Friday, May 28, 2010

Cup on My Mind

The Phillies are struggling mightily right now, getting shut out in three straight games against the Mets of all teams, getting swept by New York. Horrible. The Sixers have been making noise, getting the No. 2 pick, hiring Doug Collins, and now deciding between Evan Turner or Derrick Favors with said second pick. And I definitely have some opinions about all of that, but honestly, I can't muster up any energy or excitement to write about any of that right now. Why? Because one thing and one thing only is on my mind … Lord Stanley's Cup.

I want to be speechless. I want to see Mike Richards skate sports' greatest trophy around the rink. I want that feeling. I've wanted it since I first started watching as a child. Philadelphia is a great hockey city, but there are still plenty of people who don't pay much attention to the Flyers during the regular season. Their losses don't hurt as bad as the ones for the Eagles or the Phillies or even the Sixers, at least when Allen Iverson was in town. But for me, June 1997 was every bit as horrifying, as hurtful as October 1993, as January 2002 and 2003 and 2004, as February 2005, as June 2001.

Watching the Eric Lindros-led Flyers get swept, get blown off the ice by the Red Wings made me sick to my stomach. Watching Darren McCarty put the final nail in the coffin was on par with Joe Carter's home run, Troy Vincent's bum leg getting attacked, Ronde Barber's interception, every last turnover against Carolina, Deion Branch's big game, Robert Horry's deadly threes. I don't want that feeling again.

The Blackhawks are the favorites. They should be. This series will be a war, the toughest test yet. But this team has overcome so much for so long this season, what's four more wins against a heavy favorite? Just four more wins.


BallHype: hype it up!

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Tomorrow at 8, the puck finally drops to get the Stanley Cup Finals underway. So enjoy, Stan.


BallHype: hype it up!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Familiar Foes

The Flyers and Blackhawks don't see each other very often. In fact, being in separate conferences, the two Stanley Cup Finalists only clash once every regular season. If you recall, this year's game ended in fantastic fashion:

The Flyers won that contest on March 13, 3-2, in a dramatic way. Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell and of course Chris Pronger scored for the Flyers, while Kris Versteeg and Marian Hossa tallied for the Blackhawks. But the man who stole the show was none other than Michael Leighton, who stopped 39 of 41 shots against the high-octane Hawks.

While one nail-biting game is hardly anything to go off of when it comes to this championship series that begins on Saturday, these teams are more familiar with one another than you might think. And it starts with the man who stood out more than any other the last time these two teams hit the ice against one another.

Michael Leighton

Rest assured, you will hear plenty about the MIchael Leighton-Chicago connection throughout this series. The Blackhawks selected Leighton in the 6th round of 1999 NHL draft, 165th overall. In the 2002-03 season, the 21-year-old got his first shot in the NHL for Chicago, playing in 8 games, starting 6 while posting a 2-3-2 record with a 2.82 goals against average, .913 save percentage and one shutout. Not bad for a fill-in rookie.

The next season, Leighton had the opportunity to compete for the starting job, a job he wound up not holding on to. He started 33 games that season, played in 34, but just couldn't buy a win. His record was a pretty awful 6-18-8, and his numbers slipped to a 2.99 goals against average and .900 save percentage, though he did manage two shutouts. Still, Leighton was a young goaltender who showed some promise … promise the Blackhawks didn't think was worth their time. Leighton never played another game for Chicago again, toiled in the minors before the Flyers picked up him in 2006-07, where he played in four games and was nothing short of awful — 2-2 with a 3.70 gaa and .882 save percentage — before the Flyers sent him packing and Nashville scooped him up … for all of one game.

Then it was off to Carolina, where Leighton put up pedestrian (at best) numbers as a backup to Cam Ward, but also where he developed a relationship with Peter Laviolette. The rest, as they say, is history.

And the intriguing stories and familiarity in this series don't stop there.

Patrick Sharp

Better known as the one who got away. Drafted in the third round (95th overall) of the 2001 NHL draft by the Flyers, Sharp was a superstar for the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms, chomping at the bit to get a shot with the big club. In the 2002-03 season, he finally got a taste, playing three games. But 2003-04 was his big break, playing in 41 games for the Flyers.

Stuck on a talented roster, Sharp struggled to find ice time. He was basically relegated to the fourth line, limiting his chances. But it was pretty clear that Sharp had something special in his game. Problem was, he wasn't afforded the opportunity to display it. After just 5 goals and 2 assists in 41 games, and a minus-3 rating, both the Flyers and the fans were ready to see Sharp break out in 2005-06. But with the arrivals of guys like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, et al, it was the same old problem for Sharp. There just wasn't enough ice time to go around, so the Flyers traded Sharp to the Blackhawks during the season along with Eric Meloche in exchange for major flop Matt Ellison and a 2006 third-round pick.

All Sharp has done since then is become a four-time 20-goal scorer and big-time leader for this young, talented Chicago team. He's an assistant captain on the squad, and in his four full seasons in Chcago has put up 35 (20 goals), 62 (36 goals), 44 (26 goals, in just 61 games due to injury) and 66 (25 goals) points. He finished a plus-24 this year and a plus 23 in 2007-08. He's become one of the better players in the NHL, and big, big reason Chicago has had a hockey renaissance. Trading Sharp goes down as one of the worst trades in Flyers history. Like I said, the one who got away.

Ben Eager

Believe it or not, Ben Eager was drafted 23rd overall in the 2002 NHL draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. I say believe or not because Eager has never shown a particularly keen scoring touch in the NHL, the type of thing you expect from a forward picked in the first round. Eager has always been more of a Todd Fedoruk, Dan Carcillo type. He certainly was when he was in Philadelphia, which is where he got his first taste of NHL action.

Eager was somewhat of a fan favorite here in Philadelphia, a tough guy who wasn't afraid to go with anyone. He regularly ran people over and racked up the penalty minutes. In 2005-06, he played in 25 games, scoring 3 goals and 5 assists while garnering 18 penalty minutes, showing some promise as a big hitter who could also score a little bit. But in 2006-07, he really began to mold into the player he is today. In 63 games, he scored 6 goals and added 5 assists … while heading to the sin bin for 233 minutes. He also was a minus-13. Eager liked to hit and liked to fight, so that's what he did.

In 2007-08, however, Eager just couldn't stay in the lineup. He played just 23 games, not registering a single point, finishing a minus-8 with 62 penalty minutes before the Flyers shipped him off. No one ever questioned his hustle or desire, and fans loved to see him hit and fight, but Eager was more than expendable. He wasn't fitting in with the direction of the Flyers, so they traded him to Chicago.

Since, Eager has continued to be aggressive physically, but he's channeled his energy much better, becoming a key contributor to this team. At 6'2, 230, he's one of the bangers on this team, one of the guys who helps create a little space for the superstars. The past two seasons he's scored a combined 32 points and been a plus-10. And he's the leader of the fourth line that helps wear down the opposition with a punishing forecheck. He'd probably fit in really well under Peter Laviolette's style. Now he'll be showing the Flyers what he's capable of as a mature 26-year-old for the Blackhawks.

Mike Richards/Jonathan Toews

No, Mike Richards never was a Blackhawk and Jonathan Toews never a Flyer. In fact, both players were drafted by their current teams, and both became captains at a very young age — Richards was the third-youngest captain in Flyers' history, and Toews was the youngest Blackhawks captain ever and third-youngest in league history. Oh yeah, and they played together on a line for gold-medal-winning Team Canada in the Olympics.

That's right, just a few short months ago, Toews and Richards weren't just teammates, they were linemates. And often, this duo was part of Canada's best line, definitely the team's best defensive line. Now they're facing each other as the respective faces of their franchises in the Stanley Cup Finals. And you can bet your ass they'll be matched up against one another quite often on the ice, with the trio of Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien going against Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. Talk about a battle between heavyweights. This should be a war.

Toews and Richards are very similar players. The past three seasons, Richie has posted 75, 80 and 62 points; Toews has put up 54, 69 and 68. They are both very sound defensive players and the undisputed leaders of their teams. The key difference in my book, and the reason I believe Richards is the superior player, even if only slightly, is in the physicality department. Richards hits like Ben Eager. He defends like a top-notch defenseman. And he's one of the best penalty-killers in all of hockey. He'll have to be all of that against Toews and company. This is a matchup I can't wait to see.

Chris Pronger/Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook

More teammates of Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews for team Canada. Pronger was part of the blue line along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Seabrook didn't see much time for Canada, but he was on the roster. Pronger and Keith, on the other hand, were defensive stalwarts for Canada. Pronger began the tournament playing alongside Drew Doughty a little bit, with young and old sharing the ice, while Keith played a bit with Scott Niedermayer. But that didn't last long. Keith joined Doughty and that duo became the most dynamic on the blue line for Canada, while Pronger teamed with Niedermayer to form the old man pairing that simply shut down the world's best.

Pronger and Keith are two very different defensemen. Both are excellent, no question about it, but their similarities end there. Keith is a 26-year-old blue-liner with swift skating ability and tremendous skill. At 6'1, 196 pounds, he's more of a finesse type defender who also isn't afraid to go into the corners. Think a younger, faster Kimmo Timonen. The guy is a plus-73 for his career, and this season he played in all 82 games, scoring 14 goals and registering 55 assists for 69 points. He's good.

Pronger, meanwhile, is a 35-year-old veteran who is by any account slow-footed, however can cover a lot ground with his long strides and even longer reach. While not a freight-train who looks to hit anything and everything, Pronger is very much a player who relies on his smarts and his physicality. He will hit you and hit you hard. He'll also score, evident by his 10 goals and 45 assists, good for 55 points and plus-22 rating this season. For his career, he's a plus-175, and he's seen it all, been a captain, and won a Cup.

Now, he's playing better than any defenseman in the NHL. Even better than the supremely talented Keith. Pronger has been incredible all year, and taken his game to even greater heights this postseason. Even at 35, he's logging 30 minutes a game, rarely wasting energy. He shuts every opposition's best players down. Every one of them. His outlet passes, tremendous point blasts and even screening acumen have been huge assets to the Flyers on offense. His shot-blocking, positioning, size and strength, not to mention his ability to clear the porch in front of the net, have been key reasons why this defense is so good. Quite simply, he's been awesome. And he'll need to be yet again, for one more series.

It will be a great matchup, Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger leading Philadelphia's defense corps against the pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Obviously, with Timonen and Pronger not playing together most of the game, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle will be key as well. Should be fun to see the veteran Pronger compared to the younger Keith.

Brian Campbell/Danny Briere

This duo is as familiar with one another as they come. Danny Briere and Brian Campbell were teammates together in Buffalo for four seasons, from 2002-03 to 2006-07. That duo combined to post 352 points in those four seasons (230 for Briere and 122 for Campbell). They both became offensive forces together for the Sabres, with Briere the team's most lethal offensive forward and Campbell the team's most potent offensive defenseman.

Campbell and Briere were two of the driving forces behind Buffalo's emergence this decade into an Eastern Conference power. They both became all-stars, made names for themselves, and signed lucrative deals to try and help teams take the next step. For Briere, that was his big contract he signed in Philadelphia, where said contract has been a topic of huge discussion — but Briere has been fantastic when he plays, especially in the playoffs. Without him this year, the Flyers wouldn't be close to the Cup Finals, just as they wouldn't have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals a couple years ago without him. Campbell signed with the Blackhawks after being a rental for San Jose, and in his two seasons in Chicago, he's been good, but not to the point of justifying his contract in many people's eyes, just like Briere. However, Campbell is an important part of Chicago's blue line, if for nothing more than his offense (because he sucks defensively), and he's helped the Blackhawks get here as well, providing a calming, veteran influence on this young team.

Now the two former teammates will duel for the ultimate prize, and you can bet they'll be one-on-one with one another quite a bit. Should be fun.

Patrick Kane/James van Riemsdyk

Two players that will forever be linked. Coming off the worst finish in franchise history, the Flyers were looking to get the first overall pick and select the consensus No. 1, Patrick Kane. However, the Blackhawks, who finished with 15 more points than the Flyers but finished near the bottom in the Western Conference, won the lottery coin flip. As a result, the Blackhawks selected Kane No. 1 overall, while the Flyers settled for the second pick, which they used to take James van Riemsdyk.

There's no question who has come out ahead thus far. Kane took his spot in Chicago's lineup from day one, playing in 82 games in 2007-08, putting up 21 goals and 51 assists. He hasn't scored less than 70 points since, following that up with 70 points (25 g, 45 a) last year and 88 points (30 g, 58 a) this year. He is one of the game's stars, playing alongside Toews.

Van Riemsdyk has been slower to develop. Instead of jumping right into the NHL, or even the AHL, like Kane, JVR went to college. Finally, he joined the Flyers late last year, and this season as a rookie posted 15 goals and 20 assists in 78 games for 35 points. Those numbers are hardly in Kane's territory, though van Riemsdyk has shown many flashes of brilliance this year. He's big, he's strong and he's incredibly fast, especially with the puck on his stick rumbling through the neutral zone. He has a long way to go to catch up to Kane, but he has a really bright future playing alongside Claude Giroux. I expect big things from him, but there's no doubt that he will forever be linked to Kane. It's a tough spot for JVR. As much potential as he has, there isn't a Flyers fan alive who wouldn't rather have Kane. But those are the breaks.

At least JVR will forever live in Flyers lore, scoring the one goal Peter Laviolette begged for in the awful first period in Philadelphia's dramatic, improbable come-from-behind game 7 win in Boston to complete the epic 3-game-to-none, 3-goals-to-none comeback.

Brian Boucher

In case you forgot, and I wouldn't blame you if you did, the goaltender who came to the rescue after Michael Leighton Part 1 and before Michael Leighton Part 2, the guy who began as a rookie for the Flyers by leading the team to the Eastern Conference Finals and within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals some 10 years ago, spent a season a Blackhawk.

In 2006-07, Boucher was Chicago's backup netminder, playing in 15 games and starting 13. He was beyond terrible, posting a 1-10 record with a 3.27 goals against average and .884 save percentage. But for the Flyers, well, they wouldn't be anywhere near where they are without him. After struggling initially, he played tremendous down the stretch for Philadelphia, coming up with the biggest penalty-shot save in franchise history and doing the chicken dance to boot:

If Brian Boucher doesn't outduel Henrik Lundqvist in that shootout, the Flyers never even make the playoffs, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. Then he dominated against the Devils, and played admirably against Boston before getting injured. Now, Boucher is hoping to return as the backup to Leighton for this series. Two former Blackhawks goalies out to prove they're better than Chicago thought.

Kim Johnsson

Johnsson has been scratched throughout the playoffs for Chicago, but he is on the roster. At 34, he's not the player he once was. But when Johnsson was with the Flyers —  coming over from New York in the Eric Lindros trade — he became the best defenseman on the team. A smooth-skating blue-liner who moved the puck with the best of them, I always liked Johnsson. I always felt he was underappreciated, much the way Kimmo is nowadays. Though Johnsson was never as good as Timonen. But he was very, very good, putting up 147 points and finishing as a plus-player every season in his four years as a Flyer. I doubt we'll see him in the Stanley Cup Finals, but he is on the team.

So there you have it. Two teams that face each other all of one time each season are more familiar with each other than you might expect. Should make for an interesting series, and if their one matchup this season is any indication, quite an exciting one too. Let's hope the outcome is the same as it was back in March.

Four more wins. Just four more.


BallHype: hype it up!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

'What Did You Think About the Win?'

Fucking amazing:

I couldn't agree more.


BallHype: hype it up!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Captain Leads the Way to the Cup

The Flyers have gone through a lot the past few years -- from an upstart, young team that made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals to underachieving squad bounced in the first round to an injured, uninspired club that cost its coach his job to a struggling team failing to find its footing to hot, then not, to the team that took a shootout victory on the last day of the season just to get into the postseason, a team that upset the No. 2 seed but lost key players, a team that came back from down 0-3 in the series and 0-3 in game seven, to now, Eastern Conference Champs. Through it all, Mike Richards has been the pulse of the team -- from future star and captain in waiting to given too much responsibility too soon to unfit to be captain to the leader behind this surge.

Well tonight, Mike Richards was every bit what you want your captain to be. He led by example. He busted his ass every shift, every second. He could smell the Stanley Cup Finals within his reach, and he was ready to go through hell to make sure he got there. Mike Richards was the best player on the ice, no two ways about it. Way better than anyone else that laced them up. Perhaps better than anyone has been in one game all postseason long. Offense, defense, hustle, physicality, Richards stood out the most in all those areas. He is the captain, the rightful captain, and he was determined to lead his team to the promised land.

Montreal came out expectedly strong, laying it all out on the line, playing like there was no tomorrow (which for them, there wouldn't be, not this year). In the game's first minute, Chris Pronger attempted one of his patented long stretch passes, a thing he has mastered in his career. Only on this occasion, Montreal was ready for it. Roman Hamrlik read it, cut it off and got the puck to Brion Gionta. Gionta pushed it ahead to his former New Jersey Devil teammate Scott Gomez and headed to the net. The normally very defensively responsible Blair Betts read the play wrong and went toward Gomez, who was already being marked by Matt Carle, instead of bearing down on Gionta, who found himself wide open. Gomez wasted no time, slipped a pass through Gionta and the Montreal winger beat Michael Leighton five-hole just 59 seconds in.

Definitely the not the start the Flyers wanted. Not in a closeout game at home. Now the desperate Canadiens had a pulse, had life, had a belief. That's the last thing the Flyers wanted. To compound things, Kimmo Timonen let his emotions boil over just a little over a minute later, getting called for roughing on Gomez, who had been taking little cheap shots at Kimmo all series. That left the Flyers shorthanded and already down 1-0. That's when Mike Richards said enough is enough, tiem to take this game over and demoralize his native country by putting forth one of the single greatest shifts my eyes have ever seen.

A bonecrushing hit to start an odd-man rush, a great pass to set up Braydon Coburn for an excellent chance, great work defensively, and just all-out hustle off an outlet by Claude Giroux, beating both Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Halak, who inexplicably came rushing out of his net despite having a defenseman coming back, to the puck, poking it by with a dive, getting up and calming depositing it in for the shorthanded goal, tie game. That's when I knew they had them. This series wasn't going back to Montreal. Mike Richards had that extra something in his game, the type of step and determination that makes you remember just how incredible he is.

Sometimes people like to question whether or not Mike Richards is a true superstar. All-star and tremendous player, no doubt. But he's not flashy, not the fastest guy i the world, not a 50-goal scorer, so sometimes he just doesn't come across as remarkable, as a superstar player. Everyone seems to take for granted all the little things he does -- killing penalties, winning puck battles, playing sound defensive hockey, not mention his scoring acumen. Then Richards goes out and has a game like this, and makes anyone who questions his superstar status look foolish. There is no debate, none whatsoever. Mike Richards absolutely is a superstar, absolutely is captain material, absolutely is a leader and a winner. He is one of the best two-way players in hockey, and his desire, his will is second to none. He drove that point home with an exclamation point tonight.

The Flyers started to get their game going again, and then after a sloppy start to the second, Arron Asham found himself all alone with Halak for the second time on the night. Asham, who looked faster than he ever has as a Flyer, was all over the ice from the start. He was jumping on loose pucks, breaking away from defenders, stickhandling like Jaromir Jagr. Clearly playing with Claude Giroux is rubbing off on him. After already beating Halak on a breakaway with a nasty move only to fire the puck over the crossbar, this time Asham didn't miss. Matt Carle, who had an up-and-down game (some really bad turnovers, but also this play), kept the puck in and fired it right to Asham, who made a filthy move to beat Halak and make it look effortless while doing it.

A little less than a minute and a half later, it was Richards back at it. Jeff Carter, who looked a little less impressive than he did in game 4 but still good, made a great handoff pass to Timonen, who jumped in from the point. Kimmo quickly fed it behind the net to Richards, who one-touched it to the front to Carter, who then one-timed it off the elbow to put the Flyers ahead 3-1, tic-tac-toe.

Another tremendous play by Richards in a game full of tremendous Mike Richards plays. That was all she wrote for Montreal. The Canadiens weren't coming back from two goals against this team in Philadelphia. Not with Mike Richards playing the game of his life. Not with the unexpected hero Michael Leighton in net. Not with Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger locking things down defensively. Not with Blair Betts, Darroll Powe and Ian Laperriere checking their hearts out. Not tonight. The Flyers were going to the Stanley Cup Finals, no question about it.

Though it wasn't easy. Montreal wouldn't just lay down and quit the way the Devils did in round one. If they were going to go down, they were going to make it interesting. And that little gnat Scott Gomez jumped on a puck that caromed off the boards past Coburn and right on Gomez's stick. He buried it with a sniped shot past Leighton, one-goal game. Even then it didn't matter. Not when Montreal went on the power play, not when they put the pressure on.

Darroll Powe and Blair Betts were relentless on the PK, as were the defensemen -- Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and even Ryan Parent when Pronger and Kimmo were in the box. Powe in particular had a great game, winning every single battle along the boards and getting the puck out time and time again with the one-goal lead. Richards and Giroux also manned the top of the PK, and were tremendous. Besides hooking up on the first Flyers goal shorthanded, they were smart and effective killing penalties, highlighted late by Giroux's incredible shift, ragging the puck with two and three guys on him to kill off the final 20-plus seconds of a late penalty, something Giroux has made an artform of. They killed off a four-minute high sticking penalty by Chris Pronger, one of their PK mainstays on the blue line, thanks to a helping hand by Ryan Parent. They killed off a penalty by their other defensive stalwart, Kimmo Timonen. They killed them all.

And just when Montreal was looking to make one last push, pulling Halak, the captain rose up and wouldn't let them, relentless pursuing the puck, stripping Tomas Plekanec, throwing it toward net as he tumbled to the ice, where Carter pounced on it and buried it in the empty net to ice the game.

It was yet another insanely awesome effort by Richards. You could tell he wanted this, that this team wanted this. And boy did he and the Flyers earn it. Every single one of them. From Ray Emery's early solid play, to Michael Leighton's regular season heroics to Brian Boucher morphing into Bernie Parent, only to go down and have Leighton return ... and morphing into Bernie Parent. Danny Briere and his sharp-shooting. Ville Leino for never getting down on himself when he was a regular on the scratch list to becoming a playoff standout. Scott Hartnell for putting a terrible season behind him and finding his game again in the postseason. Dan Carcillo and his overtime goal, tenacity and agitation. Simon Gagne and his returned scoring touch. Jeff Carter for coming back and looking like he's never missed a beat. Ian Laperriere for sacrificing life and limb, almost losing an eye, and then coming back with a couple huge, key shot blocks tonight. Blair Betts and Darroll Powe for their yeoman's work. Andrea Nodl for filling in admirably. JVR scoring the biggest little goal of his life. Arron Asham pulling off moves no one knew he had. Claude Giroux continuing to amaze and awe and turn into something special. Kimmo Timonen and ihs understated warrior play. Matt Carle elevating his game. Braydon Coburn finding consistency. Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek not getting overwhelmed. Chris Pronger playing more minutes than anyone and playing each and every one of them better than any other defenseman in this postseason. And Mike Richards, doing everything you can ask a hockey player to do, leading his team in points, killing penalties, throwing huge hits, winning faceoffs, winning battles, defense, offense, special teams, you name it Richards did it. He has been the catalyst. He has been the man throwing himself around like there's no tomorrow. He is the epitome of what a captain should be. Let he never be questioned again.

And Peter Laviolette, boy, what can I say about Peter Laviolette. Master technician, master motivator, master coach. He is the Flyers right now. He's the perfect coach for this franchise, for this team. He's pushing all the right buttons. Now he's pushed this bunch of former underachievers to the precipice of greatness. The Flyers are Eastern Conference Champs. They weren't afraid to touch the Prince of Wales trophy, much the way the Penguins weren't last year. Not after this season, not after all this team has been through and overcome. Mike Richards went right up to that thing and grabbed it by the horns, just the Flyers have grabbed this opportunity and have run with it. Now they need just four more wins. Just four more.

LET'S GO FLYERS!!!!!!!!!!!!

BallHype: hype it up!

Names of the Weekend: Cole, Jimmy, Claude and Ville

Things really couldn't have started out any better this weekend. Friday night saw the continued re-emergence of the World Fucking Champion's fallen ace.

Going against a vaunted (if underachieving) Boston Red Sox lineup to kick of interleague play, Cole was back to his old, awesome self. He threw seven masterful innings of three-hit, one-run ball, striking out 8 and walking just one. His only flaw was a two-out solo home run surrendered to Victor Martinez in the first inning. From there on out, Cole was in complete control, thanks in no small part to his devastating changeup.

Over the past year-plus, when Cole went through more struggles than he ever has in his life on the mound, Hamels tended to shy away more and more from his out pitch, his changeup. The same pitch that he used to make major league hitters look foolish time and time again, most especially in the 2008 postseason, started to be put on the back-burner. All the attention seemed to go on getting his velocity up on his fastball or developing better command of his hit-or-miss curveball. And let's not even get started on the cutter. All of this tinkering came at the expense of his changeup, which truly is one of the best pitches in all of baseball. On an 0-2 or 1-2 count, he stopped trying to put guys away with his out pitch as much. And he got burned. But on Friday, Hamels broke out the changeup all game long, and the results speak for themselves. He outdueled the supremely disappointing John Lackey, who gave up four runs on six hits and five walks in just five innings of work and now has an ERA of 5.07. Apparently it's a lot tougher to pitch in the AL East than the AL West. No Yankees or Rays out there.

Anyway, Cole was awesome, Howard and Werth homered and the Phils began the series with a victory. Though David Herndon and J.C. Romero did decide to turn a 5-1 lead into an adventure in the ninth, but no harm, no foul. J.C. got the unnecessarily eventful save for the 5-1 win. But not all was well. Jimmy Rollins, fresh off the DL earlier in the week, pulled up lame, re-injuring his calf, and was put back on the disabled list. Not good. Just when we thought the Phils were finally getting back to 100 percent, down goes Rollins again. That's a tough blow, even with the way Juan Castro has played this year. Jimmy is the catalyst for this team, and his defense at short is second to none. With Rollins getting older, you have to worry about something like this. The potential for the injury to linger looks likely, considering it's the second time he's been sidelined with it. That's not good for a guy who relies a lot on his speed to create things on the base paths. Here's hoping Jimmy recovers quickly … and completely, so we can put this scare to rest for the home stretch.

Even with Jimmy's injury, it was a nice way to jump-start the weekend. A good win against an American League team. I was feeling great, and the night was still young. Silver fox and a friend headed down to my house with a bottle of booze in tow, we drank quite heavily and then headed out … where we drank some more. All was going well. That is until we hopped in a cab.

I've had many cab experiences here in Philadelphia, and the majority of them are good. Funny stories, interesting drivers. Friday night was not one of them. We told our cabby our destination, and he had no idea where it was. How that is possible when your entire job revolves around knowing where things are and how to get there is beyond me, but whatever. I told him the whereabouts. Then he proceeded to drive … and drive … and drive. I repeatedly kept telling him to turn left and head toward where we were going. He repeatedly ignored my requests, taking more than a half hour to make a 10-minute drive. I was pissed, literally fighting with the guy for not listening to me. He was meter-running like an asshole. We gave his a shit tip, which should have been way shittier, and he started yelling an honking. That's when I got in a bit of a shouting match with him myself, after repeatedly in the cab trying to get him to go where we wanted to go, then telling him it was taking forever and complaining that he was the worst cab driver ever. I hope that guy drives off the Walt Whitman. What a douche.

Luckily, we survived the remainder of the night without further incident, ate cheesesteaks and headed home for some rest. As nice as the Phils' win on Friday night was, it really wasn't even close to being a blip on my radar of importance this past weekend. It was all about Saturday, all about the Flyers and Canadiens. Game 4 had wide-sweeping implications. After beating the Canadiens 9-0 in the first two contests, Montreal dominated on Thursday night, owning the Flyers in every conceivable way en route to a 5-1 ass-kicking that brought the series to 2-1.

With that loss, I tried to find the silver lining, chalked it up to one bad game and hoped the Flyers would bounce back. I thought what happened in game 4 could be determined in first 20 minutes. The Flyers hadn't played a good, complete first period in a long, long time. If they did Saturday, I had a feeling that would go a long way toward taking a 3-1 series lead.

When I finally gathered myself to get set for the game, I was surprised to here that not only was Ian Laperriere playing, but so, too, was Jeff Carter. And even more surprising, Dan Carcillo was the one who got scratched along with Adreas Nodl.

I was a bit stunned to say the least. First, that Carter actually was going to play. And I have to say, when he took the ice, he looked all sorts of good Saturday. That was a great sign. He created a ton of chances, looked confident with his foot and basically looked like Jeff Carter. Great sign. But I was surprised Carcillo got scratched. Though not stunned. After his huge goal against Jersey, Carcillo has cooled down offensively. He has done a great job drawing penalties and playing disciplined, but with Arron Asham (the guy I would have considered scratching along with Carcillo) playing so well alongside Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk, it would be hard to scratch Asham. Some suggested Daroll Powe, but I knew he wouldn't really be considered, for two reasons: 1. He's tailor-made to play in Peter Laviolette's system, a straight up and down forward who hits anything that moves and defines his game by his forechecking; and 2. His great penalty-killing throughout the playoffs, especially in Laperriere's absence. Even with Ian back, it would be too much to ask Laperriere to log as much PK time as he had prior to his injury, and Powe and Blair Betts have developed a great chemistry in the month since Ian last took the ice. That left Carcillo. Tough thing to have to do, scratch a fan favorite who has worked his tail off and become a better and smarter player all year long. Laviolette said as much. But at this time of year, you gotta do what you gotta do. Laviolette did.

Shortly before the puck was to be dropped, in walked uncle jellyfish into our humble abode, case of beer in hand. We were all set to go as we watched the bilingual Canadian national anthem being sung. The screen panned to Claude Giroux listening intently, moving his skates every so slightly. When the camera got on him, I turned to uncle jellyfish and Adam EatShit and said, "That guy is going to score a goal today. I can just feel it." He had that look about him, the look of a player ready to go out and take over. And boy did he ever.

The Flyers came out and played their best overall first period of the series. Yes, they had led after one in the first two games, but the energy wasn't the same. On Saturday, the Flyers kept the Canadiens at bay, surrendering no real threats, and took the Montreal crowd out of it. They ground out a choppy, uneventful period, just what you want to do on the road. The forecheck was established, despite being outshot 7-5 through one, the Flyers started to take control in the offensive zone in the latter half of the opening stanza.

And then the second period happened. Montreal, lulled into a haze with an uneventful first period and gaining no advantage with the home crowd energy, was spent. The Flyers, who were so awful in game 3, regained their form and looked energized. And from then on, they just completely took over. Every shift took place in Montreal's zone. No Canadien could find time or space with the puck. The Flyers clogged the neutral zone, took away space, didn't let Montreal do anything. And conversely, the Flyers used their size and strength and speed to wreak havoc on Montreal. The Flyers won every puck battle, cycled, forechecked, hit, hell, they even won damn near every faceoff. It was all Flyers right out of the gate.

But Jaroslav Halak, who regained his confidence in game 3, was playing well. Really well. So well you had a bad feeling about another 50-something save performance to steal the show. That is until Claude went and scored one of the most awesome goals ever.

Boy did he make me look smart. Claude just left Josh Gorges flat-footed, blowing right by him on the outside, cut in alone on Halak and top shelved him with a wicked, ridiculous shot. Broken strap or not, Gorges was going to be made a fool of. Claude is the fucking man.

With Giroux breaking through, it was all Flyers. From that moment on, Montreal didn't even sniff a chance at winning. Not one. The Flyers were better at everything. And I mean everything. Faceoffs. Hitting. Passing. Transition. Offensive zone time. Cycling. Puck battles. You name the aspect of the game, and the Flyers were winning it, no dominating it. They completely took over, answered the bell, and came back with a huge statement following the debacle in game 3. The Flyers outshot the Canadiens 13-1, thirteen to one, in the second period. And Chris Pronger made sure to put his stamp on it and make it clear that game 3 was an aberration, firing the most perfect cross-ice, bad-angle, blue line to blue line pass right on the tape to Ville Leino, who knew exactly what to do with it.

That was all she wrote. Sure, it was only a 2-goal game, but that didn't matter. The Flyers were in complete control. They were the ones doing the ass-kicking this time. And with a 2-0 lead, they played a damn near picture-perfect defensive third. Short shifts, smart plays, get the puck out at all costs. Nothing dumb. The Flyers just clogged the neutral zone time and time again, stood up at the blue line and simply wouldn't let the Canadiens get anything going. Nothing. At all. It was as good of a defensive period as I've seen them play all season long. It wasn't flashy, wasn't exciting, it was just perfect, sound hockey. The only mistake came when Matt Carle shoveling the puck over the boards in the defensive zone early on, a truly atrocious play considering he had much more time and space to make a simpler, smarter play, but it was Carle's only real miscue of the game. He and Pronger rebounded nicely.

Michael Leighton went largely untested thanks to his team's tremendous defense, facing just 17 shots. But he did stop all 17 of them, recording his third shutout in four games of this series. That's just ridiculous, no matter how he got them. And just in case any Montreal fan was suckered into thinking a miracle comeback could happen down just two, Claude put that to rest with another tremendous play, showing the desire and hunger to take care of business by simply worker harder than the opposition to win a race for the puck and place it in the empty net.

The game was a nearly flawless performance by the Flyers, even with "sandgate" (if you don't know, you didn't watch). Jeff Carter looked not just good, but great, save for the fact he didn't actually bury one of the several great chances he created for himself. Laperriere brought his energy, shield or no shield. Claude was the best forward on the ice. Ville continued his playoff emergence. Pronger and Carle bounced back to be the best two defensemen on the ice. Kimmo and Coburn continued to play awesome. And the rest of the guys, led by Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Blair Betts and Daroll Powe, played about as well as you can possibly play defensively. The Flyers are now just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1997, five wins away from hoisting Lord's Stanley Cup.

That made a near no-hitter by Dice-K Saturday and the first truly bad performance by Roy Halladay in red pinstripes yesterday much easier to take. The Flyers are five wins away from drinking from the Cup. Five more wins.

Tune in tonight, as they try to make it four.

LET'S GO FLYERS!!!!!!!!!

BallHype: hype it up!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Laperriere Back, Carter Close

Coming off their worst performance of the playoffs, the Flyers received some very, very good news.

That's right, Ian Laperriere will be back in action for the first time since game 5 of the Devils series, when he (and I) thought his eye fell out. The man has some big, brass ones, I tell you. A month to the day that he suffered a brain contusion, broken orbital bone and concussion, Laperriere will be back in the lineup for game 4 in Montreal, wearing a full shield. He'll undoubtedly take Andreas Nodl's place on the fourth line along with Darroll Powe and Blair Betts.

Nodl performed admirably in Laperriere's absence, playing aggressive, confident hockey. But Laperriere's return cannot be overstated. He, along with Betts, has been the best penalty-killing forward for the Flyers all season, and he is as fearless and as awesome as it gets when it comes blocking shots. Even with the shield, I don't expect that to change. Add in his toughness along the boards and veteran playoff experience, and this is certainly a good thing. It may be just what the doctor ordered to help ignite the Flyers, hopefully in the first period, tomorrow.

In more great news, Jeff Carter also skated today at practice and according to Sam Carchidi "looked to be regaining his form." Carter is doubtful for tomorrow's game, but he hasn't been completely ruled out quite yet either. The question is, with Laperriere already coming back and Carter on the way some time sooner rather than later (seemingly), who do you take out of the lineup? Surely the Flyers can't afford to mess with the great chemistry Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and former healthy-scratch regular Ville Leino have developed. And with the way Leino's played, he can't be taken out of the lineup. So who does that leave? Darroll Powe maybe? I don't think I'd want to see Powe taken out of the lineup, not with the energy and speed he brings. He's been hitting everything that moves this postseason, epitomizing Peter Laviolette's aggressive forecheck style. He's tailor-made for this system. Plus, he's played really well defensively and on the penalty kill.

So who else is left? Dan Carcillo maybe? It's tough to imagine Carcillo not being in the lineup. He's done an outstanding job remaining relatively disciplined, drawn a lot of penalties on the opposition, and even scored a pretty big goal.

Arron Asham, maybe? I could see that. Or JVR? Perhaps, but those two have played really well in the playoffs alongside Claude Giroux, especially of late, even if the score sheet isn't conveying it all the time.

Certainly Gagne, Richards, Briere, Giroux and Betts aren't going anywhere. Scott Hartnell has really stepped up his game of late, so it would be hard to envision him getting healthy scratched — and shit, after surviving what can only be described as a horrendous regular season without being a healthy scratch, you wouldn't expect it in the playoffs. Nor should Leino be asked to sit. And really, with Carcillo on the top line and being disciplined and Powe playing well, it's tough to take anyone out. Maybe only dress five defensemen? That's a possibility, seeing as Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek haven't exactly gotten a ton of ice time or played well enough to merit more time. But dressing just five defensemen is a dicey proposition.

I don't know who would become the healthy scratch, but someone would have to go to make room for Carter. You certainly aren't going to not put Jeff Carter — leading goal-scorer in the regular season, penalty-killer and power-play contributor, and most consistent player all season — in the lineup if he's ready.

The good news is the Flyers don't have to rush him back with the forwards playing so well. They might as well take their time and make sure he's 100 percent and in good game shape before inserting him into the lineup. Either way, it's a nice problem to have — so many guys playing well that you don't know who to sit, last night's game excluded.

Welcome back, Ian. And get well soon, Jeff. We're gonna need you guys for six more victories.


BallHype: hype it up!

Finding the Silver Lining

There's not much good to say about the Flyers last night. Montreal came out hungry and took it to Philadelphia from the opening faceoff to the final horn. This one was as lopsided as it gets, and it didn't take long for the Canadiens to take command.

Yet again in the first period, Montreal came out the better team. Way better, in fact. And this time, they actually made the Flyers pay. The Canadiens outshot Philadelphia 17-9 in the opening stanza, went up 2-0 and never took the foot off the gas pedal. In all, they finished with a 38-26 shot advantage, and made a series of this thing. The reason they were able to do so, besides finally solving the Michael Leighton puzzle, had as much to do with Philadelphia's horrendous defense as it did their own pressure.

Make no mistake about it, Montreal earned this victory in every conceivable way. They kicked ass and took names. And with the Canadiens playing their best hockey, the Flyers, namely Chris Pronger and Matt Carle, completely and utterly sucked.

Both Pronger and Carle finished a game-worst minus-3 on the night. In the first two games, that duo had done such a phenomenal job shutting down the hottest player in this postseason, Mike Cammalleri. It took the Montreal assistant captain all of seven minutes to finally get on the board, and he easily had his best game yet. Not coincidentally, Pronger and Carle each had their worst game of the entire postseason.

In the first period, Matt Carle did not do a single good thing. Not one. Every time he got the puck, he either made a terrible pass, wrong decision or turnover. He had no control whatsoever. It was his worst games in months. Not only did he get a major case of the yips, but he also tripped up his own goaltender on the game's first goal — though admittedly, he had a little help from Mike Cammalleri, who gave him a little cross-check nudge, however slight, to create room. I think it's safe to say that Matt Carle was the worst player on the ice last night.

Though no one would argue that Pronger wasn't far behind. Since coming over from Anaheim in the offseason, Chris Pronger has been nothing short of spectacular. I say this with an incredible amount of bias but also with real conviction and belief: Pronger flat-out got snubbed in the Norris Trophy race, and frankly, he probably should have won it. That's how great he's been this year. Save for an occasion turnover here or there — of which there weren't many, especially after the first month or so — it's tough to even recall a single bad game Chris Pronger has played in the Orange and Black. That is until last night. There is no argument about it. This is not opinion, but fact. Last night was easily, far and away Chris Pronger's worst game as a Philadelphia Flyer. He was sloppy with the puck, so much so that he deserved an assist on this debacle of a goal:

Often, he was uncharacteristically out of position. He just didn't look like Chris Pronger out there. For the first time all year, he was hurting the Flyers. To compound that, the Flyers let Jaroslav Halak gain his confidence back. That's a dangerous thing for a goaltender who has had such an up-and-down playoffs. In each series, he has been pulled. And in each series, he has gotten better and better and better as it's wore on, to the point of being the best player on the ice by the time it's all said and done. By firing just 26 pucks at him, only one of which got through, Halak looked like a goaltender back on top of his game. He made some outstanding saves early and then went largely untested the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Michael Leighton no longer looked like an impenetrable brick wall. Though to be fair, he also didn't have much help in front of him. On Cammalleri's goal, he was tripped up by Carle. The second goal resulted in a terrible turnover by Pronger, which led to three Canadiens heading to the crease. Another goal resulted in a bad misplay by Carle trying to reach a puck by jumping and failing, resulting in a breakaway for Brian Gionta. He was left out to dry most of the night. You can hardly chalk this loss up to him. However, putting up a five-spot on a goaltender that had blanked them through two games gives the Canadiens confidence that they now can score. Combine that with Halak's bounceback game and a total team effort and you have yourself the makings of a tough, tough series.

It may sound like there's nothing good you can take from a game like this, a 5-1 beating. But I'm going to do my best. For one thing, Simon Gagne continued his torrid pace, scoring the lone Flyers goal. When Simon is scoring the way he is right now, the Flyers are a tough team to beat.

Another promising thing to take out of this: Chris Pronger and Matt Carle couldn't possibly play any worse. That duo has been great all season long. It took a pretty piss-poor effort by the pairing that had been shutting down every team's top players for Montreal to finally get on the score sheet. The likelihood that Carle and especially Pronger will have even just one more game like last night's is remote. It was Pronger's only bad game of the season, and Carle, while prone to inconsistency and some bad stretches of play, has really minimized his mistakes as the season has gone on, especially in these playoffs. He seems calmer and more confident playing alongside Pronger, understandably — last night excluded. So you have to think those guys won't have another game like this. Let's certainly hope not.

And the final silver lining, of course, is that the Flyers still hold a 2-1 advantage in the series. That's the most important thing. They defended their home ice advantage, and really, that's all they have to do in this series. That's not the ideal way to go about it, obviously, but the Flyers are still in really good position.

Having said that, this team has to step up its game in the first period of play. Think about it, when's the last time the Flyers actually played a good, complete first period? Yes, they led after a period of play in games 1 and 2 of this series, but they also were outshot in those first periods 13-6 and 16-6. Last night, they were outshot 17-9 in the opening 20 minutes. And thinking all the way back to game 7 against Boston, they fell behind 3-0 before making it 3-1 and were outshot 14-8. They've been outshot 60-29 in their last four first periods, and the last good opening period they had came in game 6 against Boston. Even then, they were outshot 9-8 by the Bruins.

If this team really wants to complete a miracle run, really wants to have the chance to lift Lord Stanley's Cup, the Flyers are going to have to find a way to come out of the gate better from here on out. Tomorrow afternoon would be a good time to start. Steal a game in Montreal, and a 3-1 series lead coming back to Philadelphia puts the Canadiens in quite the vulnerable position. Fall to 2-2, and it becomes a three-game sprint to the Cup, always a dangerous proposition. The good news is the Flyers are still in control and they couldn't possibly play any worse than they did in game 3. Now it's time to seize this opportunity, grab the bull by the horns and get six more wins. Just six more.


BallHype: hype it up!

It's Friday, Time to Dance

In case you haven't heard, your Philadelphia 76ers, fresh off of winning the 2nd pick in the 2010 NBA draft, have signed Doug Collins to a four-year deal to be the head coach.

Collins, of course, played for the 76ers back in the day. He also was the coach Michael Jordan got fired in Chicago before Phil Jackson stepped in and the Bulls won all of those championships. And the coach Michael handpicked years later to coach the Wizards during his comeback. He coached Grant Hill too, you know, when Grant was a superstar.

I have no idea if this hire is a good thing or a bad thing. It certainly isn't an exciting one. And it's actually kind of sad, because Doug is an awesome analyst. TNT will surely miss him. But in honor of Doug, who's always seemed like a great guy and a man who certainly knows all there is to know about basketball, dance til your heart's content to the theme song from Doug.

BallHype: hype it up!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Up Close and Personal: My Night on the Glass

Where did you watch the Flyers game last night? A bar? Your house? Maybe even somewhere in the Wachovia Center? That's nice. Me? I watched the game from ice level, son. Section 120, row 2, seats 1 and 2. That's where uncle jellyfish and I were, directly behind the glass back and to the right of Michael Leighton in periods 1 and 3.

It's certainly the closest I've ever sat at a hockey game, and it was fucking awesome. The Wachovia Center was rocking from the moment we entered the building. And as we walked down to our seats, I started to get goosebumps. I've been to plenty of Flyers games before, hell, plenty of playoff games — same goes for the Sixers, Phillies and Eagles — but I've never been right there on the glass, able to pound the boards and see the players up close and personal. Now I was sitting there in game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Awesome.

There was Don Cherry, doing his pregame business right there in front of us.

There were the players, firing away on the net to prepare. Excitement was in the air, and I was marveling at the size of the players during warmups. And the linesmen. Holy shit are those guys big. I remember Bill Clement and Jim Jackson discussing how big the linesmen usually are, but it's hard to really envision their size until you see them right in front of you. Huge. Though not as huge as Chris Pronger and Hal Gill. Those are two massive human beings.

Anyway, out came Lauren Hart to our right, out to sing the Canadian national anthem and God Bless America.

That was it, time to get this thing under way. I was amped, fired up, ready to go all out. And for the first few shifts, so were the Flyers, playing down in Montreal's end for the first couple shifts or so. But that was about it. From there, the Canadiens began firing shot after shot after shot on Leighton, right in front of us. Montreal was desperate, knowing full well a 2-0 series deficit was nothing they wanted to face, and the pressure was on. They outplayed the Flyers, plain and simple. On the rare occasions Philadelphia was able to get a shot away on Jaroslav Halak, it was one and done. However, when the Flyers went to the man advantage, they didn't waste it.

Just over 2 minutes in, Lukas Krajicek got called for slashing. Blair Betts did a phenomenal job all night winning defensive-zone draws on the penalty kill, and the Flyers were in the midst of killing off the penalty when Scott Gomez got his stick in the mid-section of a Flyer and hauled him down. Thanks, you Alaskan bastard. Man, I hate Scott Gomez. Lucky for us so far, he's been doing far more bad things, like said penalty, than good. It's safe to say he kinda sucks now. And I love it. Shortly after Krajicek made his way out of the box, Claude fed Danny Briere with a backhanded pass, and Briere continued to be a playoff beast, sniping one past Halak, 1-0 Flyers.

We were at the other end of the ice, literally lined up with Briere as he shot. I couldn't see it quite go in, but I knew it had, even before the fans at the other end reacted. You just get that feeling with Danny Briere when he has the puck on his stick these days. He's been unreal.

Here the Flyers were, getting an early goal to take the lead, but Montreal wasn't laying down. Not in the slightest. They kept coming in waves, taking it to Philadelphia shift after shift. Thankfully, Michael Leighton was on his game. Big time. The guy has really been remarkable. Back when he got on a hot streak and helped turn the Flyers' season around, I still wasn't incredibly impressed with his play. Yes, he was stopping shots and putting up good numbers, but he seemed to lose sight of the puck quite a bit. Not anymore. Not since taking over for a fallen Brian Boucher. In these playoffs, he's been in complete control, anticipating every play and seeing the puck at all times. Last night was more of the same. Leighton was always in perfect position, always square to the shooter, always ready to make the save. And he did. Time and time again. Right in front of us. And he made one in that first period, a late kick save through traffic, that we have no idea how he even saw. It was beautiful. Michael Leighton looks like Patrick Roy right now, like Bernie Parent. Last night, the Flyers needed him to.

The Canadiens fired the rubber at Leighton 16 times in that first period, and Leighton stopped every single one of them. The Flyers defense was getting pinned, but they weren't panicking. Any rebound Leighton let loose, they were there to clear it. Any traffic came toward the crease, they were there to make room for their goaltender. And many of those 16 shots came from far out or tough angles. But still, the Canadiens were putting the pressure on. I was happy to get to intermission with a 1-0 lead.

After reliving Leighton's kick save right in front of us, the second period finally began. Unfortunately, it was more of the same. The play was now mostly down at the other end of the ice, but still, no go for Montreal. Everywhere a Canadien turned, there was a defenseman to thwart him or Leighton there to deny him. Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn were awesome, putting pressure on puck-handlers, denying the blue line, pinching on every play. That duo was outstanding, and Coburn, a guy who I've been very down on this year, was arguably the best defenseman on the night. He and Kimmo certainly were the best pairing. It's nice to see Coburn stepping his game up in the postseason.

Though the play wasn't down our end all that much, we did get a up close and personal view of Scott Hartnell hitting Danny Briere with a perfect pass. It looked as though Briere had a slam dunk goal, but he kind flubbed it or missed it, and the puck went wide of the net. We thought for sure it was an easy goal. But for once, Danny Briere didn't have the magic touch.

No matter. The other Flyer on fire did, as with less than five minutes remaining in the 2nd and the Flyers clinging to that one-goal lead, Simon Gagne rung the bell.

On the power play once again, this time thanks to a holding penalty by that other former New Jersey Devil midget Brian Gionta, Simon fought for the puck behind the goal line. It got to Richards literally right in front of us. He fed Ville Leino in front with a beautiful pass, and we all could see Leino finishing the play for a goal. It was all set up. When he didn't, there was a momentary moan, but it didn't last very long, because directly in front of us, we saw Gagne pounce on the rebound and stuff it home.

It was pandemonium. I jumped out of my seat, propelling myself forward, literally slamming both my shits on the seat in front of me. 2-0 Flyers. In a game that they were getting outplayed, getting outshot 26-13 after two periods, the Flyers held a lead. And to add to the joy, I received about 50 million text messages alerting me that the Sixers got the 2nd pick in draft. Evan Turner, here we come!

Talk about a great night for Philadelphia. Adam EatShit and I were joking that with the Sixers sending Jrue Holiday to represent them at the lottery, Jrue was praying for anything but the first pick. He got his wish, and the best-case scenario. Awesome. Even funnier, Adam EatShit, who was also at the game, saw Jason Smith of the 76ers there in attendance and started talking to him. Something about his neighbor in Manayunk (yes, Jason Smith lives in Manayunk) is friends with Adam, and he and Jason went to the game. Smith told Adam that he wished as many fans showed up to Sixers games. Now with Evan Turner on the horizon, maybe some will. But that's a discussion for another day. This is all about the Flyers.

During that 2nd intermission, a woman who is a season-ticket holder the row to the right and behind us came down and asked us if we would mind not standing up so much. She was very nice about it, but kind of annoying at the same time, telling us she knows the season ticket holder whose tickets we have, and he never stands up and blocks her vision. Listen, lady, this is the playoffs, playoff hockey. We paid good money to sit in incredible seats, to witness a playoff game in the Eastern Conference finals. We were damn well going to make sure we could see the puck. And it's not like we were standing around blocking people's views. When the puck went into the left corner along the boards, uncle jellyfish and I would lean over a bit to try and see the play. That's it. Those were the only times we were getting up even slightly, except for when the goals occurred. Uncle jellyfish kindly told her he wasn't going to apologize for watching the game. If you want to never even move and still see everything, stay the fuck home. I'd understand if we were being assholes and holding up signs the whole time or standing throughout play, but that wasn't the case. You don't sit on your hands in the playoffs, season-ticket holder or not.

I wasn't about to give two shits about this lady's feelings and continued to go about watching the game. And while the first two periods were clearly owned by the Canadiens in every aspect but the scoreboard, the third period was different. Montreal looked like a team that was defeated. The Flyers had some jump in their skates, finally mustering up the pressure that had been absent most of the first two periods. And with a 2-0 lead, that's a dangerous thing. The Giroux-Asham-JVR line was awesome, spending large chunks of time in Montreal's end. That trio has really come on strong this season, especially in the playoffs. The numbers may not bear that out, but their play on the ice sure as shit does.

Blair Betts and Darroll Powe were awesome on the PK all night, as Betts continued to win big draws and play great defense, and Powe continued to hit anything that moved. Andrea Nodl continued to do a great job hustling out there, also forechecking hard with Powe and Betts. And all the rest of lines continued to hum too, especially in the third.

Then the Flyers put the game away for good as Ville Leino streaked up the ice and just floated a wrister from a bad angle and far distance toward Halak. That's when the Montreal goaltender, who had played so well against Washington and Pittsburgh and had been so tremendous in games following getting pulled (7-1-1), let in one of the softest goals I've seen.

That was all she wrote. The Flyers were going up 2-0 in the series, and the place was going nuts. The only question that remained is could Leighton post a second consecutive shutout. That's what we all wanted to see, and that's what we got. Leighton had already stopped 26 shots heading into the final period, and he was only asked to stop four more in the third. He did, one in spectacular fashion.

Mission accomplished. Shutout intact.

Michael Leighton has now gone eight consecutive periods without giving up a goal, going all the way back to the first period of game 7 against Boston. The Flyers have scored 13 unanswered goals. They are outscoring Montreal 9-0 through two games. And even on a night when the Canadiens were the better team for 40 minutes, the Flyers still found a way to win. Michael Leighton was the best player on the ice, stopping all 30 shots he faced and never once looking lost in net. Danny Briere and Simon Gagne continued to score and score and score, carrying this team offensively. Coburn had maybe his best game ever. Kimmo was a warrior as always. The penalty kill was outstanding, the power play clicking and the team getting stronger as the game wore on, just as this team has gotten stronger as these playoffs go on.

We stayed and soaked in it. We watched Kimmo come out as third star, Gagne as second star and Leighton, as if there was ever a doubt, as the first star. We headed to the AT&T Pavilion for a some post-game beers. We enjoyed every last minute of it. I've always wanted to sit on the glass. Technically, I was in the second row, but I was able to touch it any time I wanted, in a playoff game no less. And more important than any of that, I was there again as the Flyers got another huge playoff victory.

Six more wins. Just six more.


BallHype: hype it up!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's Winning Worth to You?

Jayson Werth is having a completely ridiculous season thus far. We all know this. We all want this. We are all happy about it. BUT with each home run, with each big 2-5, 4-RBI, 1-run, 1-homer game he has (like in last night's 12-2 drubbing of the Pirates), every Phillies fan gets a little bit of an uneasy feeling in the back of their brain buried behind all of the joy from another great game by the beard.

The thought process goes, especially after Ryan Howard's $125 million contract combined with an escalating payroll, that Jayson Werth is pricing himself out of re-signing with the Phillies. Whether or not that's entirely true remains to be seen, but by not keeping Cliff Lee after acquiring Roy Halladay, the Phillies put themselves in a PR situation where the decision to not keep both was all about money. The Phillies will tell you, and keep on telling you, that they moved Lee because they needed to restock their farm system after losing key prospects in the Halladay trade. And that may be what they truly believe. But when you have the chance to have two former Cy Young winners in your rotation, both in their primes, a lefty and righty no less, is it really worth passing that opportunity up? Especially after the one you let get away pitched so brilliantly for you? Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't. There's no question if it had to be an either/or scenario, Roy Halladay is and was the right choice. But it didn't have to be. And many people believe it was because of money.

That's not to say that perception is entirely true. The Phillies aren't cheap. They have one of the highest payrolls in all of baseball. They signed Halladay to a hefty extension, and then doled out huge bucks to make sure Ryan Howard remained a Phillie for a long time. But there's always going to be that lingering question of letting Cliff Lee go. The why that may never really be answered, especially if he gets traded to another NL rival this summer.

Jimmy Rollins threw in his two cents by saying keeping Lee and Halladay is something he guesses only the Yankees do. So my question to the Phillies, or more accurately the fans, is what is winning worth to you? Because I see a solution of sorts, a way for the Phillies to begin to enter the realm of the Yankees and Red Sox. No, I'm saying they become spenders at all cost, the Evil Empire of the NL. I'm saying, while you have this core intact and you're selling out the stadium every night, you go about business a little differently, in a way that $140 million doesn't necessarily have to be the limit for your budget.

Citizens Bank Park seats 43,651 people. The Phillies sell out damn near every night. Add to that a couple thousand standing room only seats, and there are 45,000 people there on any given night, easy. Philadelphia is a big-market city that loves its sports teams, and when they're playing good, there isn't anything more popular in the city. That's evident by what seems like a million sellouts in a row, by the Phillies red you see everywhere coming off of back-to-back World Series appearances including becoming World Fucking Champions. So if the fans really want to continue seeing a winner, if they really want the Phillies to keep the Cliff Lees, Jayson Werths and company, really want the Phillies to go out and get a Roy Oswalt or even enter a sweepstakes for a guy like Carl Crawford, and if the Phillies want to keep getting to World Series and start pilling up some rings, raise ticket prices, all of them, $5 - $10.

Simple as that. People will keep going, believe me. At least if all they really want from ownership is them to do everything in their power to win, which is the refrain we often hear from the masses. Raise tickets $5 - $10, hear the moans and groans, but watch as the fans continue to flock and the Phils continue to win. Think about it. 5 (ticket price raise) x 45,000 (attendance) x 81 (number of home games) = $18.225 million in extra revenue in one year, certainly enough to re-sign Jayson Werth. And that's not even including playoff games. If you want to bring back a Jayson Werth and make a run at another starting pitcher, or closer, or some other high-priced piece, raise them $10 … and get $36.45 million in extra money in just one year. Sure, many fans will complain, and I'm not exactly thrilled with raising ticket prices, but if that's what it's going to take to keep adding the right pieces, to keep the best players on this team in Philadelphia, I think we'll all understand. At least if winning truly is worth more than anything to us and to the Phillies.

BallHype: hype it up!

King Kobe

Forget about LeBron James and where he may end up for just a little bit here. In fact, forget about "King" James altogether right now. The NBA playoffs are still going on, still with two rounds to finish, and in case you've been too caught up in the "Summer 2010 Bonanza," there's a familiar face staking his claim, once again, to the NBA kingdom.

Truth of the matter is the crown has been his all along, even as the rest of the world was ready to hand the keys over to LeBron. Yes, James legitimately earned his two MVPs, but he couldn't finish either season on top. Kobe Bryant was the one raising his hands in celebration, and he's the one emphatically leaving his mark as these playoffs wear on.

After a struggling with his shot to start against those spry Oklahoma City Thunder, Kobe still managed to put up games of 21, 39 and 24 points before dropping to an uncharacteristic 12 points in a game 4 loss. Unquestionably frustrated with his shooting touch, Kobe didn't force it and demand to be the man, going against the nature many people accuse him of possessing. In a game 5 rout, he shot just 9 times, netting 13 points, content to facilitate to his teammates, proven by his 7 assists, allowing Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol — who has been incredible this postseason — to do the heavy lifting offensively. Then he sent the Thunder home for good with a 32-point, 7-rebound performance in game 6, with a little help from his Spanish friend.

Next up was the Utah Jazz, and as LeBron and the Cavs were struggling to keep up with the suddenly rejuvenated Celtics, Kobe raised his game even further, playing like a true MVP in what looked like an effortless sweep. Bryant posted games of 31 and 4, 30 and 8 (plus 3 blocks and 5 boards), 35 and 7, and 32 and 4. He averaged 32 points in the sweep, shot 52.3 percent from the field, 86.8 percent from the line. He took over.

And last night, he was the driving force in the Lakers' 128-107 blowout victory in game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Suns.

He scored 40 points on 13-23 from the floor, 3-6 from three and 11-12 from the line. He had 5 boards and 5 assists, added a steal for good measure. Oh, and he gave Grant Hill some broke ankles:

No, Kobe didn't do it on his own. Pau was awesome yet again, getting 21 points on 10-13 from the floor. Ron Artest chipped in with 14-5-5-2. And Lamar Odom was kind enough to remind everyone just what he's capable of, posting 19 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a dominating performance on the glass. But make no mistake about it, it was Kobe who was leading the way, the same way he did last year, the same way he did last series. The Suns had no answer for him. Truth be told, no one has. Ever. Even as he ages, he remains an impossible player to defend. That's what makes him so dangerous. He has no discernible weakness in his game. Where LeBron can be goaded into taking jumpers or forced to do so by an overly clogged lane, teams don't want Bryant shooting at all. His jumper is lethal, whether from three, mid-range, contested or uncontested. You want the ball out of Kobe's hands period, no easy task. And when he's feeling it, there's really nothing anyone can do.

During the third quarter, the supposed frontrunner for the 76ers coaching job Doug Collins talked about how when he coached Michael Jordan, Michael would come out in game 1 and put up a huge number in the scoring column to let the other team know right from the get-go that they couldn't guard him. He said Kobe's performance reminded him of exactly that. The Suns now have that fear, have that knowledge that they're going to have their hands full with Kobe … not to mention Gasol, Bynum, Odom and Artest.

LeBron may be labeled as the king, but until someone knocks him off, Kobe Bryant is still the real king of the NBA hill.

Also, seriously, how in holy hell did Shannon Brown jump so damn high?

That was easily the most impressive failed dunk I've ever seen in my entire life.

I still hate the Lakers though, so, Phoenix, please don't go down without a fight.

BallHype: hype it up!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Flying High Now

Holy shit balls was that one hell of an awesome weekend. Undefeated weekends usually are. As great as it was to watch the Phillies sweep the pitching-deprived Brewers to move to four games up in the division, this weekend was all about about the Flyers.

After improbably taking games 4, 5 and 6 to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, the Flyers had the chance to really make history, more than in just the NHL commercials sense. Like history on a grand scale in the sports landscape. Only two NHL teams had ever come back from a 3-0 hole to win the series (the Maples Leafs and Islanders), and only three teams in North American sports (the Red Sox) have done so. Win and make history. Lose, and really, it was all for naught.

Almost as quickly as the Flyers had gone from dead in the water to alive and on a roll, it seemed as if all hope was lost. Just over 5 minutes in, Scott Hartnell — a player plagued by dumb penalties the past two seasons but a player who had, despite his struggles this postseason, seemingly gotten over such infractions — swings at a puck in mid-air and connects instead with a Bruin's face. Two minutes for high sticking. Eight seconds later, it's 1-0 Boston on the resulting power play. Then boom, just over two minutes later, playoff standout Danny Briere follows Hartnell's example, gets his stick up on a Bruin, and the B's go to the man advantage again. And score, again. 2-0 Bruins. I was not pleased.

Neither goal was Michael Leighton's fault, but that didn't make either easier to take. And when Milan Lucic game down on an odd-man rush and fired one right through Leighton, who was not screened, square to Lucic and seemingly ready to react, I was beside myself. Here we were, here they were, fighting all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a game 7, overcoming injury after injury after injury and they're going out like this? You gotta be fucking kidding me. Milan Lucic's second goal made it 3-0 just 14:10 into the game. I turned to my roommate and his dad and said, "You know, these fuckers could have just lost game four and saved us all the trouble." The way Tuukka Rask has played this year, this postseason, hell, this series, how in the hell were they going to find a way to get 4 pucks by him, especially with Boston being able to focus on defense the rest of the way? I was ready to pack it in and watch a team that had overcome so much die a slow, painful death.

But then Peter Laviolette pulled an unconventional move. With his team down 3-0 on the road in the first period of a game 7, he saw his troops reeling. The Bruins were taking it to the Flyers in every conceivable way, literally beating the Flyers at their own aggressive forechecking game. So instead of waiting around, instead of sitting back on the bench and just continuing to roll his lines, to try and get the matchups he wanted out there, he called a timeout. In the first period. I have no idea what he said entirely, but you could see him mouth the words "just one goal." Three minutes later, his Flyers got that goal, as the snake-bitten James van Riemsdyk stepped off the the wall with the puck, fired it as it semi-deflected and sort of knuckled past Rask.

It was just one goal in 4 in that first period, but it was perhaps the most important goal anyone has ever scored for the Flyers in my lifetime. JVR broke his drought, and you could see his confidence return immediately. So did the team's confidence. And mine. When JVR scored, I yelled at the TV, now you owe us one Scottie, and you too Danny," referring to Hartnell and Briere, whose penalties resulted in two of the Bruins' three first-period goals. And couldn't you know it, less than three minutes into the second period, Scott Hartnell pounced on a rebound and backhanded top shelf from a ridiculous angle to bring the Flyers within one.

Now it really was a game, and the Flyers weren't looking back. Ignited by Laviolette's speech, JVR's goal and now Hartnell's, the Flyers were the better team the rest of the way. Danny Briere atoned for his sin with a nifty little bank-shot goal to tie it, and suddenly the team that was left for dead, again, had been resurrected, again.

You hear an awful lot about a never-say-die attitude and teams that never quit, and oftentimes, it becomes so cliche that it gets tossed around lightly. Well not with these guys. Never with these guys. Down 3-0 in the series, down 3-0 in game 7, doesn't matter. They see opportunity where everyone else sees failure. It's remarkable. Even when no one else on the planet, fans included, myself included, think these guys can possibly overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there they are raising their games to new heights, finding ways to separate their backs from the wall when the whole world is pushing back. I'd like to give you an explanation of how they're able to do this time and time again, no matter the circumstances, but I can't. I just really can't. These guys just keep going out there and defying the odds, shocking the world. And I'm loving every minute of it.

Once Hartnell and Briere brought this thing all the way back to even, I knew it was only a matter time before someone struck. I wasn't quite sure who it would be, when it would come, or how. But I knew it was coming. And looking back, really, I should have known it would be Gagne. He is Philadelphia's longest-tenured athlete, obviously the longest-tenured Flyer. He's been an all-star, an Olympian, a loved and revered figure in Philadelphia. And he's also been, more recently, a guy viewed as an aging sniper with injuries problems and a large salary. Almost a burden to the team and the fans. No one can question Gagne's talents or contributions, but many questioned if his salary and no-trade clause were actually holding back the team. Question no longer. Gagne has been nothing short of brilliant since his return. He took the ice for the first time in the 2nd round with the Flyers facing elimination. Then all he did was score the overtime winner to force a game 5, score twice in game 5 and get an assist and play tremendous two-way hockey in 6. Of course he was going to be the one to put an end to game 7, to get the Flyers back to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Michael Leighton and the Flyers defense did the rest, hanging on to unbelievably advance. I was bombarded with streams of messages and phone calls proclaiming it the best hockey game they've ever seen, and it would be hard to argue. The Bruins came out and seemingly stomped the Flyers into submission in front of the Boston faithful, TD Bank rocking. Only one problem: The Flyers wouldn't submit. Not even a little bit. They got a swift kick in the pants from their coach, and then went out and dominated. The scoresheet will show JVR, Hartnell, Briere and Gagne with the biggest goals of all, but this truly was a team effort through and through.

Arron Asham, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk continued to play as a danger line, spending tremendous amounts of time in the offensive zone and making some truly remarkable plays. Claude is a master with the puck and as sound as they come as far as playing both ways. With Philadelphia nursing that 4-3 lead late, Claude had one of the greatest individual shifts ever, taking on three Bruins and ragging the puck in Boston's zone for damn near a half minute … all by himself.

For those of you who don't watch hockey much, trust me when I tell you that was as good a shift by one player as any that have taken place this postseason. It may not have resulted in a goal or a penalty, but it wasted valuable, valuable minutes … and was a big sequence in the game.

After scoring his goal, van Riemsdyk looked noticeably more confident the rest of the game, surging through the neutral zone, throwing checks, firing shots, trying some nifty stickhandling moves. He was dynamic out there, and when he's playing confident, the Asham-Giroux-JVR line is just as dangerous as any.

Blair Betts continued to show his grit and defensive prowess, fighting through the shoulder pain to win faceoffs and check any forward in his wake. Darroll Powe just keeps throwing his body around, pounding defensemen and forwards into submission. And Andreas Nodl earned his ice time, aggressively forechecking and remaining responsible defensively.

Mike Richards has continued to be a warrior, producing points, punishing hits and taking on any line thrown his way. Richards will never dazzle you the way a Sidney Crosby or a Alexander Ovechkin will, but make no mistake about it, Mike Richards is very much a superstar hockey player, not just an all-star. He's elite, truly one of the game's most understated yet incredibly awesome two-way players. Question his captaincy no more. He is the embodiment of a captain. He really is.

Dan Carcillo has done his best to stay out of the penalty box, and he's always there to lend a helping hand to a teammate. Ville Leino has been a revelation, nothing short of fantastic since being inserted into the lineup. His play has reached the point that if Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere were to return before this run is over, the Flyers wouldn't be able to sit Leino. He's been that good, fantastic withe puck on his stick and getting better defensively every game. Not sure why, even with his struggles during the regular season, a team like Detroit would just cut him loose, but I'm sure glad they did.

Chris Pronger has been the best defenseman in the NHL playoffs, period. Perhaps he took his Norris finalist snub personally. Or perhaps he's just doing what he does. What I do know is Pronger has been way better than any blue-liner in hockey. Duncan Keith, Dan Boyle, Brent Seabrook, P.K. Subban, name one. Pronger's been better than all of them. And not far behind has been Kimmo Timonen. Truly one of the most underrated, underappreciated players in the game. I admittedly knew very little about Kimmo before he became a Flyer and watching him game in and game out, it's easy to understand how outsiders can overlook him. But being privileged enough to watch him every game, I know just how lucky we are to have him. There aren't a dozen defensemen in the league I'd want over him. He's incredibly smart, rarely makes mistakes and can hold his own against big, strong guys as well as the speedy skill players. He can score, but he is definitely a defense-first defenseman. He kills penalties, mans the power play, block shots, even throws checks. And he rarely makes a mistake. There are plenty of excellent defensemen in the NHL. I'd find it hard to believe there's a team out there with two better than Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen.

And their play has rubbed off on the fellow defensemen. Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have been one big bundle of inconsistency the past two years, many times playing excellent one game and horrible the next. But this postseason, both have settled down and become reliable, sound defenders. Carle has flourished all year long playing alongside Pronger, and Coburn, after a really subpar regular season, has come around in the playoffs, finally starting to become the player he was a few years ago. And even Ryan Parent and Lucas Krajicek, in their limited ice time, have limited their mistakes and held their own. It's been great to see all the great work the defense has done in front of first Brian Boucher and now Michael Leighton — both goaltenders who have played fantastic hockey — this postseason.

Then there's the players who have been labeled as scapegoats of sorts here for the Flyers in recent memory. I've been absolutely killing Scott Hartnell the past two seasons. Been absolutely brutal. And he's become the goat for the Flyers the past two seasons. And all Hartnell has done is quietly turned his game around since a slow start against the Devils in round 1. He's found his legs and his scoring touch, and he's worked his tail off to get better. And frankly, he's been playing great of late. Same with Danny Briere, a player who has been the target of jeers for his massive contract that doesn't seem to quite match his productivity. Briere gets paid superstar money — yet he puts up only borderline all-star numbers at best, at least since coming to Philadelphia. Well guess what? I'm here to tell you Danny Briere is not overpaid. Not if winning a Stanley Cup if your ultimate goal. Because when the Stanley Cup playoffs ensue, Danny Briere plays every bit like a superstar, earns every red cent of his contract.

He did it two seasons ago when the Flyers made the Eastern Conference. And he's doing it again this year, as the Flyers have advanced once again to that same spot. He's scored huge goal after huge goal, made plays that make you drop your jaw in awe, and has generated chances at every turn. He's earning his keep. And he's doing it when it matters most. As is Simon Gagne. The man has been the name fans seemed like they were willing to part with to get some cap relief or make a major move. Many fans would have loved to see him shipped off in the Pronger deal instead of the younger, healthier (at least at the time) Joffrey Lupul and Luca Sbisa. But the Flyers knew what they had in Gagne, a great two-way player with a sniper's pedigree. So they held on to him, whether by choice or necessity (Gagne's no-trade clause), and without him, the Flyers wouldn't be anywhere near the Eastern Conference finals.

Now here they are, hosting the semifinals of the entire damn tournament, a 7-seeded no less. And they're up 1 game to none against the Canadiens, the 8-seed giant killers who knocked off No. 1 seed Washington and Alex Ovechkin and then took down the defending champs and Sidney Crosby next. But they couldn't stop the steam-rolling Flyers last night. Not even a little bit.

It took approximately five minutes for me to hate every single member of the Canadiens last night. I already hated Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta from their days in Jersey, and last night I wished true harm on them both. Hal Gill is the definition of a poor man's Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara. He's got the size, but that's about it. Sure, he's solid, but he's nowhere near as good. Though he did hoist the Cup with Pittsburgh last year, which is probably why I hate him. I was tired of hearing about Mike Cammalleri this and Mike Cammalleri that. Apparently, so was Chris Pronger, because he made it his duty to make sure no one heard his name last night. Cammalleri who came in lighting the world on fire and leading everyone's Conn Smythe watch list, played nearly 20 minutes but could only register one shot and finish a minus-1. Chris Pronger was his shadow, and the big man ate Cammalleri alive. The man came at an incredibly steep price, but boy is Chris Pronger making everyone in Philadelphia forget about Lupul, Sbisa and a couple of draft picks. He should be on everyone's Conn Smythe radar, if they've really been watching every game instead of just checking the box scores.

It was remarkable to watch the Habs come in so flat. I couldn't name you a single Canadien who had a good game, which isn't surprising in a 6-0 Flyers' victory in game 1, but still a little alarming for Montreal. Yes, the Canadiens outshot the Flyers 28-25, including 13-6 in the first period, but this was one instance where the shot total didn't reflect the play whatsoever. The Canadiens were firing a lot of far, harmless shots from the point with no traffic that Michael Leighton could save easily and the Flyers could clear with no worry. And on the few occasions were Montreal did actually threaten, Leighton was there to shut the door, like on Scott Gomez's breakaway. But it was the Flyers who were getting all the real chances.

They scored on the power play in the first to jump out to the lead, with Braydon Coburn finding himself down low and digging in a goal around the net. Then just 30 second into the 2nd, JVR carried his confidence over form game 7 to game 1, netting a slam-dunk rebound by Jaroslav Halak thanks to an incredible play by Claude Giroux. Taking the offensive-zone draw against Gomez, Claude pushed it forward by Gomez, completely schooled the veteran Alaskan by scooting around him and firing it to JVR, who shot at Halak and then banged the rebound home.

I was going nuts. Then, the blitz was on. Danny Briere fired another unstoppable rocket to make it 3-0, as I screamed and cursed and laughed and people walking outside peeked in my windows laughing at me. I was exuberant. Simon Gagne followed it up with a power-play goal, as the Habs started getting frustrated and taking horrible penalties usually reserved for the Flyers, chasing Halak, the goaltender who had been the biggest reason Montreal advanced both rounds. Halak surrendered 4 goals on 14 shots.

Flyers fans cleverly taunted Montreal with "Ole, ole, ole, ole" chants, and the team never looked back, riding the wave of emotion from the improbable series win against the Bruins to a 6-0 game 1 victory, now just three more wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997. Scott Hartnell continued his scoring ways, and Giroux tallied the other Flyers goal, as Philadelphia had six different players find the back of the net and seven different players get two points. Meanwhile, on the opposite end, Montreal's best players were awful. Halak got pulled. Cammelleri was invisible. P.K. Subban was a minus-3 and frankly looked confused and overwhelmed against the Flyers. Gomez took a dumb penalty. Gionta was forgettable. No one did a damn thing for the Canadiens, as the Flyers punished them from the opening whistle to the final horn. The Flyers were the more physical team, won more battles, played better defense, were more disciplined, basically just were flat-out better.

They're flying high now for sure. Of course, we all this thing is far from over. Montreal came back in both their series thus far, getting to game sevens against both Washington and PIttsburgh and winning both to get this far, so they're far from going to throw in the towel. And the Flyers, of course, are a great example themselves. They made history with that 3-0 comeback against the Bruins, so they can't get complacent. Something tells me they won't, not with everything they've had to go through just to get here.

I'm not sure how they're doing it, but they are. This team is playing more determined than any other team. It's reaching a point where you wonder what it could possibly take to hold them down. Because no matter what's thrown their way, you know they're going to fight. They might as well fight for seven more wins. Seven more.


BallHype: hype it up!