Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Reke-ing Havoc

Chester, Pennsylvania represent.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bye-Bye, Bye

Yes, I was there last night freezing my balls off with Arkansas Fred, his dad and 68,000 other disappointed Eagles fans to witness the Eagles kiss any chance they might have had at a bye goodbye.

Don't act like you don't know every word to that song

The game plan was terrible. The coaching was terrible. The defense was terrible. The protection was terrible. The special teams were terrible. David Akers was terrible. And most of all, Michael Vick was terrible. Beyond terrible, actually. It was easily his worst game as a Philadelphia Eagle, and it probably ranked up there with any egg he laid in Atlanta.

This wasn't MVP candidate and starting Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick we've grown accustomed to. This was immature, impatient, dumb Michael Vick from his days in Atlanta.

To be fair, he was under heavy pressure all night. The Vikings brought the blitz early and often and from all areas of the field, and the offensive line couldn't pick it up. But that doesn't excuse Vick's play. Where he has shown tremendous poise and made great reads virtually all season, he instead neglected to read the defense and continued to throw horrible passes into coverage. He was picked off only once on the night, but he could have and should have been intercepted at least four times, probably five —  if only the Minnesota defenders could catch.

He missed wide open receivers, never hit a hot route and made the wrong decision damn near every time he pulled the trigger on a pass. Yes, he did throw a touchdown pass to Clay Harbor on an awesome catch by the rookie tight end and run in the Eagles' other score by faking Jamarca Sanford out of his jock to bring the Eagles within a field goal in the 4th quarter.

But Vick also lost two fumbles, one of which was picked up and returned for a touchdown by Antoine Winfield to tie the game right before half as the Eagles were driving and looking to go up by two scores before the second half.

It was an absolutely horrendous game for the man who was named the NFC's starting quarterback in Pro Bowl prior to kickoff. In fact, not a single Eagle that was named to the Pro Bowl did much of anything. Vick was at his absolute worst. David Akers missed a 54-yard field goal attempt by coming up way, way short, and absolutely killed the Birds by sailing his kickoff out of bounds immediately following Vick's in the 4th touchdown, taking away all of the momentum they had gained. And it proved lethal, as the Vikings took advantage of the great field position and answered with a touchdown of their own to all but ice the game.

DeSean Jackson was held in check and looked at times disinterested. There were several instances where he could have come back and fought for the ball but simply didn't. Jason Peters wasn't altogether horrible, but it's hard to say anyone on the offensive line played well given the severe pressure and hard pounding Vick took all night. And Asante — while not making any glaring errors mostly because Joe Webb was content to pick on Dmitri Patterson, Joselio Hanson and the rest of Philadelphia's banged-up, inexperienced and plain bad secondary — didn't do anything special, and missed a few tackles. Oh, and he got called for another helmet-to-helmet penalty on a hit that is pretty difficult to avoid.

All in all, it was hard to find a single positive thing about last night's game.

But there are times when the players are just not going to have it. It's annoying, and maybe it shouldn't happen, but every team goes through lulls. What I found most egregious about last night was the game plan and the failure to adjust.

The passing game wasn't working at all. Not even a little bit. The line couldn't protect Vick and Vick was playing like he was the rookie making his first start, not Joe Webb. The Vikings were pummeling Vick and taking away the big play for the most part. With all of that combined with the cold, slippery conditions, you'd think the Eagles would have tossed out the game plan that clearly wasn't working and instead look to get the ball in LeSean McCoy's hands as often as possible.

They did not. McCoy only had 17 touches in the game. He only ran the ball 13 times. And it was nearly impossible to remember him being utilized at all in the first half. This is completely baffling and infuriating to me and so many others.

This may sound crazy, but watching everything LeSean McCoy has been able to do this season, I think he may just be the best player on this offense, or at least the most versatile. Saying it out loud, it actually does sound strange given that includes Vick and DeSean, two Pro Bowl players, Jeremy Maclin, et al. But that's how impressive he's been this season to me.

We could see the potential he had last year, and he's done nothing but improve in his first full season as the starter. He can run, he can catch, and he's worked hard to both improve his blocking and curtail his fumbling. Honestly, he has all the tools that Brian Westbrook did. And frankly, I think he should be utilized in the same way.

When Westbrook was at his peak, the Eagles got him the ball a variety of ways throughout the entire game — runs, screens, flanking him out wide, you name it. And it worked magic for Westbrook and the Eagles offense. That's exactly what they should be doing with McCoy because he has that kind of talent. The man is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, yet he only gets 13-14 carries a game. When you combine his catches (78), he's averaging 19 touches a game. That number, given his talent and explosiveness, should be closer to 25-30 touches a game.

I understand that this offense has a ton of weapons, understand that Vick needs to spread the ball around and that he himself takes a lot of the rushing game on his own shoulders by turning called passes into long rushes, but LeSean McCoy needs to be utilized more. It will take pressure off Vick, off Maclin and Jackson and Celek, and it will open up the game for everyone. Plus, it takes some stress off an offensive line that has had stretches where they struggle to protect Vick. Give him the same number of screen plays, swing passes, carries and touches that Westbrook got in his prime. It will only make the Eagles better, especially in games like last night when the passing game struggled.

There's no reason McCoy shouldn't have been a bigger part of the offense last night, and that one rests entirely on the shoulders of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg.

Oh, and Sean McDermott still sucks. I'll concede that he's been dealt a raw deal with all the injuries to key players on defense, especially in the secondary, but damn. How in the hell can you, on 3rd and long with the game on the line, call a blitz by Joselio Hanson that then calls for Jamar Chaney, a rookie middle linebacker, to cover Percy Harvin, one of the fastest players on the planet? Because you're a shitty defensive coordinator, that's why.

Joe Webb, who wasn't even supposed to be a quarterback, wasn't great, but he didn't make any big mistakes. Adrian Peterson gained 118 yards on 22 carries, bringing the Philadelphia run defense back down to earth, and Percy had a field day running by Chaney, Patterson and Hanson for 7 catches for 100 yards. Things got so bad that Patterson, who played well in his first two games starting but has progressively gotten worse, was benched for Trevard Lindley in the 4th quarter. And Trevard Lindley sucks.

Really, there's nothing good I can say about that game. It was cold, the Eagles sucked and now they have no shot at a bye. On a bright note, they can rest anyone they want next week against Dallas, because the game is meaningless. The Eagles are locked in as the 3 seed in the NFC, meaning they'll host either the Packers, Giants or Bucs the second weekend in January.

Oh, and the Flyers lost, Jody Shelley sucker-punched former Flyer Andrew Alberts and will most assuredly face another suspension, and Kimmo Timonen suffered the dreaded lower-body injury. Awesome.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

World, Meet Horace Spencer

You may have read this story by Keith Pompey today about 8th-grader Horace Spencer III.

Spencer is a 6'8, 200-pound 8th grader at KLinger Middle School in Bucks County. He hails from Warminster and is being touted as one of the next basketball phenoms in the nation. Here's what all the fuss is about.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Does Your Mother Sew?

Tuesday night, the Sixers got stabbed in the face with a soldering iron by the Bulls.

They needed to sew up the wounds and rebound quickly with a date in Boston against the defending Eastern Conference champions last night.

One night after getting completely and utterly embarrassed by the Chicago Bulls, the Sixers rolled into Boston and were the aggressors right from the jump, attacking the Celtics and their 13-game winning streak without fear.

The Celtics did manage to go up by six after the first quarter, but the Sixers never relented, kept going hard to the rim and pounding it inside, and it resulted in foul trouble for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Nate Robinson. That led to the Sixers outscoring the Celtics 27-15 in the second quarter, taking a six-point lead into halftime. Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday did a lot of the heavy lifting early, with some nice contributions off the bench by Lou Williams and Tony Battie.

But the third quarter was a completely different story. Boston flipped the script, outscoring the Sixers 26-17, and the game went on the see-saw. The Sixers hung close, played tough and displayed the effort and aggressiveness they lacked the night before, but when it was all said and done, the Celtics had Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and the Sixers didn't.

Oh, and Andre Iguodala really isn't very good in the clutch —  turning it over, pounding the ball and then forcing up horrible shots, you know, the usual from Iggy at the end of close games.

Despite getting to the line 10 more times than the Celtics and having their bench far outplay Boston's, the Sixers couldn't come away with the victory. In the end, it was Allen, Pierce and Garnett that made the difference, giving Boston a hard-fought 84-80 win. Jesus Shuttlesworth led the way with a game-high 22 points, making up for the struggles of Paul Pierce throughout. In the first half, Pierce was held completely in check, saddled in foul trouble. And his finishing stat line looks horrendous: 11 points on 4-15 from the field with 2 turnovers. But he hit a couple of huge shots in the fourth quarter, including a dagger three, and got to the line, heating up when Boston needed him the most. And Garnett, while also struggling with his shot (4-10 from the field for 12 points), hit a couple of clutch jumpers late, added 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block.

Oh, and some other guy you may have heard of, Shaquille O'Neal, had a pretty damn good game as well: 13 points on 5-8 shooting with 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.

You can't fault the Sixers for their effort. They gave it all they had. But the simple truth is the Celtics have four Hall of Famers on their team, three of whom are better than anyone on the Sixers right now, while Philadelphia doesn't even have a legitimate all-star on the entire roster (though Elton Brand was once upon a time).

Brand did continue his quiet season of good play, leading the Sixers with 16 points and hauling in a game-high 12 rebounds. It begs the question, especially with Garnett in foul trouble, why Brand didn't get more touches and shots. He only attempted 8 field goals (going 5-8) and did get to the line 8 times, but he should have, given his effectiveness, had double-digit shot attempts, which more than likely would have resulted in double-digit free throw attempts. Doesn't make much sense that he didn't get more shots up.

Jrue had a nice game himself, especially in the early going. He finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists without turning the ball over once. But he did seem to disappear at moments in the second half.

The biggest surprise and the most energetic player for the Sixers was veteran Tony Battie. With Spencer Hawes shaken up on a hard fall sustained going up against Shaq and then struggling throughout, Battie played a season-high 25:33, scored 10 points, had 6 boards, blocked 4 shots and made five of his eight shot attempts. It was quite an inspired performance by the elder stateman of the team, showing he still has something left in the tank.

Louis Williams had a nice performance as well, scoring 12 points off the bench, and the Sixers were +9 with Lou Will on the floor. Trouble is Lou turned the ball over 4 times and couldn't guard anyone, allowing Nate Robinson some open looks from three and lacking the size to guard anyone else.

The rest of the Sixers, despite giving the Celtics all they could handle, left plenty to be desired. Jody Meeks was absolutely terrible, scoring just three points in over 31 minutes and not recording a single other stat besides 3 turnovers. It was like he was completely afraid of the situation. Meeks attempted just 2 shots all night, missing them both, and finished with nothing in the way of rebounds, assists, steals or blocks. I'm not sure how that's possible in 31-plus minutes of action.

Spencer Hawes, after putting together a nice stretch of games, has come crashing back down to earth. He struggled against Chicago, and before that in Orlando. And last night, he had just 6 points on 3-8 shooting and turned the ball over 4 times. Not good. Thaddeus Young did pretty much nothing, and Evan Turner, the No. 2 overall pick, literally did nothing, not playing a single minute. Unreal.

But the biggest disappointment of all was Andre Iguodala.

Everyone in Philadelphia knows Iguodala is not a real franchise player, not the guy you want carrying your team. But Iguodala is a very good player, and most definitely the best player on the Philadelphia 76ers. Given that, you expect him to be the one leading the way in a game like this — a tight contest against one of the league's best team a night after a poor effort.

But save for a breakaway dunk here and an assist there, Iguodala was awful last night. He scored just 9 points, shot 2-11 from the field and 0-3 from beyond the arc. he had just 2 rebounds. All of this despite Paul Pierce's foul trouble and struggles, all while Iguodala himself played nearly 40 minutes. I'm sorry, but that's just pathetic.

The thing that really frustrates you the most is the end-of-game play by Iguodala, which was in stark contrast to Pierce's play. After coming alive a little in the third, Pierce scored six big points — a momentum-shifting dunk that brought the Celtics to within two, two free throws courtesy of an Andre Iguodala foul that tied the game, and a jumper that put the Celtics up 82-78 with 1:36 to play.

Meanwhile, Iguodala didn't score a single point in the third quarter. He missed all four shots he took, including a quickly jacked three-pointer and horrendous fade-away with a hand in his face forced by his own doing — dribbling the ball in one place as the shot clock wound down. Then, to show just how un-clutch he really is, he dribbled the ball off his foot and turned it over with 50 seconds to play with the Sixers down a bucket. The Celtics failed to score and the Sixers got the ball back with the score still sitting at 82-80 Boston. So to top it all off, Iggy got blocked by Garnett with 14.9 left, Pierce grabbed the rebound and the Sixers had to foul Ray Allen, one of the greatest foul shooter in the history of the NBA, with five seconds left. That was that.

I like a lot of things about Andre Iguodala's game, but I'd rather be stabbed in the face with a soldering iron than have to rely on him to carry his team in a big game, especially in crunch time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Poster Child

The Sixers lost to the Bulls by 45 points last night. There's nothing worth talking about in that pathetic effort other than Derrick Rose is really, really good, and the Bulls are way better than the Sixers. But you know what is worth talking about? Blake Griffin.

I heard yesterday on PTI that there's a movement out there to nickname Blake Griffin "The Poster Child." The following is why. (Via You Been Blinded, mostly You Got Dunked On and YouTube)

This young man is a monster, and at this point, I don't see any possible way he won't be Rookie of the Year. Through 29 games, Griffin is averaging 20.8 points and 12.2 rebounds a game. He's shooting 51.7 percent from the floor. And he's already made more posters in the first two months of his rookie seasons than most players make in a lifetime.

The Clippers may suck, but Blake Griffin is ridiculous right now.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hopkins vs. Pascal 12/18/10

Ageless wonder and great Philadelphia champion Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins traveled to Quebec City Saturday night to fight WBC Light-Heavyweight champion Jean Pascal. Pascal is a Quebec native and the fight took place in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Pascal crowd of 16,000+. Bernard was attempting to become the oldest fighter in history to win a major championship belt, at age 45.

Hopkins entered the fight with a record of 51-5-1 with 32 knockouts. Pascal, 28 years old, posted a record of 26-1 with 16 wins by knockout. He had a streak of 4 consecutive title defenses. The tale of the tape was virtually even, with Hopkins standing 6 foot 1, weighing 174 pounds, and a 71 inch reach. Pascal stood 5' 10", 174, 72 inch reach.

The fight began ominously for the hall of fame bound Hopkins. Although he was pushing the action and looking pretty good, he suffered a knockdown late in the first round. The knockdown came on a borderline right hand punch that landed on the side/back of Hopkins head. Hopkins immediately got up, and just as quickly turned to the referee and exclaimed he was struck in the back of the head, an illegal blow. The ref allowed the knockdown to stand, and although it was close, the commentators agreed with the referee's decision. Hopkins was not hurt by the blow, but found himself in an early hole.

After a virtually even second round, things got worse for The Executioner in the third. He suffered another knockdown, and despite again not being hurt, was creating some major scorecard issues for himself. It looked as though Pascal, hungry for a signature victory and buoyed by a raucous home crowd, might be too much for the cagey veteran.

Hopkins was knocked down again in the fourth, but this time it was the result of a slip combined with yet another blow to the back of his head, and the referee disallowed it. The rest of the fourth and the fifth were very close rounds that could have been scored either way.

After the early round problems, the proud former champion began to assert himself and began to dominate the fight. Bernard was pushing the pace, creating the action, and looking like a man half of his age. He was landing powerful blows, doing much more damage than his counterpart. In rounds 8-10 Hopkins was dancing and moving, continuing to push, and regularly taunting his opponent to fight and responding to Pascal punches with a sly grin as if to say "you ain't hurting me."

While Hopkins continued his onslaught, Pascal looked like the the fighter who was 17 years the senior. He continuously backed away from Hopkins as Bernard continued to land crushing blows. As The Executioner danced and punched and looked to be the fresher fighter, and a fighter who was actually having fun, Pascal looked tired and miserable.

The 12th round was a thrilling back and forth, with the fighters trading blows. I know boxing in its current state isn't what it used to be, to say the least, but this was a pretty good fight and that 12th round was one of the most exciting rounds in recent memory. Both men remained on their feet as the final bell sounded, and we were headed to the scorecards.

At the bell Hopkins raised his arms, trotted around the ring, gestured to the crowd, exchanged pleasantries with his corner and with ringside personnel and spectators, and frankly didn't look like he had just gone 12 rounds with the light-heavyweight champion. Pascal, meanwhile, retreated quietly to his corner where he bent over and rested his head on the corner post. One of the commentators said something to the effect of "he just looks happy that it's over.

The decision was announced 114-112 Hopkins, 113-113, 114-114, a majority draw. Pascal retains the title. Hopkins was visibly distraught with the results. Now I will admit that I have a major bias in Hopkins' favor, but he won this fight. The three reporters who were scoring the fight on press row had it 115-112 Hopkins, 114-112 Pascal, 115-111 Hopkins. Hopkins out-threw and out-landed Pascal in every category...jabs, power punches, and combos. He dictated the pace and action of the fight. And at the end he was the fighter who was in physically better shape, with no major damage done and with exceptionally more energy. To me, a boxer who does those things deserves to win the fight. If you watched the fight, you felt that Bernard had gotten the better of his foe. I will concede that it was a very close fight, but I do think Hopkins did enough to win.

Even with the disappointing decision, it was another great performance from one of the all-time greats. It is absolutely incredible that a 45 year old man could look that fresh and energetic through 12 rounds of boxing, and he used his exceptional conditioning and his plethora of knowledge and experience to fight a beautiful fight, a fight his fans and his city can be proud of. I really hope that there is a rematch.

Happy Birthday, Joe

Today, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno turns 84. He is the all-time leader in major college football victories, the only man to reach 400, and there's never been a hint of a major NCAA violation in his 45 seasons as head coach.

He's won two national championships, had five undefeated seasons, donated millions of dollars to the university and helped shape the lives of countless young men. For all I care, he could coach until he's 100 years old. He's earned the right.

Happy birthday, Joe.

The Good Times Are Killing Me

The good times must have been killing the Flyers, who headed into last night's game against the lowly Florida Panthers on a five-game winning streak and leading the entire NHL in points, because they decided to lay a complete egg. The Flyers did come out strong, taking it to the Panthers in the first 8-10 minutes, but from there on it, Florida completely embarrassed the Flyers. A 5-0 loss at home to an inferior team isn't exactly how you want to head into the extended Christmas break, but the fact of the matter is the Panthers just wanted it more.

The best part of that horrific game was when Peter Laviolette absolutely lit into his team. After surrendering the fourth goal, Laviolette pulled rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and called a timeout. He then proceeded to unleash on his team. You could clearly make out him saying repeatedly, "That's a fucking disgrace, and I won't have it! We won't have it!"

It was inevitable that the Flyers were going to lose sooner or later, but you'd like to see a better effort than that. Still, the Flyers lead the entire NHL with 49 points and were one of the hottest teams in sports prior to last night. Now they must regroup during the Christmas break and brace themselves for a long road trip.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Week Ever (New York Sucks Edition)

First, Cliff Lee was delivered under the tree in the darkness of night. Then the Flyers snapped the Penguins' 12-game winning streak and a day later, the Flyers and Sixers both extended their own winning streaks behind their young guns. And to top it all off, the Flyers destroyed the Rangers 4-1 Saturday afternoon, and Philadelphia gave the ultimate fuck you to New York in the most insane 4th-quarter comeback in Eagles history thanks to Mike Vick and DeSean.

The only blemish was the Sixers blowing a 4th-quarter lead on Firday — oh, and the Eagles losing promising rookie safety Nate Allen for the year — against the Lakers, but then they turned around and beat the undermanned Orlando Magic the very next day behind three players (Lou Williams, 24, Andre Iguodala, 21, and Elton Brand, 20) scoring 20 points. When you add it all up, it makes for one of the greatest weeks in Philadelphia sports history. The best part (besides the winning)? The entire week was one giant middle finger to New York.

It started with Cliff Lee spurning the Yankees (and the Rangers) by taking less money and less years to rejoin the Phillies. That hurt New York's ego so much that instead of accepting reality, Yankees fans began to go in a state of denial, saying either they never really wanted Lee in the first place or going off and proclaiming him a "pussy" as one Yankees fan pointed out to me. Because, you know, completely dominating the Yankees the past two years makes him a pussy, or something like that. Jealousy can really bring out the worst in people.

The domination of New York continued on Saturday, and I was in the building once again. On Friday, I drove to Bucks County to attend a birthday party. On the way, I listened to the end of the Sixers-Lakers game and was getting pretty excited. When I stopped for gas not far from my destination, the 76ers were up by 4 in the fourth quarter. I got out to pump my gas and go get a drink. By the time I got back in my car, the Sixers were down by 7. That was the bad news. The good news was that once I got to the birthday party, I was invited to attend the Flyers-Rangers game on Saturday. And it was glorious.

The Flyers absolutely took it to the Rangers Saturday afternoon, outplaying them the entire game. They outshot the Rangers in every single period, finishing with a 39-25 shot advantage when it was all said and done in the easy 4-1 victory. The best part is that for the second time this year, Nikolay Zherdev stuck it to his old team.

There are few things in this world that Rangers fan hate more than losing to the Flyers, but losing to the Flyers as Nikolay Zherdev — a player that Rangers fans despised for his lack of production despite his immense talent — scores two goals in the process is one of them. I couldn't have been happier.

While Zherdev has certainly displayed the inconsistency and maddening play at times that drove Rangers fans nuts, he's been playing really great hockey of late, and he already has 13 goals on the year. Since Peter Laviolette put him on a line with Jeff Carter and James van Riemsdyk, that trio has been with tremendous, with Zherdev leading the way on the score sheet. That continued on Saturday.

His first goal came courtesy of an absolutely absurd pass by Mike Richards right as a penalty kill ended. Right before, Zherdev took a very stupid cross-checking penalty, putting the Flyers a man down. Luckily for Zherdev, the Flyers killed it off, and to make up for putting his teammates unnecessarily down a man, Zherdev received a perfect pass that went three quarters of the length of the ice and undressed his former teammate Henrik Lundqvist on the breakaway. His second goal came on an impossible angle, a truly impressive feat, to give the Flyers the power-play tally and officially put the game away.

In between Zherdev's bookend goals, Andreas Nodl scored thanks to a gorgeous backhanded pass by Claude Giroux, and Ville Leino added one on a tremendous deflection from the point.

Zherdev had two goals. Mike Richards and Claude Giroux both made ridiculous passes that led to goals, and the Richards-Nodl-Giroux line was strong all game. Brian Boucher stopped 24 of the 25 shots he faced. But the best player on the ice Saturday was without question Kimmo Timonen.

With Chris Pronger out the next 4-6 weeks, Timonen will be the guy relied on the most back on the blue line. He showed that he's more than ready for that responsibility against the Rangers. Kimmo led all Flyers in ice time Saturday (23:08), and he was simply outstanding. Each time he was out on the ice, he shut down whatever line the Rangers threw at him. I know I've said it a million times, but I feel like it can't be said enough: Kimmo Timonen is arguably the most underrated player in the entire NHL. The guy is amazing. The more I watch him, the more I am in awe. He really is one of the game's best defenseman. And he was the player of the game in my eyes on Saturday.

The win was the fifth straight for the Flyers, and they just continue to hum along atop the NHL, leading everyone with 49 points through 34 games.

It was quite a nice primer for the Eagles-Giants game on Sunday. However, to be perfectly honest, I woke up with a bad feeling about the game. Even though the Eagles had defeated the Giants the last five times the two teams met, I just didn't feel good about yesterday's matchup, mainly because of the defense.

Philadelphia's defense has been suspect all season, and now they were going into this game more banged-up than ever. Jamar Chaney was making his first NFL start now that Stewart Bradley's out. Brandon Graham, while doing very little in his rookie season, was a regular, but now is done for the season. Ellis Hobbs has been gone, and Asante Samuel hadn't played since the last time the two teams met.

Early on, my fears looked well-founded. The Giants came out and completely dominated the Eagles in the first half. Eli Manning was having a field day picking on Dmitri Patterson, who finally looked like an undrafted free agent who has spent his career as a special teamer. The guy can tackle, but it's becoming increasingly clear that he's not the guy you necessarily want to be starting for you week in and week out. Yesterday, he was repeatedly getting schooled by Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks.

Meanwhile, the Giants defense was pummeling Vick, and the Eagles couldn't get anything going. Seeing the way the game was going, the Eagles down 17-3 and showing no signs of life, I wanted them to just take a knee and get to the half without any injuries and down just 14. Instead, after getting the ball back with 44 seconds remaining in the first half following a Tynes field goal, the Eagles tried to get into field goal range themselves. Vick hit Maclin for 12 yards on the second play, but Maclin fumbled, Kenny Phillips picked it up and returned it 22 yards to Philadelphia's 8, and Hakeem Nicks schooled Patterson once more for an 8-yard touchdown pass. Disastrous finish to the half. It was all New York, and the Giants led 24-3 at halftime.

But after a stalemate on the first few possessions of the second half, the Eagles finally caught a break. Mario Manningham, who was killing the Eagles all game, caught a 10-yard pass, but then inexplicably fumbled, just dropping the ball without being hit near the arms, and the Eagles recovered at New York's 25. Three plays later, Vick connected with Jeremy Maclin to make a two-touchdown game. After forcing a punt, the Eagles suddenly had a little life. Though they didn't do anything and exchanged punts with the Giants again, the Eagles were within two scores and still stuffing the Giants' run game, not allowing Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw to tick all the time off the clock. Then early in the 4th quarter, on the first play following a Giants punt, Vick hit DeSean Jackson down the middle for a 30-yard gain, but as DeSean dove forward at the end of the play, he fumbled, and the Giants recovered. Replays showed that DeSean was clearly touched as he was going down, but there Andy sat, tucking his red flag away.

It was one of the worst non-challenges of all time. Even if Andy Reid didn't think DeSean was touched, he had to throw the flag the way Tom Coughlin did when Eli fumbled in the first meeting at the Linc. The time and scored dictated that. Plus, he would have actually won the damn challenge. But instead, Andy didn't challenge, and 7 plays later Eli Manning hit Kevin Boss for a touchdown. Just like that, the Eagles were down by 21 again, 31-10, and it looked as though Andy's no challenge officially cost his team any shot of a comeback.

At that point, I was just wishing the game would get over with so I could focus on watching the Red Zone Channel. Little did I know I was about to watch history be made.

The Eagles were down 21 points with just over 8 minutes to go following that touchdown by Boss. They began their drive with 8:09 remaining at their own 25. Two plays later, Mike Vick hit Brent Celek for a 65-yard score, 31-17. Then, Andy Reid and Bobby April pulled off a stroke of genius. Seeing that the Giants didn't put out their hands team and noticing something about them leaving early, the Eagles called for an onside kick. But they did it in stealth mode, not lining up for an onside kick and not putting out their own hands team, instead just lining up for a normal kickoff. Then David Akers, perhaps the best kicker at onside kicks of all time (Joe Buck passed along the stat that Akers is 8-18 on onside kicks), hit a beauty of an onside kick, and Riley Cooper recovered. From there, Mike Vick went into super man mode.

He hit DeSean for 13 yards, then took off for 35, and two incomplete passes and a penalty later, he was scampering into the end zone, 31-24.

The Eagles did give up one first down to the Giants on the ensuing possession, but they held. And thanks to —  unbelievably — good use of his timeouts, Andy Reid made sure there was still plenty of time on the clock for Vick to work with to try and tie the game. Two incomplete passes later, the Eagels faced a 3rd and 10 at their own 12 with 2:56 remaining. The Giants blitzed, but didn't contain. Big mistake. Vick saw it, and took off for 33 yards. Then he hit Jason Avant for 13 yards and two plays later rushed for 22 more. After a completion to Brent Celek, Vick hit Jeremy Maclin for a 13-yard touchdown with 1:16 remaing, tie game. Unbelievable.

Things were only getting started. The Giants took over with 1:10 remaining. Determined to get into field goal range and not let this thing go to overtime, the Giants came out throwing. Eli couldn't connect on his first two attempts. The Giants faced 3rd and 10 at their own 26 with a minute remaining. Trevor Laws broke through and sacked Eli, not the worst thing in the world for the Giants. They let the clock wind all the way down to 14 seconds, called timeout and lined up to punt. I jokingly said it would be awesome if DeSean returned it, never once thinking it could happen. Of course the Giants would kick it away from him, forcing the Eagles to throw a hail mary. Then, this happened.

As he burst through, I started to freak out. And once Jason Avant threw that vicious block, I was leaping for joy, running around my house freaking the hell out. A WALKOFF PUNT RETURN! A MOTHER FUCKING WALKOFF PUNT RETURN! HOLY SHIT! HOLY FUCKING SHIT! DESEAN JACKSON IS THE GREATEST!

I'm with Merrill. I don't care if he dives, does a dance, anything. DeSean Jackson is the best. He really is. Unreal. Un-fucking-real.

I couldn't believe it. A 21-point deficit with seven and a half minutes to go. 28 points in the fourth quarter, the most ever in Eagles history. A walkoff punt return, the first in NFL history. 38-31 Eagles. Incredible. Truly incredible. I called or texted damn near everyone I know. It was the most stunning finish I've ever seen.

The Eagles are in first place all by their lonesome, 10-4 overall. They're in position to get a first-round bye, and even still alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. This team is just too much. With Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson (not to mention Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy) anything is possible for these Eagles. Anything.

You couldn't have written a better ending to an absolutely fantastic week. Cliff Lee, Flyers domination, and then Vick and DeSean. New York, OWNED.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Friday, December 17, 2010

For Once, It's Great to Be a Philadelphia Sports Fan

Back in 2008, when the Phillies became World Fucking Champions, it felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from the shoulders of the Philadelphia fans who have suffered for 25 long years.

I had gone my entire life, all 24-plus years at the time, without ever witnessing a single Philadelphia sports team be crowned champions. When I was growing up, the Phillies were atrocious, making the playoffs only once in 1993 before Charlie Manuel rolled into town, and that season ending in disaster during the World Series. The Flyers were in the dumps before Eric Lindros arrived, then suffered nothing but heartache after he came — Claude Lemieux, sweep in the Final at the hands of Detroit, the concussions, blowing a 3-1 lead against the Devils, Tampa Bay, embarrassing early exits. The Sixers were a laughingstock, with Charles Barkley forcing his way out, until Allen Iverson and Larry Brown came along, but we all know how that ended. And as Eagles fans we had to suffer through seeing Randall and Buddy and that great defense never really materialize into all it could be, Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes, Mike Mamula, Jon Harris, the list goes on and on – all while the hated Cowboys were winning three Super Bowls, the Giant winning two and even the Redskins getting one. Once they finally did get the coach and the quarterback long coveted, the heartbreak only got worse — Troy Vincent's bum wheel against the Rams, Ronde Barber and Joe Jurevicius in the last game at the Vet, the Carolina Panthers, puking in the huddle. Philadelphia just couldn't win for losing.

But when the Phillies went on that incredible run, it felt like everything had changed. Jayson Stark summed it up beautifully:

The wait that had dragged them all through 25 years and 98 combined seasons of misery and heartbreak, seasons whose only common trait was that they'd all managed to last just a little too long.

It was the longest wait, by far, of the 13 metropolitan areas in America with teams in all four major sports. No other metropolis out there -- anywhere -- was within eight years.

And then, with one pitch, with one euphoric shriek in the night -- in 45,000-part harmony -- it was over. And life in Philadelphia may never be the same.

Honestly, things haven't really been the same ever since. As if overnight, Philadelphia went from a destitute city that few athletes wanted to come play in to the hotbed of professional sports in North America. Think about it: Since that fateful October night, the course of these franchises has done nothing but improve.

The Phillies not only got back to the World Series the following year and the NLCS in 2010, but they brought in Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee again.

Not only that, but all three of those aces made sacrifices to come to Philadelphia, a place few star players ever wanted to come to in the past. Roy Halladay waived his no-trade clause and took less money to pitch for the Phillies. Roy Oswalt waived his no-trade clause to join the likes of Halladay and Cole Hamels. And Cliff Lee, who never wanted to leave in the first place, returned, leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table that the Yankees and Rangers were offering. Not only did these guys want to come to Philadelphia, but they were willing to take less money just to do it. Unbelievable.

Now the Phillies, already the perennial favorites in the National League, have assembled one of the best starting pitching staffs in the history of baseball. Added to a lineup that includes Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz, et al, this rotation makes the Phillies the odds-on favorites to bring another World Series title back to Philadelphia.

And the Phillies aren't the only good thing going right now. The Eagles are in first place as we speak, taking on the Giants up in the New Meadowlands for the right to remain on top. MIchael Vick is the NFL's biggest redemption story. DeSean Jackson is a superstar, and LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin are quickly following suit.

In a year that many thought the Eagles would be using to rebuild, the Birds are flying high. They finally defeated Peyton Manning. They've soundly beaten division leaders — Jacksonville and Atlanta — and defeated the Giants and Cowboys the first go-round. While the defense looks shaky, the Eagles have the type of explosive, diverse offense that has them among the class of the NFC once again. It's a lot more exciting than anyone could have expected.

During the early going, the defending Eastern Conference champion Flyers, fresh off their run to the Stanley Cup Final, are trumping the Eagles in the standings. Through 33 games, the Orange and Black are the best team in hockey. Their 47 points lead everyone, and there isn't a more complete team in the NHL. They've won 4 straight, with the Rangers in town tomorrow night, and with coach Peter Laviolette manning the bench, there's no letdown in sight.

And to make the Philadelphia sports fan complete, suddenly the Sixers are no longer a laughingstock. The first signs of hope came when they were awarded the second pick in the draft. While Evan Turner hasn't quite panned out as hoped thus far, the Sixers are beginning to slowly turn things around. Winners of three straight, Doug Collins' team is actually pretty fun to watch of late. They won't give anyone title aspirations the way the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers do, but there are signs of life. At this stage, that's all you can really ask for, and the team is delivering.

I cannot definitively say that things will never be the same here in Philadelphia, but what I do know is that there's never been a better time in my life to be a Philadelphia sports fan than right now.

Update: Some not good news to pass along, unfortunately: Chris Pronger needs surgery. He'll be out 4-6 weeks with a broken foot. Not good. Sure glad Paul Holmgren brought in Andrej Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Let's face it, this week was all about Cliff Lee. He's back, everyone's thrilled and no one can wait for baseball season to start. It's all about Lee.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Young Guns

With the Eagles in first place and the Phillies — OH MY GOD CLIFF LEE IS BACK! — dominating the local headlines, it's pretty easy to overlook the two Philadelphia teams that call the Wells Fargo Center home. But it'd be wise to start paying attention. Right now, both teams are streaking.

The Flyers beat the Canadiens 5-3 last night in Montreal just one night after defeating the Penguins. It was their fourth straight victory, and the Flyers have won 6 of their last seven games.

The Sixers easily defeated the Clippers 105-91 thanks to a huge third quarter, their third straight victory. Believe it or not, the 76ers are 5-2 in the month of December, winners of 5 of their last 6, 7 of their last 10, and have climbed out of the basement of the Eastern Conference. In fact, the Sixers currently reside in the 9 spot, just a half game behind the Milwaukee Bucks.

In both contests last night, it was the young guns leading the way. For the Flyers, 21-year-old James van Riemsdyk netted two goals including the game-winner, while the Sixers were led by 20-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, who scored a game-high 24 points and added 6 rebounds and 5 assists with just one turnover.

First, I want to get this out of the way: Blake Griffin is an absolute stud. He's a monster on the boards, and his incredible athleticism allows him to score at all times. Last night, the Sixers actually did a very good job containing him, especially in the first half, yet at the midway point he still had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and by night's end, he had another absurd stat line of 20 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal and a block. Whenever a shot came off the rim, you just had the feeling Griffin was getting the rebound. He completely controlled the glass.

John Wall is impressive. Really impressive. But the Rookie of the Year is Blake Griffin's to lose. He really is remarkable. It's amazing just how far modern medicine has come. Even after suffering a horrific injury to his knee, Griffin can still jump higher and quicker than just about anyone in the league. Microfracture surgery is no longer a dirty word in the NBA. Just ask Amare, who had himself quite an interesting finish last night.

Though Griffin still got his, I have to say how incredibly awesome Spencer Hawes played last night. Right from the get-go, he let the rookie know he wasn't going to be getting anything easy, blocking Griffin four times in two possessions.

Hawes finished the night with a double-double of his own and actually played Griffin to a draw, getting 16 and 12 to go along with 5 blocks. I have to admit, I was completely killing Hawes earlier in the year. He looked completely useless out there, immobile, unathletic, unimpressive. But it looks as though his early-season troubles stemmed from being out of shape due to injury. Because now that Hawes is healthy and back in game shape, he's been fantastic. Way better than I thought he'd be — quicker, more agile, better defender and an excellent shooter. Last night he was tremendous again, and Spencer Hawes may just turn out to be a damn good player yet. He's showing why he was one of the most coveted recruits coming out of high school.

As good as Hawes was, this was unquestionably the Jrue show. Holiday really is the most exciting player on this team to watch, and the more he plays, the better he is going to get. He's certainly making me forget all about Ty Lawson on the like. Last night, Jrue absolutely dominated Eric Bledsoe and Baron Davis. He was superior to both his counterparts in every conceivable way. He nailed three of six threes, hit half his shots, and played about as efficiently as he ever has.

In his young career, Jrue has struggled at times with turnovers. But not last night. He had only one, and incredibly, the Sixers only turned the ball over three times all game. That is completely unheard of in any level of basketball, and it was a huge reason the Sixers won going away —  3 turnovers to LA's 14.

Andre Iguodala also had a quietly efficient game, really going off in the fourth quarter. He had 20 points on a ridiculous 8-10 shooting night, hitting all three free throws he took and the only three-pointer he attempted. He also added four boards and five assists without turning the ball over. He was basically the Andre Iguodala fans want him to be: not jacking up ridiculous shots, penetrating, and throwing down monstrous dunks.

Believe it or not, the Sixers are actually fun to watch these days. Even though Evan Turner has done nothing but see his playing time steadily decrease, the other Sixers are giving fans more than enough reasons to watch. They're balanced, unselfish and energetic, all things that were completely lacking in the early going. Last night, five guys scored in double digits, and just about everyone contributed. It's hard to believe, but the 76ers aren't terrible. In fact, they're actually pretty fun to watch right now.

Though not as fun as the Flyers, which is no shock to anyone. Since the puck first dropped in the fall, the Flyers have been at or near the top of the standings, and they currently have the most points (47) and wins (21, tied with Pittsburgh) in the entire NHL. They remained in first last night, keeping pace with the Penguins, thanks largely to James van Riemsdyk and his linemates.

On the second night of a back-to-back, the Flyers looked incredibly gassed from the closing moments of the first period on. The Canadiens were much more fresh and it showed. Montreal outshot the Flyers in every period and finished with a 41-30 shot advantage.

The two "top" lines —  Richards-Giroux-Nodl and Hartnell-Briere-Leino —  were fairly quiet on the night. In fact, Richards had an absolutely horrendous game, giving the puck away routinely — one on a failed clear while down a man that turned into a goal — and looking sluggish all night. The Betts-Carcillo-Powe line did their usual good work providing energy, but even they got pinned deep at times. And to make matters worse, Chris Pronger left the game with a lower-body injury and did not return.

Thank goodness Peter Laviolette's newest line, Jeff Carter-JVR-Nikolay Zherdev, was able to make up for it.

That line scored the first four goals of the game, with each player lighting the lamp. Goals one and two game off turnovers by P.K. Subban, surely making Mike Richards smile. The first was a beautiful move by Carter using his speed to blow by the defense wide, then cutting to the middle to his backhand and easily beating Carey Price. He got a great pass by Matt Carle to spring him. The second was just James van Riemsdyk throwing the puck toward the net with Carter crashing. It went off the Montreal defender's leg and in.

Zherdev got his goal on another awesome move, and JVR had the game-winner on the power play — the second night the Flyers' power play looked like complete dog shit until they needed a goal in the 3rd period —  by banking it off Price and in. Claude had the other tally for the Flyers, as the Canadiens giftwrapped him a goal with another turnover. That resulted in Giroux all alone with Price, and he made Price look foolish — the norm with Giroux in one-on-one situations.

It was quite different story than earlier in the year when Price was impenetrable. The Flyers treated him like a sieve, getting 5 past him.

On the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky had one hiccup, the third goal for Montreal off the stick of Brian Gionta, but overall had a tremendous game. Bob had no shot on Subban's power-play goal or Plekanec's rebound goal, but he absolutely should have stopped Gionta's. At the time, it was huge, tying the game, but JVR bailed him out.

Though that was Bob's only black mark on the night. He stopped 38 of the 41 shots he faced, including this dandy:

That's another young gun making one hell of play.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Back in First

How do you cap off an incredible day of reveling in the return of Cliff Lee to Philadelphia? By going to the Flyers-Penguins game at the Wells-Fargo Center and witnessing the Flyers snap Pittsburgh's 12-game win streak and reclaim the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That's exactly what I did last night, having the honor to go to the game with Adam EatShit, who repeatedly said on the way down that he had a good feeling about the game despite Pittsburgh's impressive streak.

The Flyers came out last night completely dominating the first 18 minutes of the first period, at one point holding an 11-3 advantage in shots. Every shift was spent in Pittsburgh's end, they were winning damn near every faceoff and, to be frank, the Flyers just looked like a much better team than the Penguins.

They were getting chance after chance, sustaining pressure the entire time, but they couldn't put the Pens in much of a hole. Yes, the Flyers did take a 1-0 lead on a perfectly placed goal by Claude Giroux resulting from hard work by Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell in front of the net, but Marc-Andre Fleury did what he always seems to do against Philadelphia, making some truly spectacular saves.

Then, in the final two minutes of the period, the Pens finally had their first real pressure of the game, spending almost the entire time in the Flyers' end and generating some chances. Pittsburgh was strong on the puck, cycling with relative ease and wearing down Philadelphia's defense. Luckily for the Flyers, the horn sounded before the Pens could do any damage, but there was sort of an uneasy feeling in the building.

The Flyers had completely dominated almost the entire period, spent almost the entire time in Pittsburgh's end, won faceoffs and finished with a 12-7 shot advantage, but only held a one-goal lead against the hottest team in hockey that just so happens to have two of the greatest scorers alive in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. A one-goal lead is hardly comfortable against the Penguins.

Well, as great as the Flyers played in the first period, the Penguins played even better in the first 9 minutes of the second. Building on those final two minutes of the opening period, Pittsburgh came out of the locker room and just absolutely took it to the Flyers. The roles completely reversed.

The Flyers looked sluggish and tired, while the Pens looked hungry. They won damn near every faceoff, rarely let Philadelphia even get through the neutral zone and put on a cycling display I haven't seen since the days of Lindros, Brind'Amour and Otto. That 12-7 shot advantage quickly dissipated, as the Flyers were held without a shot on net for over 9 minutes, and the Pens were peppering Brian Boucher.

Pittsburgh's hard work paid off, frustrating the Flyers and eventually leading to a silly penalty by Danny Briere, though the interpretation of the call didn't sit well with the Flyers faithful. Chasing down a puck carrier, Briere definitely got his stick in the midsection of a Penguin, but then his stick was held by the arm. The call could have easily gone either way, holding the stick or hooking, or even concurrent minors, but only Briere went off. A minute and 10 seconds later, Evgeni Malkin blasted one over Boucher's shoulder for the power-play goal to tie the game.

That was the wakeup call the Flyers needed in the second period, because after that, they really cranked it up. After being dormant for the first 9 minutes, the Flyers once again looked like the team that had owned the first 18 minutes of the game. Claude Giroux was flying all over the place, and all four lines began rolling.

Then, Nikolay Zherdev broke out in a 2-on-1 with Jeff Carter. All night long — and all season long, really — Zherdev had both dazzled and infuriated Flyers fans, something he's made a career of doing. His talent and skill are unquestioned. The man has some of the best hands on the planet. But boy does he have the true European mentality. Because he can do so much with the puck, he often tries to do too much. He was doing that a lot last night, trying to stickhandle between two and three guys at a time, rarely succeeded. But when he broke out on that 2-on-1, he made no mistake, showing incredible patience, moving to the middle and beating Fleury on a gorgeous goal, 2-1 Flyers.

He made it look so effortless, which he often does. Now if he could only harness that and make fewer mistakes, he would really be something. But that's what they've been saying about Zherdev his entire career. Just ask Rangers fans.

The importance of that goal cannot be overstated. The Flyers controlled the play in the first but only held a 1-0 advantage, and PIttsburgh answered in the 2nd. But the Flyers didn't let that deter them, instead turning it up a notch from there, climbing back to even the shots in the 2nd period to 11-11 and going back up a goal.

However, they did once again miss several golden opportunities to distance themselves late. In a rare role reversal, it was the Penguins that began a steady march to the penalty box, giving the Flyers three power plays after Malkin's goal. They were practically begging the Flyers to put them away. But they couldn't, because their power play has been complete garbage. Of those three power plays to close the second period, only one looked remotely competent. The others continued to be embarrassing, getting outmanned in scrums despite being up a player, bad entries, miscommunication, no spacing, not enough puck movement. Name a facet of the power play and the Flyers are struggling at it.

Credit Pittsburgh's penalty kill, no doubt, but man do the Flyers need to work on their power play. It's been a huge problem for nearly two months now. Something needs to be done. And of course I have a suggestion for Peter Laviolette, one that seems pretty obvious to me: Put the Briere line out there as a power play unit.

I really don't understand why Laviolette doesn't put this trio out there together on the man advantage. I really don't. The Briere-Leino-Hartnell line has been the best offensive line all season for the Flyers, dating all the way back to last postseason. All three of them have over 20 points, Briere leads the team in goals (16) and the three of them have remarkable offensive chemistry. Then you add the fact you have a sniper in Briere, playmaker in Leino and grunt guy in Hartnell, and you have all the ingredients needed for a strong power play unit. Put them out there together, Pete. Please. And for the record, my other power play trio would be Richards, Giroux and Carter. No Andreas Nodl, even with as well as he's played. Just my two cents.

Anyway, back to the game. The third started out a little dicey with Briere and Max Talbot getting called for concurrent minors on a holding the stick/interference play, meaning open ice against a dangerous team in a one-goal game. Not something you want. To compound that, Matt Carle foolishly started reaching toward Malkin as the big Russian was going by him heading toward the Flyers line, getting his stick up in the face. Seconds later, Malkin was scoring his second game-tying, power-play goal of the game.

Matt Cooke set up a great screen on Boucher, and Malkin didn't miss. It's bad enough going 4-on-4 against Pittsburgh while trying to protect a 2-1 lead, but it's absolutely deadly go down a man for a 4-on-3 power play. There's just too much ice for guys like Malkin and Crosby to work with. Now the game was tied in the third period. The Penguins came in as the hottest team in the NHL, and ever since the Pens got Crosby, Malkin and Fleury, Pittsburgh has been the team that's taken over as Philadelphia's tormentors, replacing Martin Brodeur and the Devils.

This was the type of game that perhaps even just a year ago the Flyers would let slip away against Pittsburgh, and this was the way they'd let it happen — outplaying the Pens most of the game, taking a few penalties, losing the lead and then falling apart. But this Flyers team is different. Maybe it was last year's inspired run to the Stanley Cup Final. Maybe it was Paul Holmgren doing a masterful job tweaking the lineup and bringing in the best defense corps in the league. Or maybe it's just maturity that comes over time.

Whatever it was, the Flyers weren't about to let the past haunt them. Not one bit. Just like they did after Malkin's first goal, the Flyers responded. They turned it up another notch and started to dominate once again. Clearing the puck out of harm's way, sustaining pressure in Pittsburgh's zone, flying out in transition. Then finally, mercifully, the Flyers answered the bell on the power play.

With the Flyers actually set up in the zone for once, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen played catch with it for a moment. Then Pronger stepped inside with the puck a little bit, looked, and let go a wrister near the top of the circle. Scott Hartnell, playing another tremendous game, got his stick on it and deflected the puck past Fleury, 3-2 Flyers. The irony of it is that Malkin, the player who had made the Flyers pay dearly twice on power play goals of his own, was the guilty party, called for interference.

The Flyers kept the pressure up and really owned the period, outshooting the Pens 14-5, closing the way they started. They kept their shifts short, put on some pressure and played sound defensive hockey. Richards, Giroux and Nodl played the role of shutdown top line, while Blair Betts, Dan Carcillo and Darroll Powe put forth perhaps the hardest-working shifts of the night. And Jeff Carter, well, damn. He played perhaps the best defensive game I've ever seen him play.

Carter is known as a great goal-scorer and very sound two-way player, but what he's not known for his winning battles along the boards and playing physical. Well guess what? Last night he was doing all of those things. Beyond winning faceoffs and making plays in the offensive zone, Jeff Carter was playing defense like a defenseman. He was mucking in the corners and winning the battles. And in a rare display, he was throwing his considerable size around. At one point, Sidney Crosby had the puck below the goal line in the Flyers zone. For all his great skill, Crosby may just be the most difficult player in the entire NHL to knock off the puck. He's way stronger than the casual fan realizes. Honestly, he probably gets knocked off the puck one percent of the time. This was one of them, and it was Jeff Carter who did it. He attacked Crosby aggressively, checked him into the boards, knocked him off the puck, stole it and sent the Flyers the other way. It was one of the most impressive plays I've ever seen from Jeff Carter, and if he starts doing that regularly the way Mike Richards so often does, he'll move up to another level. Really impressive game by Carter.

But again, as great as the Flyers were playing, they couldn't put Pittsburgh away. Then when they tried, it resulted in disaster. Up a goal with less than three minutes to play, Mike Richards and Darroll Powe found themselves bearing down on Fleury in a 2-on-1. Richards fired as Powe crashed the net. The problem was Powe crashed too hard, running right into Fleury for a goaltender interference. It was an absolutely stupid play by Powe. I know he was trying to put the game away with a goal, but you can't take a penalty there. Just can't. Especially when the Pens had already scored their only two goals of the night on the man advantage, and the Pittsburgh power play was getting chance after chance. Powe played a tremendous game overall, but that was a killer.

Or it could have been. Instead, the Flyers actually had their special teams bail them out. Betts and Nodl did a nice job early with Giroux and Richards a nice job late, but the star of the final two minutes was without a shadow of a doubt Kimmo Timonen.

I'm not even sure that words can do justice my feelings toward Kimmo Timonen. The Flyers have a ton of players on this team that I love. Claude Giroux is my favorite Philadelphia athlete (along with Cliff Lee) right now. Mike Richards is a warrior. I love the grinders like Darroll Powe and Blair Betts. Andrej Meszaros has been outstanding. There's nothing not to like about Ville Leino, Chris Pronger and Sergei Bobrovsky. But it's hard to appreciate anyone more than Kimmo Timonen.

He isn't just a good player. No, he doesn't put up numbers like Lidstrom and Green and some of the other flashier guys, but he truly is a great defenseman. And I mean great. He does everything right, always makes the right decision, rarely makes a mistake. And last night, he had one of the most impressive individual penalty kills I've ever seen, and it came with the game on the line.

At one point in those frantic 2 minutes, Kimmo blocked a Pittsburgh shot and was clearly stung by it. He immediately dropped his hand in pain. But the puck was still in play, and his team was down a man. So Kimmo wasted no time, went to the corner after the puck, threw his weight into a mass of Penguins, came away with the puck and cleared it. It was truly remarkable.

As the penalty expired, Powe came flying out of the box and gave the Flyers one final clear on a great effort, and the game was over. They killed off the penalty, snapped Pittsburgh's 12-game winning streak and jumped over the Pens to reclaim first place in the Eastern Conference.

Through 32 games, the Flyers have 45 points, the most in the NHL (and one more than the Penguins). They have three balanced scoring lines, a tremendous checking line, six top defensemen, numerous penalty killers and have gotten excellent goaltending by Bobrovsky and Boucher. The only thing missing right now is the power play, and you have think that will come with all the talent on this squad.

Just as importantly, the Flyers for the first time really since Crosby and Malkin came into their own look to be definitively better than the Penguins. They've played four times already this season, and the Flyers have won three of them. No one can match a duo of Malkin and Crosby, but the Flyers are way deeper from top to bottom. And there isn't another team in the NHL that can come close to having six defensemen as good as Philadelphia's.

There's still a long way to go, and a lot can happen, but the Flyers are in first for a reason — they're the best team in the Eastern Conference right now, and maybe the entire NHL.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's Always Sunny With Cliff Lee


Merry Cliffmas Indeed

I still can't believe it. I'm so damn happy. Monty G. was at the Dunkin Donuts next to my office. This is the best day ever.


Ruben Amaro you magnificent bastard! It took an extra year, but I finally got my two frontline aces (plus two more) that I've been longing for since the trade deadline of 2009.

The greatest man who ever lived, Clifton Phifer Lee, is back where he belongs, back in Philadelphia. I couldn't care less that Jayson Werth is gone now. (No offense Jayson, you were awesome.)

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels. I'm speechless. I really am. This is the best since the Phillies became World Fucking Champions.

Welcome back, Cliff. This is the best Christmas gift ever. I can't sleep at all. I'm too excited.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Just in the Nick of Time — the Rest of the Weekend

Believe it or not, I did not have one sip of alcohol this weekend. The last time a drop of an adult beverage hit my lips was after Temple handed Georgetown its first loss Thursday night.

Instead of boozing, I made up for lost TV time, relaxing in my house and taking in some games. It began on Saturday with the Flyers taking on the Bruins in Boston. The game proved to be an extremely even contest, with James van Riemsdyk continuing his inspired play by opening the scoring on a great pass by Jeff Carter. The Bruins tied it up in the 3rd, and the game went to overtime.

That's when Mike Richards, just three days after he and Danny Briere thought they had beat the buzzer for the win, actually did net a game-winner just in the nick of time.

It was an exciting ending, as Richards scored with just three seconds remaining in overtime before a shootout would have decided things. Brian Boucher was tremendous in net, stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced, but the game was marred by an ugly hit by Jody Shelley, who was, in my opinion, rightfully suspended for two games.

Beyond that, I watched Syracuse absolutely demolish Pitt, which was nice to see, and saw the crazy footage of the Metrodome roof collapsing.

Then I heard the news that Al Golden left Temple to take over as the new head coach of the Miami Hurricanes. Golden did one hell of a job turning a pathetic Temple program into one of the best in the MAC. It should be quite interesting to see what he can do in a high-profile job down in the recruiting hotbed of Florida.

And yesterday, as an afternoon primer to the Eagles-Cowboys Sunday night matchup in Texas, I watched the Big 5 battle between Villanova and La Salle.

Heading into this game, I was most excited to see what standout sophomore Aaric Murray would do against the 12-ranked Wildcats. The sophomore from Glen Mills is averaging a very impressive 15.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 1.3 steals, and doing it all while shooting 55.1 percent from the field and 84.6 percent from the line (not to mention making 2-5 from three, good for 40 percent). I couldn't wait to watch him for the first time this season.

Sadly, I saw very little of Murray. Early on, he was a man on the boards and his size was giving Villanova some trouble, but Murray quickly got in foul trouble and wound up playing only 12 minutes all game.

With Murray saddled in foul trouble and Nova coming in as favorites, you would think the Wildcats would have run away with this thing. But that wasn't the case at all. La Salle jumped out to a big lead early, withstood a Nova barrage and even held an eight-point lead late. Senior Jerrell Williams and freshman Sam Mills were outpeforming pretty much all of Nova's household names.

Williams finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-13 shooting and had 7 boards, 5 assists and two steals. He was the best player on the floor yesterday. Mills scored 14 big points himself, doing most of his damage from beyond the arc, hitting 4-5 from downtown.

But when push came to shove, Villanova simply made the biggest plays when they mattered most. After shooting terribly most of the game, the Wildcats his some big shots late, particularly Corey Stokes. Stokes igniting Nova by going 4-8 from three, scoring 16 big points. Maalik Wayns, who was terribly off in the first half, picked it up big-time in the second, finishing with a team-high 19 points on 8-15 from the field, 3-4 from the line and adding 2 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals, including a vital one late and huge layup down the stretch.

Dominic Cheek also had a huge hand in the victory, finishing what Stokes started by hitting 4 threes himself, finishing with 14 points and 5 boards. Yarou cleared the glass, hauling in a game-high 9 boards. Pena made it five Wildcats in double digits with his 13 points, and Corey Fisher, despite having a horrendous shooting day (3-11), finished with 16 thanks to getting to the line 12 times (and converting on 9 of them), and dished out a game-high 8 assists.

Essentially, it was a total team effort for Villanova, and that proved to be just a little too much for La Salle. But I have to say this: I was incredibly impressed with the Explorers. Even with their best player limited by foul trouble, La Salle stood toe to toe with Nova. They're a tough team and shouldn't be taken lightly by anyone in the Big 5, A-10 or the nation for that matter.

Over the past few years, Villanova has made running through the Big 5 look rather easy. The only real competition they've faced in the city battle has come from Temple. But La Salle proved yesterday that they're ready to join the party. Strong performance by La Salle and a tough, hard-fought victory for Nova.