino then collided with Fleury, who was a foot out in front of the crease, throwing his head back as he fell to the ice. Gags put the puck in, and the ref on the goal line pointed to it in the net, signaling the goal. Why the refs would change the call, I'm not sure. If they had waved it off due to interference, I might have less to say about it. But they called the contact incidental, albeit long after originally calling it a good goal. I guess it really hinges on whether you think Leino deliberately made contact, and where that contact was made, because here is how the rule reads:

Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. [...]

The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. [emphasis mine]

Whether or not you think the contact could be avoided is a point worth debating. But, the location of the contact is pretty clear cut. All eyes and sticks are focused on the puck, so the argument could be made that Fleury's being out of the crease was the reason the attacker made contact with him. I think Leino could've avoided it if he tried, and this picture doesn't show how significant the contact ended up being, but his primary objective there is scoring, and as you can see, Leino is 3 feet away from the crease at the point of initial contact. 
Interpret it as you will, but I think the biggest factor in MAF's being unable to play the puck was that he was way too far out of the crease, resulting in getting hit by a guy whose stick was on the puck at the time. 

[Update: The rules also state, very clearly, that these plays will be governed by on-ice calls only—NOT by video replay. However, Panotch points out that Simon Gagne and Peter Laviolette each said the officials watched the play on the big screen over the ice before ultimately overturning it. They'd rather violate the rulebook than piss off the home fans? I can see wanting to get the call right, but have some respect for the rules. What's next, overturning it because your buddy at home texted you that it was interference?]

The final MAF Laff came when Claude Giroux was skating in on the Pittsburgh net with a great scoring opportunity. Knowing Giroux can make some moves with the puck, Fleury drops his stick along on ice at Giroux's feet. No call, and even the homer FSN Pittsburgh announcer asks, "Did he throw his stick?" 

While we're bitchin it out here, I'll also point to the Matt Cooke goal, which was another blind-ref moment. Cooke had the puck behind the Flyers net, marked by Ryan Parent. He skated through Parent's check, catching Parent's stick under his arm, clamping down on it, falling to the ice while pulling the stick out of Parent's hand. But as you can see, the ref didn't get a good look at that one. 

In the freeze frame, he looks wounded or something, but he went down of his own accord. Parent dropped the stick to get after the puck, which had gone to the front of the net, where Ruslan Fedotenko crosschecked Blair Betts from behind, then passed it back to Cooke, who scored. 

Two possible penalties right in the vicinity of the puck, and no calls. Full disclosure: I'd have no problem with the Flyers doing what either Penguin did in that sequence, and I don't fault the Pens for gaming it up in that way. 

Anyway, aside from all that, the Flyers were once again unable to contain Sidney Crosby, who had three assists on the day. He's everything you don't want your rival to have, and today he was even feistier than usual. Something happened late in the game along the boards between Hartnell and Crosby, which in a quick glance looked like Crosby getting the better of Hartnell with a hit (yeah, I know). We never saw a replay on the Philly feed, but it somehow resulted in Hartnell going off for his second consecutive roughing penalty, and then a Penguins goal.  

With the three points, he moved ahead of Mario Lemieux for most points per game all time versus the Flyers. Chris Pronger was brought here to contain him, but he can't play for 60 minutes. Pronger was a plus-1 in a game the Flyers lost 4-1. Very symbolic for this season.  

Things don't get any easier tomorrow, with the Devils coming to the Wachovia Center for a 7PM start. 

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

justin-watson-penn.png
Photo: Dave Zeitlin

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.

“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.

Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.

“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”

Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.

“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”

In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.

“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”

Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”

Watson says he’s ready for anything.

“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”

In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.

But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.

“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.

“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all. 

“And they’ll keep coming in.”

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, who's unlikely to play, is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.

Phillies shut out, but Jake Thompson's best start yet and kudos to that one fan

Phillies shut out, but Jake Thompson's best start yet and kudos to that one fan

You knew it probably wasn't going to be a very good night for the Phillies after Jayson Werth led off the game with a home run for the Washington Nationals. After the smarting blow from our former WFC RF, the Nats picked up another run to go up 2-0 in the first, and that was plenty for the NL East leaders on a windy Monday night in Philly. The Fightins managed just four hits, one walk, and zero runs worth of offense, and Tanner Roark and the Nats shut 'em out, 4-0, for the series opener. (That's Werth's 18th homer against the Phils, btw — one off his single-opponent high of 19 against the Braves, and in about 60 fewer games.)

Luckily, the night wasn't a complete wash for the Phils: We got our best start yet — indeed, the first one that would likely qualify as "good" — from young righty starter Jake Thompson, who buckled down after the two first-inning runs, and went six scoreless from there. (Thompson had yet to pitch more than three consecutive innings without an earned run in his four starts to date.) The starter's finest inning was his last, where he notched all three of his strikeouts on the evening, including a particular beauty dropped in for a third strike on an incredulous Trea Turner to close the frame. For a 22-year-old pitcher whose early-career issues are often said to be more mental than mechanical, it could be a huge confidence boost to come through like that against one of the best offenses in the NL.

Meanwhile, the other hero for the Phils tonight came in the guise of a fan sitting on the first-base line, who responded to a Frank Herrmann pickoff overthrow by reflexively cleanly fielding the ball as it bounced near the seats. The fan-interference got Nats third-baseman Anthony Rendon, who was well on his way to third base, called back to second, incensing Washington manager Dusty Baker and earning the fan a good deal of high-fives from the fans in his section. He got booted from the stadium — and Rendon was rewarded third base anyway after Baker's challenge was supported by replay — but y'know. No one can say dude didn't do what he could, and that's all anyone can ask of a real fan.

Jerad Eickhoff vs. Max Scherzer at 7:00 tonight. Still just 9.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.