Welcome, Eagles Fans, to the Flyers Cup Run

Welcome, Eagles Fans, to the Flyers Cup Run

Good morning, and a hearty, open-armed welcome to those of you who are strictly Eagles fans. I kinda feel like the priest at mass on Easter Sunday, welcoming the parishioners who've been away all season and are now in need of some salvation from heartbreak and hang over. Not to confuse things, I've been there with you for every snap, right to the end. But if you're a regular around these parts, it's no secret I've been keeping pace with the Flyers just as closely. 

For those who don't follow hockey religiously, the season can be a bit long, but with the Birds bowing out early, you're just in time to catch up with a Flyers team that is on the rise heading into the second half. Can they win it all? I have no idea—they've been too inconsistent so far to say anything with any certainty about them. But if they even get close, it'll be based on the run they just started, and it's a great time to take a look at this team if you haven't been watching the first half of the season. 

With games on only Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday before next week, the Flyers' schedule seems lighter than it has been in a while. That may be great for the players and their families, but I really could have used a puck drop yesterday afternoon rather than having to watch the NFL proceed without us, which it will now do for the next month

The one bright side is that the timing couldn't be better to get in touch with the city's on-ice activities. Here's a look at the Flyers' season to come, including some encouraging signals we can take from our cross-state rivals. 

A quick peak at the standings will show you a Flyers team that has underachieved embarrassingly. They were supposed to have improved from last season, not be one point ahead of the Islanders and last place in the division. Yes, there was a terrible stretch, and it was fairly recent at that—so recent that it could resurface at any second. We won't lose sight of that. At some points this season, we've wondered whether '09-'10 would end up being worse than '06-'07, because at least the expectations on that team weren't nearly as high. This team was picked by many to win the Cup. This team was built to win now, perhaps even with a lien on its future holdings. 

But right now, the Flyers have won seven of their last nine games. They're suddenly one of the hottest teams in hockey, beating the cupcakes as well as a contender. It took longer than we'd hoped, but the team has the appearances of having finally picked up on new head coach Peter Laviolette's offensive systems. Not to completely overblow a relatively short winning streak, but they've been scoring at will lately, and it's been really fun to watch. 

I've never been in favor of changing the game to attract new fans, having more penalties result in more goals scored on the powerplay, or flashing red pucks, but I can honestly say that this brand of hockey suits casual fans and diehards alike—and it's the exact opposite of the limp and lifeless offensive efforts they'd been giving until this point. 

So if you're just tuning in, your timing couldn't be better. 

One of the more interesting pieces of hockey prose I've read this season comes from the desk of the Delco Times' Anthony San Filippo. It's a bit dated today, having been posted last Wednesday, but ASF does some great analysis on the Flyers' remaining schedule, which isn't all that bad, all things considered. For those who understandably think the team's recent surge is due primarily to the low level of their opponents, well... get ready for more of the same. The considerable majority of the remaining schedule will be played against teams that are currently below .500 (a stat that is a little convoluted given how the NHL awards points for some losses). San Filippo does warn that the travel involved in the schedule is considerable, but overall he paints a picture indicating that has the Flyers clearly making the playoffs. 

I'll add to that by recalling something that was going on in Pittsburgh this time last year. On January 11, 2009, the Penguins were 20-19-4. This season, exactly one year later, the Flyers are 22-19-3. I'm pretty sure I don't need to remind you what happened for the Pens last spring. I'm still scrubbing the image from my eyes with Comet cleanser. Things actually got worse for the Penguins before they got better, including the fact that their coach was fired. 

On January 13, 2009, I wrote this, just before the Flyers and Pens faced off. Pittsburgh was playing terrible, system-failure hockey, but—just like the current Flyers team—it was impossible to believe they were anywhere near as bad as their record indicated. Their roster was too talented, and so is that of the Flyers. 

Just as it was hard to believe that this roster could possibly play as badly as it did for over a month, it should be equally easy to think the same group can turn it around and play the way we always expected them to. There's depth at forward just as there was last season, with an even better amount of pressure coming from the third and fourth lines—which have been the heart of this team (particularly the fourth). The goaltending is actually a strength in most games. And the defense now features a top pairing that can play with the best in the league, as well as do its part in breaking out the offensive rush, which is even more important in Lavvy's systems. If Kimmo and Coburn can turn their fortunes around in the second pairing, the D will be downright scary. 

Every team's season has its peaks and valleys, some obviously more pronounced than others. But peaking at the right time is huge, as evidenced by the Penguins' amazing run last spring. Hopefully the Flyers are just getting started on their run. The first half of 2010 needs a successful team to help us forget the Birds, and at least hold us over until the Phillies come north. But I think the Flyers may even be capable of more than that. 

This is Philadelphia. We're used to turning the page after one season ends without a parade, hoping the next won't end the same. 

Photos courtesy of the talented Will Elliott

Soul's ArenaBowl chances hinge on slowing Rattlers' potent offense

Soul's ArenaBowl chances hinge on slowing Rattlers' potent offense

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The postseason accolades and awards are nice, but Soul defensive back Tracy Belton has a much higher goal.

Named as the Arena League Football Defensive Player of the Year during an awards ceremony Friday, Belton, considered the passion and spirit of the Soul defense, is more than comfortable putting aside individual honors and pushing his teammates to greater heights.

Reaching the ArenaBowl against the Arizona Rattlers Friday in the Gila River Arena (7 p.m./ESPN) the prize is out there, and Belton has his blinders firmly affixed. The focus and concentration is not in question, so the task ahead remains paramount.

“I want that ring, I need that jewelry,” Belton said during media day Friday. “Oh yeah, it would definitely be nice to get that ring.”

To obtain that shiny piece of hardware, Belton and his defensive teammates have the task of trying to shut down the most potent offense in the league.

Guided by quarterback Nick Davila, the AFL’s Most Valuable Player, the Rattlers are averaging 80.3 points per game. From an offensive standpoint, Arizona led the AFL in many offensive categories, including scoring, total offense, rushing, third-down conversion and fourth-down conversion.

To complement the offense, the Arizona defense ranked first in the league in defensive scoring defense, rushing defense, interceptions, turnover ratio and sacks allowed.

In a league which glorifies offense, the task ahead for the Soul defense is considered a challenge. After all, these teams each finished with a 13-3 mark and each defeated the other team on their home turf.

“To win this game, we hope they make mistakes,” Soul head coach Clint Dolezel said. “They are very explosive, but our secondary is playing at a high level. For us, we need to limit our mistakes.”

If Davila, who is the first player in AFL history to win the MVP award three times, is to be challenged, the Soul’s offense need to be proficient. Coming into the ArenaBowl, the Soul averaged 59.0 points per game. That was good enough for fourth in the league, but quarterback Dan Raudabaugh put up better numbers, in certain categories, than Davila.

In head-to-head competition, Raudabaugh tossed more touchdown passes (14 to 13), passed for more yards (541 to 431), completed more passes (48 to 32) and averaged more yards per game (270.5 to 215.5) through the air. Yet, the Rattlers’ offense is swift, quick, efficient and lethal.

“In this league, the quarterback is the most important position,” Davila said. “You have to make decisions quickly, and facing a defense like Philly, that’s the challenge for us. It’s about limiting mistakes. The team which makes fewer mistakes is the team that usually wins.”

Notes
Since the Phoenix Mercury are scheduled for a home game in Talking Stick Arena in downtown Phoenix Friday night, home site for the Rattlers, the title game was switched to home of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes. … Among league leaders this past season for the Soul, Belton was fourth in tackles, Jake Metz led in sacks, Darius Reynolds was sixth in receiving and Jeramie Richardson was second in rushing. … In comparison of QBs, Raudabaugh was second in the league in passing (101 TDs, 63.3 passing percentage) and Davila placed third (110 TD passes, 69.6 passing rating). … This is the third league title meeting between these two teams. The Soul dropped the previous two championship games, 72-54 in 2012 and 48-39 in 2013.

You gave us the 'Good One,' Chooch, thanks for the memories

You gave us the 'Good One,' Chooch, thanks for the memories

The Phillies were one strike away from winning the World Series and Citizens Bank Park was in a full roar.

Carlos Ruiz trotted to the mound for a quick chat with closer Brad Lidge.

Lidge wanted to try to put away Tampa Bay’s Eric Hinkse with his signature slider, a pitch that had helped him go 48 for 48 in save chances during that magical season. Ruiz was in complete agreement. After catching the pitcher all season, he knew how good Lidge’s slider was. He also knew that Lidge threw three versions of the pitch, a get-me-over offering that he used to get a first-pitch strike, a backdoor bender that he used against lefty hitters, and The Good One, a sharp, downward-breaking dagger that left hitters flailing at air as it cork-screwed toward the dirt.

On that spectacular October night nearly eight years ago, Ruiz looked into Lidge’s eyes and issued a directive: Give me the good one. Lidge complied. Hinske swung over the vicious slider. Ruiz fished it out of the dirt and Harry Kalas shouted, “The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of baseball” as the stadium erupted in euphoria. Ruiz, the kid who wasn’t even a catcher when the Phillies first scouted him in the summer of 1998, sprinted to the mound, collapsed to his knees and joined Lidge in a joyous hug, the image of which will remain emblazoned in the minds of Philadelphia fans, well, forever.

Ruiz’s words to Lidge — Give me the good one — gained new resonance on Thursday because the veteran catcher, beloved by teammates and fans, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later (see story).

Ruiz spent 11 seasons with the Phillies and when you consider where he came from and what he accomplished, well, he always gave the team and its fans the good one.

“I’m excited, but also sad,” Ruiz said moments after the trade became official.

Excited because at age 37, and firmly in the twilight of his career, he has the chance to join a first-place team and get to the postseason one more time.

And sad because, “I have so many memories in Philadelphia.”

The greatest, of course, was the World Series championship, catching the final out and rushing to the mound to join Lidge as the pitcher dropped to his knees, looked to the heavens and shouted, “Oh, my God, we just won the World Series!”

But there were so many others.

Ruiz was a backbone member of five NL East championship teams and the best catcher a Cy Young winner named Roy Halladay ever pitched to. Halladay said it himself. Ruiz caught four no-hitters, including two of Halladay’s. He was an All-Star in 2012.

All in all, it was a pretty good run for a guy who signed for $8,000 off a sandlot in Panama in 1998. That same year, the Phillies signed Pat Burrell for $8 million. Ruiz would have signed for nothing.

“All I wanted was a chance to play professional baseball,” he said. "I'm thankful the Phillies gave it to me."

At the time of his audition for the Phillies, Ruiz was a 19-year-old second baseman. Phillies scouts were skeptical of his ability to make it as an infielder. They warmed to him when he said he’d give catching a try. He learned the position on the fly and made a steady progression up the ladder until arriving in the majors in 2006 and becoming a regular in 2007, the year the Phillies broke a 14-year playoff drought and won the NL East.

Ruiz was a favorite in the clubhouse for his good nature and team-first attitude. He would do anything for the team, anything to win, and you can’t fake that stuff. That won him the admiration of teammates. In 2012, Jonathan Papelbon expressed his love for Ruiz in typical Papelbon style. He called Ruiz “a Panamanian redneck.” Years later, Cameron Rupp, the man who supplanted Ruiz as starting catcher, praised Ruiz for his mentorship. It’s not easy for a player to groom the man who will take his job, but Ruiz did it earnestly and graciously. Today, Rupp is arguably the most improved player on the Phillies’ roster.

“Carlos was the everyday guy for more than eight years,” Rupp said. “I’m sure it was hard. It can’t be easy. But he never stopped helping me. There might be guys who wouldn’t do something like that, but not him.

“I can’t tell you how much he helped me. He’s awesome.”

Ruiz’s hustle, his non-stop effort, and, oh, yes, his place on championship teams — that’s what Philadelphians love most — earned him a special spot in the hearts of fans. Cup your hand to your ear and you can still hear those fond shouts of Choooooch from the stands.

They will be heard again when Ruiz goes on the team’s Wall of Fame someday. But for now, he heads off to Los Angeles to join another former Phillies fan favorite and champion, Chase Utley, in a late-career run at one more moment of postseason glory.

You gave us the Good One, Chooch.

NFL Notes: Browns trade '13 No. 6 pick Barkevious Mingo to Patriots

NFL Notes: Browns trade '13 No. 6 pick Barkevious Mingo to Patriots

CLEVELAND -- Barkevious Mingo never really fit in with the Browns.

The Patriots will try to find an ideal spot for him.

A major disappointment in Cleveland, Mingo, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft was traded to New England on Thursday.

The Browns received a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft for the linebacker.

Mingo, a former LSU standout, has recorded just seven sacks in three seasons and spent much of last season on special teams.

Mingo's size -- 6-foot-4, 240 pounds -- and speed have made him intriguing, but Cleveland's coaching staff couldn't find the best way to utilize him. The Browns moved the 25-year-old Mingo from outside linebacker to inside earlier this summer.

Cleveland declined to exercise the fifth-year option on Mingo's rookie contract in May. With the trade of Mingo, left tackle Joe Thomas and cornerbacks Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert are the only first-round selections by Cleveland from 2007 to 2014 that are still with the team (see full story).

NFL: Harrison, Matthews and Peppers talk with PED investigators
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Green Bay Packers defensive players Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers met this week with NFL investigators looking into allegations linking them to performance-enhancing drugs, the players' union said Thursday.

Matthews and Peppers met with league representatives on Wednesday, while Harrison did so on Thursday, according to the NFL Players Association.

Last week, the league threatened Harrison, Matthews, Peppers and free agent Mike Neal with indefinite suspensions if they did not meet with investigators. All of them were mentioned in an Al-Jazeera television interview with Charlie Sly, who worked as an intern at an anti-aging clinic. In the December report, Sly made claims of PED use by several athletes, including Harrison, Peyton Manning and the three others, but later recanted his claims.

The since-retired Manning was cleared after a separate NFL investigation in which he granted interviews and provided all records sought by league investigators.

The league's deadline for cooperation from the four current players was Thursday. The NFL first notified the four on Jan. 11 about the investigation into the Al-Jazeera report (see full story).

Dolphins: Team intensifies efforts for Zika control at stadium
MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins and Miami Marlins say they've intensified mosquito-control treatments at their stadiums because of the Zika virus.

The Dolphins' stadium is more than 10 miles from the nearest area of the virus outbreak. Even so, the Dolphins say they decided weeks ago to undertake additional treatments as a precaution.

Construction workers are at the site daily completing the latest phase in a $500 million renovation. The first home preseason game is next Thursday against Tennessee.

The Marlins and Miami-Dade County have stepped up spraying in and around Marlins Park "in an abundance of caution," team president David Samson said Thursday. Treatments targeting the mosquito that transmits Zika are being used even though the Marlins play most of their home games indoors under a retractable roof.

Marlins Park is about 2 miles from the nearest area of virus outbreak.

Treatments at the 265-acre Dolphins stadium site include the parking lot and follow recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using chemicals approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those treatments are expected to continue through the football season and beyond.

Vikings: New stadium sells out for inaugural season
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have sold out their new stadium for the inaugural season.

The team announced on Thursday that they've started waiting lists for tickets and suites. The official capacity at U.S. Bank Stadium will be 66,655, with more than 60,400 seats committed for the entire season and the remaining single-game seats also sold out.

Returned tickets from visiting team allotments typically make a small number of seats available the week of each game.

The Vikings host San Diego on Sunday in an exhibition game, their first action at the $1.1 billion venue. The regular-season opener is on Sept. 18 against rival Green Bay.