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

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

BOX SCORE

MIAMI -- For struggling pitchers, facing the Phillies has become like a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
 
Another rival pitcher searching for a cure got it Monday night when the Phillies suffered their 23rd loss in the last 29 games. This time it was Miami Marlins right-hander Edinson Volquez. He pitched six shutout innings and allowed just three hits in leading his club to a 4-1 win over the Phillies, who fell to 6-20 in May (see Instant Replay).

Volquez had gone 16 starts between wins.
 
"Every loss stings, I don’t care who's pitching," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're just in a rut. We've got to battle our way out of it. We have to show up tomorrow and get after it. We've got to get more than three or four hits in the game."
 
The Phillies had just four hits in the game. It was the fifth time in the last nine games that they've had four or fewer hits. Only one of the hits was for extra bases and one of the singles was an infield hit.
 
"Once again, we need more offense," Mackanin said.
 
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson completed a difficult month of May by allowing six hits, including a two-run homer, and four runs over six innings.
 
Hellickson surrendered a two-run homer to Derek Dietrich with two outs in the sixth and that was basically the ball game. Dietrich hit a high changeup. Back in April, that pitch would have been at the knees. But Hellickson has misplaced the pitch command that he needs to succeed.
 
Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. In May, however, he went 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA in six starts. He was tagged for 35 hits, including nine homers, in 30 2/3 innings.
 
"Command in general," said Hellickson, describing his problem this month. "The biggest thing is not getting strike one, falling behind too much. I'm not getting the quick easy outs I was getting early in the season. I'm trying to get ahead, just missing."
 
Volquez signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Marlins over the winter, but it wasn't until this game that he delivered his first win. He entered the game 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA in nine starts.
 
The win was Volquez's first since Aug. 25, 2016, when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Volquez isn't the first struggling pitcher to shine against the Phils recently. Eight days earlier, Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl took a 6.69 ERA into a start against the Phils and pitched five shutout innings. In the series against Colorado, the Phillies were dominated by a pair of rookies. In the only game they won (in a late rally), they were held to one run over six innings by Tyler Anderson, who had entered that game with an ERA of 6.00. On Friday night, Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tim Adleman pitched eight shutout innings against the Phils and gave up just one hit in the best start of his life. He had come into that game with an ERA of 6.19.
 
So Volquez had to be heartened when he saw the Phillies on the schedule.
 
They are the get-well team for pitchers in need of a pick-me-up.
 
It's actually kind of sad.
 
With Odubel Herrera locked in the throes of the worst slump of his life and on the bench and Maikel Franco mired in a 2 for 21 slump and hitting .209, Mackanin is trying to push things a little. He gave Aaron Altherr the green light to steal with one out and runners on the corners in a one-run game in the sixth inning. Altherr was out at second on a close play and Tommy Joseph struck out to leave the runner at third.
 
The Marlins salted the game away in the bottom of the inning on Dietrich's homer.
 
"With our offense, I have to take chances," Mackanin said. "I can't sit around and wait for three hits in a row. We haven't been doing that."
 
The Phils have the worst record in the majors at 17-32.
 
They have lost eight of their last 10 and scored just 15 runs in the losses.
 
"It sucks," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "There's really no other way to put it. It's frustrating. But the only people that are going to help us are ourselves. Nobody's going to go out there and play for us, swing the bats, pitch, play defense. That's on us and we have to do a better job all around.
 
"We all want to be successful and get the job done. We just haven't been hitting the ball. There's no other way to put it. But the good thing about baseball is we play every day so we turn the page and come back tomorrow and try to get it done."

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins rarely tested the hottest goaltender in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Nashville.

They beat Pekka Rinne anyway.

Rookie Jake Guentzel fired the puck past Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a back-and-forth 5-3 victory on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in Final history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37 minutes at one point without a shot.

"I think at the end of the day we're up 1-0," Bonino said. "We had a good first, we had a terrible second and we were terrible in the third. I don't think it's Xs and Os. We've got to work harder, compete a little harder, but we got some timely goals."

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions, trying to become the first repeat winner since Detroit in 1998.

All the guys from "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

"The impact of that moment and then the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills I think changed the course of the game," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.

The decision gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge. Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead, they rallied and took over the game.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second and Nashville kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history -- and the first such period by any team in a Final game since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1958.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

"We didn't do a great job of (shooting), but we made them count," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But it was a good finish there to get that one from Jake."