Friday, April 29, 2011

Revisiting Reasons to Watch the Sixers

Back in October, I searched for reasons to watch my beloved but virtually irrelevant Philadelphia 76ers. Now here in April, after a dreadful if not expected 3-13 start, followed by a surprising and encouraging 38-28 finish to get to .500, and an exciting playoff series with the Heat in which you had to proud of them despite the 4-1 series loss, I revisit those reasons and look to what, for the first time in a while, is an encouraging future.

The development of Jrue Holiday

Jrue was definitely a bright spot. In October I pondered whether he would take steps forward or back. The answer was clearly forward. He increased his scoring (14.6), assists (5.6), and steals (2.0) from his rookie season. He stepped up and made big shots at times, and generally handled his duties as point guard extremely well. There were moments of questionable decision making and some bad turnovers, but considering his age and experience the season was a resounding success and I think Sixer fans can be confident that they have a point guard for years to come.

What kind of player is Marreese Speights?

No one knows. Well, maybe coach Collins knows, but if he does then it appears to be bad news for the Sixers. Marreese was virtually invisible all season, save for a few spirited appearances off the bench mid season. So as a fan simply drawing conclusions from what I see on the court, I got nothing. If his playing time was any indication of the coaches impressions of him, I don't expect him to be the player it was hoped he would when he was drafted.

Where does Lou Williams fit in?

Lou excelled as the Sixth man for the Sixers this year. His minutes and scoring were down slightly from last season, but the Sixers had one of the best benches in the entire NBA this year and Lou was a big part of that. He, like most of the team this year, embraced his role and did what was asked of him. He provided that much needed spark coming off the bench and hit some huge shots (see game 4). He is still only 24 years old and it seems he fits in just fine as a 6th man.

Can/Will the Sixers move Andre Iguodala?

Can they? Probably. Did they? No. Andre did more of what he always does, which is a little bit of everything. He also continues to think he is a superstar, which he is not. He demanded the ball in end of game situations, and often times proceeded to either turn the ball over or end up forcing a stupid, bad shot. His contract is crippling the Sixers financially, and I believe his game and his opinion of himself are ultimately holding them back on the court. No, they wouldn't have accomplished what they did this season without him, but I'm talking more big picture. I still believe they would be better off without him.

Will the real Thaddeus Young please stand up?

I hope he did. It was a very solid year for Young, as he joined forces with Lou Williams to give the Sixers one of the best benches in the league. He seemed to thrive, like most of the Sixers, under Doug Collins. There were a lot of bright spots for Thaddeus this season and I still like his build and versatility. He is only 22 years old, so I think there is still room for improvement. His contract is up, and there is uncertainty on the horizon regarding a possible lockout, but I hope and expect to see Thad back in a Sixers uniform and look forward to watching him join Jrue and Lou as building blocks in what is hopefully a solid future.

Will Jason Kapono really contribute?

No. And he's gone. And I'm still stunned he was an opening night starter.

Did the Sixers botch the #2 pick?

The jury is still out on this one. There were times when Evan Turner looked lost and completely overwhelmed, and even completely invisible at times, failing to even get some playing time. But there was also some flashes, some reasons for optimism. He asserted himself in the series against the Heat, having his best game as a pro in the game 4 victory. He was confident and aggressive, and it translated to him doing some real good things on the court. Hopefully he is yet another young piece the franchise has to work with.

All in all it turned out to be a pretty good season. The 41-41 record was way better than anyone would have guessed. The played valiantly against the Heat, a team that is obviously leaps and bounds ahead of them talent-wise, stealing a game and being right in 3 of the other 4. They played the way that makes Philadelphia proud, tough, gritty, not afraid. They came up short but you have to love the effort. I love everything about Doug Collins. We finally made the right hire for coach after the comedy of errors that followed Larry Brown's departure. I love the way the team responded and played down the stretch, and for the first time since Allen Iverson left, I feel excited and optimistic about the future of the Sixers.

Unsurprisingly, Eagles Make a Surprise Pick

If there's one thing we've learned during the Andy Reid era it's to expect the unexpected when it comes to the NFL draft. Just when you think you have it figured out who they're going to take, the Eagles either make a move to trade up for a guy, trade down for more picks or go out on a limb and take someone unexpected. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, just as with every draft pick for every team in the league.

So as a few of my friends and I were sitting at the bar and looking on as the Eagles' first-round pick was approaching, we initially became excited at the possibility of Nebraska's highly touted cornerback Prince Amukamara unexpectedly falling into Philadelphia's lap. Unfortunately, the Giants took him at 19, so those dreams were dashed. But with just three more teams ahead of them, it was all but certain the Eagles would be in position to take one of the three players we were anticipating. At one point, my roommate said, "There's no way than can do something to screw this up or throw us off …" Then a second later, "Well, there is, but they gotta take one of them, right?"

One of them included Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith, Wisconsin offensive lineman Gabe Carimi and/or Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers.

We all would have been perfectly happy with any one of those selections. Smith would give them the big, physical corner this team desperately needs, though there was all kinds of talk about character issues. Carimi was a four-year starter and the 2010 Outland Trophy winner, handed out to the best offensive lineman in the country. He comes from a school known for putting out offensive line studs, and he learned under one of the NFL's best, succeeding Joe Thomas at Wisconsin. To me, it was all but a certainty that the Eagles were going to take him. Carimi could come in from day one and start at right tackle or even right guard, and most likely be dominant.

Then there was the X factor with Da'Quan Bowers. A few short months ago, Bowers was being hailed as the No. 1 overall pick, yet due to knee issues his stock plummeted last night. So much so that he was there at 23, and is still there, going from No. 1 overall pick to out of the first round. That is completely baffling to me. The doctors must really expect him to have an incredibly short career. Because Bowers was an absolute force at Clemson, easily the most talented defensive end. I didn't think the Eagles would necessarily take him after moving up last year to select Brandon Graham, but with talent like that and the Eagles still needing more push and pass rush from their defensive line, it wouldn't have been the most shocking pick in the world.

Naturally, we were excited to see what they'd do. Like I said, I was almost certain they were going to take Carimi. I mean, why wouldn't they? Andy Reid loves his offensive linemen, and the guy who was the best in the country his senior year was still on the board. No-brainer.

So of course the Eagles go and throw a curveball, passing on all three of those guys and taking a 26-year-old Canadian from Baylor.

Now listen, I'm not going to go and bash Danny Watkins. By all accounts, he dominated the competition at Baylor and was graded very highly. Just the fact that he was invited to the draft is proof he was expected to go in the first round. And he very well may prove to be an impact player from day one. But to me, it just made absolutely no sense whatsoever, not with Carimi on the board.

Danny Watkins is 26 years old already. He's going to be 27 before 2011 is through. I mean, the guy was born in the same fucking year as me for christ's sake! To put that in perspective, the Eagles currently have 74 other players listed on their roster as of today. Danny Watkins is OLDER THAN 41 OF THEM! The Eagles' first-round pick this year is older than 55 percent of the entire team! What? Going even further, he's just three months younger than Kevin Kolb and just two months younger than Winston Justice, for crying out loud.

Even if the Eagles think Danny Watkins is better than Gabe Carimi today, which I find hard to believe given Carimi's pedigree and performance at an offensive-linemen factory, Carimi is nearly four years younger than Watkins. That's an eternity in football. It just doesn't make any sense in my opinion to take a 26-year-old lineman with your first pick, especially when there is younger, more decorated players at the position still available. But that's the Eagles for you. They just have to go and try and prove how much smarter they are than everyone else. The Gold Standard at its finest. Just when we thought there was no way they could do something dumb with the pick, they go and gamble on a guy that's almost as old as me.

Let's hope they're right here, because if not, this could be a pick the team never lives down. Of course, we don't know what's going to happen. For all we know, Watkins could turn out to be a perennial All-Pro and the Eagles could look like geniuses, and by all accounts he is a terrific player. I just don't get it. I really don't.

As for the pick that threw me off the most other than the Eagles taking Watkins, it was former Penn Stater Phil Taylor going 21st overall to the Cleveland Browns.

Taylor and Chris Baker were two defensive linemen at Penn State with a lot of potential, two players Larry Johnson Sr. was preparing to mold into forces. But then they got into a fight with some other students and were kicked off the team. I heard Taylor transferred to Baylor, but after that I kind of lost touch with him. Then there he was, being selected in the first round by the Browns. It was an intriguing surprise to me.

I always love to follow players from my alma mater as they move on, even if the outcomes haven't been that great in recent memory. (Though Tamba Hali is wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.) So I'm excited to see what Taylor can do, even if he was dismissed from the team and finished his career in another uniform.

I want to also congratulate another defensive lineman, Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson, who became the first Temple Owl selected in the first round in 24 years, going 30th overall to the New York Jets. Honestly, I would have been more excited had the Eagles taken Wilkerson than Watkins, but time will tell how both picks turn out.

Two more notes: How terrifying is it going to be trying to block the Detroit Lions' front four with the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, who may already be the best defensive tackle in the NFL, and now Nick Fairley, not to mention the often overlooked Kyle Vanden Bosch? Detroit's entire defense just got a whole hell of a lot better.

And my god, how is anyone in the league going to stop the Atlanta Falcons? Now Matt Ryan has Julio Jones opposite Roddy White, not to mention Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner. All I'm saying is the Eagles better sign Nnamdi if they expect to stop the Falcons. Damn.

Oh, and seriously, a 26-year-old offensive lineman? Really? Really.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Forgive me for this, but I just couldn't resist. As you all know, the Sixers and Heat just finished up a playoff series the other night, and let's face it, there's no more obvious way to blend Miami and Philadelphia than that Will Smith classic from when I was in junior high or something.

Amazingly, this album did not ruin Will Smith's career. And yes, I did own it. And probably still have it somewhere. Junior high kids are so lame.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Showing the Sixers My Love

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how I don't think the Sixers really have any players that I love the way I love Allen Iverson, the way I love Brian Dawkins, the way I love Cliff Lee and Claude Giroux. Well, all it took was one short but definitely sweet playoff series for these players to change all of that.

I was batting around the idea of falling in love with Jrue Holiday right when the Sixers drafted him, but I had that nagging feeling that I would have preferred to see Ty Lawson in Philadelphia. After watching Jrue never back down for five games against the Heat, seeing him hit a huge three on Easter Sunday to help the Sixers win, after watching him mature game in and game out into the floor leader of the team, I fell in love with Jrue Holiday's game. Just like Doug Collins and the Sixers made me fall in love with this team.

As Andrew over at The700Level so eloquently put it, last night was perhaps the best loss ever. Heading into this series, I didn't think the Sixers stood a chance in hell. I thought a sweep was predetermined, and honestly thought this team would have trouble hanging in more than a game or two. But the Sixers proved me wrong on all accounts.

There was no sweep. These guys simply wouldn't let that happen. And they didn't just hang tough in one or two of the games, they were right there in four out of the five. Only game 2 resembled what I anticipated. In each of the other four contests, the Sixers honestly had a chance to win, including last night. Heading into the series, I would have never thought that would be possible.

But last night was a microcosm for the series. The Sixers never once came out scared, and again last night they jumped out to an early lead and forced Eric Spoelstra to call the first timeout. Again they absorbed Miami's counterpunch, took it in stride and refused to back down. And again they were right there in the final quarter, in position to make the Heat sweat and earn every once of that victory.

And last night, every player on this team showed their true colors. I'll never be able to fully embrace Elton Brand because he's a Dukie and may or may not have misguided Baron Davis. But after this season and especially this series, I have the utmost respect for Brand. All season long, he has been the most consistent and honestly best player for the 76ers. This series and last night's game was no different.

Brand showed why the Sixers were willing to pay him so much money, even coming off a serious injury. Dude battled for everything last night and all series long. He finished with a team-high 22 points, battled Chris Bosh down low and earned the respect of every Sixers fan that actually gives a damn about this team. I didn't want the Sixers to sign Elton Brand. I never liked him. But without Elton Brand, this team never has a chance to stay close with the Miami Heat, and this team is nowhere near the playoffs this season.

Philadelphia's other favorite basketball target started this series off slow, but in game 4 and especially last night, Andre Iguodala showed who he really is. Everyone already knows what he is not — a franchise player and go-to scorer. But what he is is a terrific defender, fantastic distributor and excellent finisher. Last night, Andre Iguodala was all of those things. He attacked the rim with reckless abandon. He defended LeBron and Wade as well as anyone can, just like he did all series. He rebounded and set up his teammates. He got out in transition. And when the Sixers really needed him to hit some big shots, he did.

He's never going to be Allen Iverson. His contract will always be a sore point. But if Andre Iguodala plays every night the way he did last night, the Sixers are much better off than it appeared they were just a few short months ago.

Just like they look much better off having taken Evan Turner with the second overall pick than they did even two weeks ago. There's no way to sugarcoat it: Evan Turner underachieved in his rookie season. He oftentimes looked lost, puzzled and overmatched. It was almost as if the player who won the Naismith Award was replaced by doe-eyed freshman terrified to death to be on the court with the big, bad seniors. He struggled so much that Doug Collins didn't even play him some nights.

But Evan Turner didn't let that dissuade him. As his playing time increased at the end of the season, his confidence began to grow. And in this playoff series, going against Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, he played by far the best basketball of his rookie season. Turner took the challenge of guarding LeBron or even a few times Wade personally, and it seemed to elevate his game. For the first time all season, Turner looked confident and aggressive every time he was in the game. In game 4, he had the best game of his NBA life. And last night, even though he scored just 4 points and missed a very big bucket late that would have tied it, he showed he belonged and is much better than he showed this season. His 10 rebounds, tying Iguodala for the team high, is proof of that.

Then there is Thaddeus Young, who had a breakout season. Young struggled at times in the series, but he never began to press the issue. And last night, he stepped his game again, hitting some clutch shots in fourth quarter to help keep the Sixers in it.

Throw in the passing styles of Spencer Hawes, who was drawing rave reviews from Steve Kerr, the big brass balls Lou Williams showed Sunday despite struggling most of the series, the development of Jodie Meeks, and this team is definitely moving in the right direction.

Last night, they showed the world what Doug Collins has molded them into, and you could hear the genuine admiration Dwyane Wade has for this team and this coach in his postgame interview. The Sixers are no longer the laughingstock they were last season. No, they're the polar opposite. Doug Collins made this collection of players into true competitors. The Sixers are now a team everyone has to take seriously. Just ask the Miami Heat.

Oh, and on a slightly different note, Kevin Durant, MY GOD! I guess Russell Westbrook got the message. And Durant made sure to put an exclamation point on that. He is unbelievable.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flyers Return to Form

Prior to the NHL all-star break, the Philadelphia Flyers were the best team in hockey, both literally and aesthetically. They led the NHL in points and had such a huge cushion in the Eastern Conference that it looked all but certain that they’d finish as the top seed. Night in and night out, they looked like the superior team every time they hit the ice. The Flyers looked like a team that was determined to get two more wins in the playoffs than they did last season and raise the Stanley Cup for the first time since Bobby Clarke was winning Hart Trophies.

But as happens in hockey and most professional sports, the Flyers grew complacent with such a large lead and started to skid. The problem is that skid lasted longer than anyone could have anticipated. To the point where they lost their grip on the top seed in the East, and went on an extended winless streak at the end of the season. They still finished as the second seed and still had more depth and talent than just about any team in league, but they weren’t playing well at all. Couple that with an injury to Chris Pronger, a few bumps and bruises to key contributors and the pretty porous, sloppy play after the all-star break, and what looked like another Stanley Cup Final run began to look more like an early-round exit.

That only intensified when the Flyers lost game 1 to the Sabres, getting shut out by Ryan Miller, and questions loomed night after night with the revolving door in net. Even though the Flyers out-played the Sabres in nearly every one of the six games, they still looked more like the team after the all-star break than the dominant one from before it.

Well last night, in a deciding game 7 in South Philadelphia, the Flyers finally were that team the fans have been waiting for to return. From the drop of the puck to the final horn, the Flyers were not just the better team, they were as good as any team in these playoffs has looked for 60 minutes. The team that was running through the Eastern Conference prior to February returned.

As far as game sevens go, this one lacked any sort of drama, and I couldn’t have been happier. The Flyers came out and just took it to the Sabres right from the start, outshooting Buffalo 16-2 in the first period. And even though they only scored once in that first 20 minutes – on a fairly bad goal by Ryan Miller nonetheless (I know it was deflected by Mike Grier’s hand, but it was soft and went right through Miller) – there was very little worry after that.

Everything was clicking for the Flyers. They were playing the type of hockey that got them to be one of the best teams in the league, getting the puck deep, winning puck battles, forechecking hard, cycling the puck, driving the net, doing everything right. Shit, even their dreadful power play woke up, scoring on their first two chances thanks to a faceoff win by Danny Briere back to Mike Richards on the first one, where Richards fired right away, and Briere stuffed it in as he headed to the net. The second came by James van Riemsdyk doing what Jeff Carter wouldn’t. JVR, who really was head and shoulders the best forward in this entire series finally emerging as the force the Flyers expected him to become, stood in front of Ryan Miller to screen him. And when the shot came from the point, JVR didn’t jump out the way and try to bat it the way Carter always does, thus taking away the screen and making it more difficult to deflect. No, JVR held his ground, faced the shooter and never moved, just getting the puck with his stick to give the Flyers the 3-0 lead and complete control off the game.

The maturation of van Riemsdyk in this series cannot be overstated. He was absolutely incredible in every single game, the best player on the ice in most of them. If he sustains that play, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t, this team only gets better. He’s turning into a stud right before our eyes, and he’s skyrocketed up the chart as far as becoming one of my favorite Flyers. JVR was absolutely awesome this series.

As was his young teammate, Claude Giroux. Giroux had some turnover troubles early in the series, but he came back and re-emerged as the player he was last postseason and was again this entire year. Giroux was all over the ice last night, so dominant in the first period that Peter Laviolette was putting him out there what felt like every other shift. It’s going to be incredibly fun watching JVR and Giroux grow together in the Orange and Black. It really is.

And that brings me to the other guy that started the game on the JVR-Giroux line, Nikolay Zherdev. This season, Flyers fan have gotten the entire Nik Zherdev spectrum – offensive brilliance, maddeningly terrible defense, dominant games, horrible games, and everything in between. At times, I’ve praised him and was left in awe. Other times I couldn’t wait for Laviolette to make him a healthy scratch for lazy plays and defensive indifference. But I have to say, last night, Zherdev was an absolute man out there. He played, hands down in my mind, his best game as a Philadelphia Flyer, and he didn’t even record a point. Now that’s saying something.

Zherdev is in the NHL for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to create offense and score goals. Last night, he had just one shot on net and didn’t tally a point, but he was absolutely a factor. I don’t know what got into him, but Zherdev was a one-man wrecking crew out there, throwing more checks last night than I think he’s thrown in his entire NHL career. He was backchecking harder than he ever has in his life, making several key defensive plays. And he won puck battles, kept plays alive, basically looked like Mike Richards when he’s on top of his game. It was remarkable to watch. I can’t say enough about Zherdev last night. He impressed the hell out of me, playing the type of game I didn’t think he had in him. If he keeps that up, an extremely big if given his history but still, he’ll never be a healthy scratch again. Great effort out of him last night.

Just as I can’t say enough about Danny Briere.

Ever since the Flyers signed Briere to a very healthy contract, there has been talk about how it was one of the worst contracts in the league, partly due to injury and a lack of production because of that, partly because of the situation it put the Flyers in with the salary cap. He’s been rumored to be on the trading block, subject to criticism by fans and media alike.

But when the bright lights come on and it’s time for the playoffs, Briere is always one of the best players in the entire league. He has been his whole career, and he has been in every playoff series he’s been in wearing the Orange and Black. There was nothing different this time around.

Briere came off his most production season in Philadelphia and carried that right over into the playoffs against his former team. And he was the most potent scorer in the series, and one of the most potent in this first round of the playoffs. His goal last night was enormous, and it was the sixth time he beat his former teammate Ryan Miller in the series. Six goals in seven games. The man steps up when the Flyers need him. There’s no two ways about it. He won two faceoffs that led directly to the first two goals, continued to snipe and hang around the net, and simply played more tremendous hockey. Thank god the Flyers didn’t trade Briere, because there are few players out there I’d rather have this time of year. He lives for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It was nice to see his linemate Ville Leino light the lamp last night as well, chasing miller with an absolute laser. That’s the type of shot that makes Flyers even more frustrated that he rarely lets a shot fly. That was an absolutely perfect slapper.

Last night, everything came together. Every Flyer that took the ice played not just well, but great. Dan Carcillo played tremendous all series, driving the net hard, agitating Ryan Miller and playing smart, never retaliating as he took shot after shot, the game misconduct late last not excluded. And he scored twice in the series, putting the exclamation point on the series last night and getting the last word in to the Buffalo bench.

Blair Betts and Darroll Powe were defensive monsters once again, doing an incredible job on the penalty kill, starting games and periods for the Flyers with Carcillo because of their defense, and cycling the puck in Buffalo’s zone all series. The fourth line was outstanding this series, probably the most consistently good line for the Flyers all seven games.

Mike Richards and Kris Versteeg, who players who struggled mightily as the team struggled and two guys who were rather invisible in games 1 and 2, absolutely took their game to another level as the series wore on. Versteeg went from a player I was extremely disappointed in and blaming more than anyone for the funk this team was in into the player I thought the Flyers were getting. He really was a force, especially the past three or four games, doing all the little things we were told he was so good at. And although Richards didn’t light the lamp in the series, he got the offense going as well, setting up some of the series’ most beautiful goals with great passes or blasts from the point. And of course he was defensively responsible as always, doing a great job with Versteeg in their own zone and both players doing outstanding work on the penalty kill, along with Claude.

Speaking of defense, even though this series went 7 games and the Sabres got their fair share of goals, the Flyers’ defensemen were really excellent all series. A lot of the goals, as we all know, were the result of laughably bad goaltending. Though you have to tip your hat to Brian Boucher. Outside of his one atrocious period of hockey in game 5, Boosh outplayed Ryan Miller, something no one could have foreseen. Even after getting embarrassingly pulled in game 5 and benched in game 6 before coming in to save the day, Boucher played brilliantly last night. The Flyers didn’t ask much from him, but when needed to make a big stop, he did. He’s the guy going forward, no doubt about it, and I honestly am comfortable with that. He may not win you a series, but there’s a better than good chance he won’t lose you one either, if the goaltending as a whole almost did do the Flyers in this series.

Truthfully, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn were beasts once again, shutting down Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville before they were injured. Timonen really is just one of the most underrated players in all of hockey. Sean O’Donnell and Andrej Meszaros continued to prove to be fantastic offseason acquisitions. Both players were smothering last night, O’Donnell making some particularly nifty, veteran plays. Matt Carle built off his breakout season last year, continuing to play really well. Danny Syvret didn’t hurt the team much with Pronger out. And the return Pronger had such a steadying influence on this team.

Pronger didn’t play much in game 6, but his presence on the power play helped them gain confidence on it. And with him taking regular shifts last night, albeit playing about 10 less minutes than when he’s healthy, the entire team could settle back in to the normal defensive pairing. Pronger played just 17 minutes last night, but he stood out in all of them. Early on, he jumped in and intercepted a pass. He blocked shots. He made no mistakes, and I honestly believe just having him in the lineup taking regular shifts was a big part as to why this team got back to playing the type of hockey it was playing earlier this year. Pronger means that much. And though it’s an extremely small sample size and not entirely reflective of what he did on the ice, the Flyers won both games Chris Pronger played in this series. As he gets healthy, the Flyers are only going to get better, hopefully as good as they were last night.

If they can start playing the way they played last night on a consistent basis, if they can regain that form from before the all-star break the way they did in game 7, this team is more than capable of beating anyone. There’s no question about it. They dominated game 7 the way they dominating the majority of the regular season. If that’s a sign to come, there’s no reason this team can’t finish with two more wins than last postseason.

LET’S GO FLYERS!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Game 7: The Thrill of Victory or the Agony of Defeat

As you all know, tonight the Flyers host the Sabres in game 7 of what has been one wild series already, and the other Rev (@Rev215) already told us why there's nothing better than a game seven.

Reading that fantastic post, it got me thinking about all the game sevens I've witnessed. Turns out, there haven't been that many in Philadelphia sports history. The Phillies have never even played in a single game 7 in their history, unsurprising considering they are the losingest franchise in North American sports history. The Flyers have played in 14 of them prior to tonight, winning 8 and losing 6. The Sixers have participated in 13 game 7s, winning 6 and losing 7.

Of those 27 game 7s in the history of Philadelphia's four major sports franchises that still call the City of Brotherly Love home, I've been alive for 12 of them, though I honestly don't remember the Flyers' seven-game series in 1987 (beat the Islanders, lost to the Oilers) 1988 (lost to the Capitals) and 1989 (beat the Penguins), when I was just 3, 4 and 5 years old, nor do I remember the Sixers' loss to the Bucks in 1986, when I was just 2 years old.

But I remember the rest like they were yesterday. I remember the Flyers building a 3-1 series lead against the hated Devils, remember being at the Meadowlands to see then rookie Brian Boucher's incredible save on Patrick Elias.

And I remember the Flyers blowing that 3-1 series lead. Remember Eric Lindros returning to the lineup and looking like he never lost a beat, beafore Scott Stevens ended that real quick with a vicious yet clean hit, taking Lindros out for good.

I remember thinking he was dead, and knowing the Flyers were dead. I remember how horrible that feeling that was, remember not knowing whether to cry or throw up or break something.

It was the epitome of the agony of defeat.

One year later, I remember the thrill of game 7 victory. How could any Sixers fan forget? Impossible, thanks to Allen Iverson's 44 points against the Bucks and 21-point, 16-assist performance against the Raptors.

I remember the valiant comeback with Iverson out of the lineup that came up just short but showed Milwaukee and the rest of the NBA that the Sixers were for real, remember the two 50-point explosions, remember Vince Carter's graduation-day controversy and subsequent last-second miss. And I remember the Sixers pulling off two game seven victories to get all the way to the NBA Finals.

Two years later, it was more joy, as the Flyers outlasted the Maple Leafs in one of the most vicious, brutal first-round series in memory only to follow that up with a heartbreaking game 7 loss to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals a year later despite Keith Primeau's heroics.

I certainly remember Joffrey Lupul's overtime, series-winning goal in 2008.

And no one will ever forget last year's game 7 with Boston, capping off the most epic comeback in Philadelphia sports history.

Tonight, we will all be on pins and needles once again. That's just the way game sevens go. And when it's all said and done, we'll either be experiencing the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. There is no middle ground. Tonight, it's win or go home. I'm not ready to be done caring about playoff hockey, not ready to "go home." Hopefully, neither are the Flyers.

We've all experienced the jubilation of a game 7 win and the heartbreak of a game 7 loss, and we're about to experience one of those things yet again tonight.


Monday, April 25, 2011

A Philadelphia Easter to Remember

This Easter weekend was one of the craziest roller-coasters I've ever been on. It encompassed a sweep by the Phillies, a heart-wrenching overtime loss and the craziest, most exciting Easter Sunday in recent memory, highlighted by being at the Sixers' stunning four-point victory to keep the season alive.

It all began Friday with me getting let out of work early and hitting up the truth that is Paesano's for an absolutely delicious pregame meal before game 5 of the Flyers-Sabres game. I could not have been more prepared, and I was ready for the Flyers to continue to assert their will and hopefully this time solve Ryan Miller like they did in games 2 and 3. But before I could blink, Brian Boucher had given two of the worst goals in the history of hockey on any level, and before the period was through, the Flyers trailed 3-0 and somehow Michael Leighton was back in net.

I was absolutely beside myself. Here I was watching Ryan Miller play literally perfect goaltender in two games and damn near perfect hockey in the other two while our goalies could not even make the simplest of saves. I mean, yeah, Boucher played fantastic in games 2 through 4, but that was all offset in less than four horrible minutes of hockey. And then after giving up a third goal before the period was even through, Michael Leighton was unbelievably in net. I was literally sick to my stomach and beyond dejected. The way Miller had been playing, a three-goal lead seemed like just too much to overcome. And I was certain Buffalo would just pack it in and play a trap, uglying the game up.

But the Flyers did not back down. Led once again by James van Riemsdyk - who has easily been the best skater in this series - the Flyers inched their way back. Sensing that they had to step up their game to both figure out Miller and protect Leighton, the Flyers flipped the switch and took their game to another level. I mean, from the moment Leighton took his place in the crease on, the Flyers completely dominated every facet of the game. And finally 8 minutes into the second period, JVR lit the lamp to start the comeback, just like he did in a pretty infamous game last postseason.

Less than two minutes later, Andrej Meszaros, who was an absolute monster Friday night, made it a one-goal contest on an absolute blast.

It was literally all Flyers from that point on. And less than four minutes into the third, the Flyers scored one of the most beautiful goals I've ever seen to draw even. Kris Versteeg made an unbelievable play falling down to win the puck behind Miller and got it to Mike Richards. From an impossible angle, Richards fired an airborne pass from behind one side of the net to Danny Briere out in front on the other side of the net. And Briere incredibly flagged it out of mid-air and banged it by Miller. It was a thing of beauty.

Versteeg, who I absolutely destroyed after game 1 and was completely underwhelmed by in the regular season, was awesome again. Since game 3, he's elevated his game to another level, and his great hustle to win that puck battle resulted in the game-tying goal. It looked like only a matter of time before the Flyers would light the lamp again and head back to Philadelphia with a 3-2 lead on Easter Sunday.

But Ryan Miller had other ideas. Just as he has all series, he stepped his game to another level as well. The Flyers continued to pour on the pressure, but Miller wouldn't budge, and the game went to overtime. Once we went to OT, the feeling in my stomach changed. The Flyers had dominated, completely taken control and it looked inevitable that they would win in regulation. But once the game went to overtime, the confidence vanished. Not because of the way the Flyers were playing, obviously, but simply because the Sabres had Ryan Miller at one end, while the Flyers had a Michael Leighton who had played only one game and two periods and five minutes of hockey in the NHL this season.

All it took was five minutes for disaster to strike. Matt Carle got to a puck in his own zone and had a pretty easy play to chip it out and regroup. Instead, he decided to reverse it to his defensemate Andrej Meszaros, a maddening play the Flyers make all the time. Still, it looked relatively harmless. Meszaros had Claude Giroux in front of him and looked to have a nice outlet to get the Flyers out of the zone and start up the ice. But instead, Meszaros decided to reverse it back to Carle behind the net. Only Carle couldn't handle the pass, Buffalo pounced on the turnover, got the puck to the point and fired. Leighton, who had seen little rubber since taking over for Boucher and was clearly rusty, left a big, fat rebound in front. Tyler Ennis jumped on it, banged it home and ended the game in deflating fashion, all thanks to an egregiously bad turnover by Meszaros and Carle.

It was literally a soul-crushing loss. The Flyers had overcome some absolutely horrendous goaltending by Boucher in the first to battle all the way back and tie it up, only to lose in overtime. I honestly would have rather seen them just lose 3-0 or even 7-2 or something. Anything but that. It was another game that they should have won, a game that they outplayed Buffalo, but the Sabres have Ryan Miller in net while the Flyers have a revolving door of question marks in the crease. I didn't even yell or curse or throw anything at the TV. I just sat there, stunned in silence and asking for drugs. Anything to forget that loss.

What I opted for was to turn over to the Phillies game to hopefully ease my pain. For a moment, things were going well. Cole Hamels was pitching a gem with his new creepy goatee, even if he somehow got picked off first despite being literally a step off the bag moments after I focused my attention on the game. That wasn't what made things go from incredibly bad to even worse. No, what sent me even more over the edge than I already was was Jimmy Rollins.

After Clayton Richard had given up a single to Cole Hamels to lead off the inning and then picked Cole off, he then handed out back-to-back walks to Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco, who batters that you literally have to try incredibly hard to walk. And right as Jimmy came up, I said what every Phillies fan on the planet was thinking and saying to someone at the time: "I swear, if Jimmy swings at the first pitch and pops it up, I'm gonna lose it. You know he's going to swing at the first pitch and pop it up." It's what we call the Jimmy in my circle of friends. And of course, that asshole son of a bitch swings at the first pitch and flies out to shallow center.

That was it for me. I was done for the night. There would be no partying, no drinking, no having fun. No, what I did after that at-bat was head straight up to my room, down some Nyquil and shave my head. Thankfully, I did tune in immediately when I got to my room to see Ryan Howard triple in Shane and Polanco, giving Hamels all the runs he'd need, but I didn't exactly think this through. You see, I downed the Nyquil first, and then decided to shave my head. By the time I was going over my scalp for the second time, I was getting all sorts of drowsy. Luckily I managed to avoid any serious bodily harm, but I was out like a light shortly after that and preparing for a nice little Saturday.

With the Sixers and Flyers mercifully idle, I had a break of the emotional trauma of playoff basketball and hockey. So a bunch of my friends and I, most of whom had tickets to game 4 of the Sixers-Heat series on Easter Sunday, got together for some day drinking. Then we hit up the best pizza in the tristate area, feasting our faces with six pies from Tacconelli's for seven people and two bottles of wine.

And that was just a precursor to seeing Gene Ween at the World Cafe. It was pretty much the perfect Saturday. I got incredibly drunk, ate like a king, saw an excellent show, the Phillies won and I fell asleep with a pounding headache but extremely happy because I knew I was headed to a Sixers playoff game the next day.

And what a day it was. I woke up feeling surprisingly well Sunday morning, amped to see the Sixers take on LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the Heat. While I was pretty much certain the Heat would complete the sweep, I was hoping for a pleasant surprise. I was picked up by uncle jellyfish and our friend Miff as we headed down to the Wells Fargo Center as the lead car. Three of our other friends were another car following us, and one more was meeting us at the arena. We got there and headed straight in, anticipating the other car to come with their sign. However, their sign, which read, "Hey LeFraud, suck an egg," was confiscated upon entrance. Apparently that was deemed too flagrant despite the Easter tie-in. Lame, Sixers security. Lame. This is Philadelphia after all.

Anyway, we took our seat in section 118, catty corner from the Sixers' bench. Going in, I wasn't entirely sure what the crowd would be like. I've been to Sixers playoff games at the height of Allen Iverson's powers, and I've been to playoff games since. The demeanor at the games the past couple of trips to the playoffs was considerably less exciting than during the Iverson days, and there were never any games close to sellouts. I knew the Heat would draw a big crowd and that game 3 had sold out, but with it being Easter and the Sixers down 3-0 in the series, I wasn't sure just how many fans would show up. Initially, there were a decent amount of empty seats, but before it was all said and done, the placed was full. And electric.

The Sixers came out on fire the way they did in games 1 and 3, jumped out to a 12-point lead and the place was rocking. There were big swarms of fake Heat fans pretending to care about Miami despite never having left Philadelphia in their entire lives, but it was mostly an amped, excited, loud Philadelphia crowd. For the first time since Allen Iverson was here the first time around, the building had the type of energy you just can't describe unless you were there. It was absolutely awesome.

It felt like old times. It really did. With every play, the crowd was into it. The Sixers helped the fact with their torrid start. Elton Brand was the man, doing it all. Andre Iguodala actually showed up offensively. Jrue Holiday had a good start. Everything was going well. But just as was the case in games 1 and 3, the Heat methodically came back. LeBron and Wade were on top of their games, and before you could blink what was once a 16-point Sixers lead had completely disappeared. The Sixers went from up 12 after the first quarter to down a point at halftime. It was at that moment that just about everyone in the Wells Fargo Center thought the Heat would pull away in the third and eliminate the Sixers.

A few minutes into the second half, the Sixers looked doomed and we were beginning to discuss our exit strategy to catch the Flyers game. But the Sixers simply wouldn't go away. Brand was an absolute force. Iguodala wasn't trying to do too much and was actually attacking the rim. And Evan Turner came in and played the best basketball of his young NBA career. For the first time all season, Turner looked 100 percent confident and unafraid. He was going at the Heat.

The bad part was Jrue Holiday had picked up three fouls in the first half and had to sit a long time. In his absence, Lou Williams struggled mightily. Then when Jrue returned, he got the yips and started to turn the ball over. And Lou still couldn't hit a shot. But the Sixers still hung tough. They played relentless defense, especially keying on Chris Bosh, who for the first time all series was ineffective. And the crowd fed off their defensive effort and vice versa, especially the incredibly large man behind the basket who was dancing his ass off ... and then lifted his shirt to reveal "Philly #1" painted on his enormously large torso.

As much as I wanted to see the start of the Flyers game, I couldn't leave. The Sixers wouldn't let me. In the fourth quarter, they showed the type of guts they haven't had in years. Taking the best punches from LeBron and Wade, who finished with 31 and 22 points respectively, the Sixers still wouldn't go away. Lou Williams, who was struggling so badly that we were calling for him to be banished from the court, suddenly took over. He went bonkers in the fourth, keeping the Sixers in it. But still, the Heat were keeping the Sixers at arm's length. That is, until Jrue Holiday, who had struggled big time in the second half holding on to the ball, hit the biggest three of his career to bring the Sixers within one. We were going berserk, jumping and hugging and screaming.

And after a huge stop, Lou Will came down and hit the most clutch shot of his life, nailing the go-ahead three right in Dwyane Wade's grill.

At that point, it was complete pandemonium in the Wells Fargo Center. That place had not been that loud and crazy during a Sixers game since Eric Snow was actually playing instead of doing a horrendous job broadcasting.

Still, the Heat had the ball and plenty of time to do some damage. Only Elton Brand was having none of it, swatting LeBron's drive attempt and gathering it to Evan Turner. And the second overall pick calmly stepped to the line, nailed both freebies and iced the game, putting the capper on the best game of his career.

It was an absolutely joyous celebration. In the big scheme of things, it's just one playoff victory. It's more than likely that the Heat will end the Sixers' season Wednesday night in Miami. But it was something these guys can build on for next season, proof that they can win games in the playoffs, even against the most talented of teams. And more importantly, it brought legitimate excitement back to Sixers basketball. It was one of the best, most exciting games I've ever been to in my life, and I've been to a whole hell of a lot of them. It really was a blast.

Of course, as we left the celebration, we were hit with the news that the Flyers were already down 2-0, and word on the street was that Michael Leighton let in two absurdly bad goals, just as bad or even worse than the ones Boucher surrendered in game 5.

We rushed to the car as I texted Adam EatShit to find out the situation. He responded:

Leighton ... horrifying. Short side wrist shot and a bouncing whiff.

Awesome. Way to go, Pete.

However, shortly after we got in the car and tuned in to Tim Saunders and Chris Therien, Danny Briere lit the lamp to make it a one-goal game. We were hoping that by the time we got to my house for the second period, the game would be right where it was at or the Flyers would have it tied. That didn't happen, because just minutes later, Leighton surrendered yet another goal, and from the sound of Chris Therien's reaction it was another awful goal to give up. Great.

We got back to my house and convened. Thankfully, Leighton was done, hopefully for good. I know what he did last year, but this ain't last year. No more Leighton please. I mean, the Flyers outshot the Sabres 17 to freakin 8 in the first period but trailed 3-1 because our goalies completely suck. Un-freakin-believable. Say what you want about Sergei Bobrovsky, but he didn't put together too many stinkers as awful as the first period of games 5 and 6 for Boosh and Leighton.

But, the Flyers continued to plug away, with JVR getting them going again. When he beat Miller, my house went nuts, and when Danny Briere scored again, on a power play no less, to tie it, it was more pandemonium.

Of course, it wouldn't be the Flyers' way to just build off that and take the lead. No. Instead, Boucher gave up what looked like an awful goal, as Nathan Gerbe fired a seemingly harmless shot that may have deflected off a stick. Either way, Boucher completely whiffed on it with his glove and looked awful in the process. Just great. All that work to battle back and overcome poor goaltending just see Buffalo score again. I really couldn't take it. I just couldn't.

But the Flyers continued to push just as they have all series, coming out like their skates were on fire in the third period. And finally, that hard work paid off, as Scott Hartnell tied the game again with less than 10 minutes to go.

Again however, the Flyers couldn't quite finish it off in regulation, heading to overtime, and again I just didn't feel comfortable. I mean, how could I after watching Boosh play like an invalid in game 5, Leighton somehow look even worse in this very first period and the way game 5 had ended? But this time, the Flyers would not be denied. Just as Ennis had ended the overtime quickly for Buffalo in game 5, Ville Leino made sure there'd be a game 7 back at the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night less than five minutes into the OT.

Just as there had been pandemonium by all parties involved at the Wells Fargo Center earlier, there was pandemonium again in my living room. As we all were literally jumping for joy and embracing in a huge group hug, uncle jellyfish tackled us all, breaking a cup in the process. And we couldn't have been happier. Here we were on this epic Easter Sunday, already having been at the biggest Sixers victory in years, then watching an overtime thriller to force a game 7 by the Flyers.

And oh yeah, at the same time we were watching Roy Halladay throw a 14-strikeout gem to complete a sweep of the Padres, a 3-1 win that included a Shane Victorino inside-the-park home run.

Yeah, a perfect 3-for-3 for Philadelphia on Easter. It was glorious. Truly glorious. Perhaps the single best Easter Sunday in Philadelphia history. Certainly the most memorable in recent history. I'm just stunned I lived to tell about it.

What is Laviolette Thinking?

I'm going to get to what transpired over the weekend later tonight when I have more time to coherently put my thoughts together, but this is something I absolutely have to get off my chest.

First of all, I really, really like Peter Laviolette. He's a fiery coach that demands a lot from his players, a good strategist and someone that just seems to get the most out of his players more times than not. He won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes, and last season he was masterful in leading an underachieving Flyers team that barely made the playoffs all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. He's become a cult hero almost overnight in Philadelphia for his aggressive and game-changing use of timeouts, and the Flyers improved from a team that needed to get a shootout victory on the final day of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs to a team that was among the best in the NHL and finished with the second seed in the East, albeit with a horrid slump mixed in.

The guy can coach his ass off, there's not doubt about that. But to be perfectly honest, Peter Laviolette has done nothing but make baffling decision after baffling decision in this series with Buffalo. And in all honesty, if he simply did the obvious, logical thing instead of going into what looks like panic mode, the Flyers may have already advanced to the second round instead of needing overtime yesterday just to stay alive and force tomorrow's deciding game 7.

And it's not like it took long for people to start questioning him. It began before the start of game 1, when he decided to dress Andreas Nodl and Dan Carcillo instead of Nikolay Zherdev. The critics did make a pretty good point, discussing the Flyers' late-season scoring woes, saying the Flyers needed a scorer and finisher in their lineup against one of the NHL's premier goaltenders and best defensive teams more than they needed grinders like Nodl and Carcillo. It was a point well taken, however I actually had no problem with Laviolette's decision for game 1. Yes, Zherdev brings a lot to the table offensively, but he's never been known for his defense, and one missed defensive assignment can cost you a game in the playoffs.

Still, it's hard to deny that Zherdev would have helped in game 1, with the Flyers getting shut out. And though he definitely has had his defensive lapses, Zherdev has been working harder defensively the past two games. But Nodl did play fairly well in game 1, and Carcillo has been good this entire series, while Zherdev has continued to be brilliant at times and infuriating at others. So I wasn't overly upset with Laviolette's decision to sit Zherdev in game 1.

I also didn't have a problem with Laviolette starting rookie Sergei Bobrovsky in net despite his inconsistent play. It made sense to me, hoping to get a good showing from Bobrovsky, and if he didn't play well, Laviolette could always turn to the experienced Brian Boucher, a goaltender who has performed time and time again in the playoffs and who is used to coming on in relief.

While I agreed with Laviolette on his decision to start Bob and his decision to scratch Zherdev in game 1, that doesn't mean I was on board with all that he did in game 1. In fact, I flat out could not and did not understand why he called a timeout in game 1 as the Flyers were about to go on a two-man advantage in the second period. At that point in the game, the Flyers had Buffalo reeling, had just gone up another man and had the building rocking and all the momentum in the world. It was the exact moment to pounce on the Sabres and give them no room to breathe. Instead, Laviolette slowed the game down by inexplicably calling that timeout on a 5-on-3 in the second period of game 1. It allowed the Sabres to regain their bearings, and of course Buffalo killed both penalties off and stole a 1-0 game 1 victory.

The man may be lauded for his use of his timeouts, but that was going overboard. And he's used a few timeouts at odd times since. He certainly hasn't been as magical with them as he was last postseason.

But that's hardly the most baffling thing Laviolette has done. After Sergei Bobrovsky had a rough outing in game 2 and was subsequently pulled before the Flyers came back and won behind a tremendous showing by Boucher, Laviolette did the single stupidest thing he's done since becoming the head coach of the Flyers. In what can only be described as a panic move, Laviolette scratched Bobrovsky and made Michael Leighton the backup to Boucher. Now, I was all in favor of starting Boucher after Bob's shaky outing in game 2 and Boucher's incredible performance in relief. I think just about all of the Delaware Valley was. But to banish Bob to the press box for one bad outing in favor of a guy who had played in a grand total of 1 NHL game during the 2010-11 season? That's just ludicrous, especially considering the guy gave up four goals (albeit in a win) in that game.

I understand the soft spot for Michael Leighton. I really do. I was there for the ride last season. Without Leighton, the Flyers don't even make the playoffs, let alone come within two victories of hoisting the Cup. The guy was tremendous in getting the Flyers to the Final. But in the six games against the Blackhawks, it became clear that Leighton wasn't THE GUY that this franchise has been looking for my whole life. And regardless, this isn't last year. This is this year, a completely different season.

Michael Leighton didn't carry the Flyers to the playoffs this season. He didn't work in tandem with Brian Boucher to lead the Flyers to the top of standings and ultimately gain the second seed in the conference. Sergie Bobrovsky did. He's the guy who got the Flyers to where they're at, along with Boucher. He's the guy who played a tremendous game 1 in defeat, the guy who's been between the pipes more often than not to get the Flyers to the playoffs. To banish him after one bad playoff performance is more than unfair, it's insane. You go with guys who brought you there. Simple as that.

Michael Leighton did a lot for the Flyers in 2009-10, but he did absolutely nothing for them this year. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Sure, he played really well for the Phantoms down the stretch, but guess what, this isn't the AHL. How you go with a guy who played a total of 60 minutes in the NHL this season over a guy you counted on for 52 starts and 54 games during the regular season is beyond me. And really, it's indefensible unless the guy comes in and plays lights out. We all know Leighton didn't do that.

When Boucher let in two insanely atrocious goals in game 5 and a third before a period was even in the books, Leighton came in and saw very little work. But in overtime, after his defensemen needed him to bail them out for a horrid turnover, he left a fat rebound and got tagged with a really tough loss. Then yesterday, he surrendered three embarrassingly bad goals. And all Sergei Bobrovsky could do was helplessly watch from the press box.

Forget about what this does to Bob's confidence and psyche going forward. From a purely hockey sense, the decision was insane, is insane and will always be insane.

Then there's the case of the skaters in game 5. With Jeff Carter unavailable after a knee injury and Nodl still out from being injured in game 2, Laviolette had to make a difficult decision on who to insert into the lineup. The most obvious choice would be Jody Shelley, a regular in the lineup all season, a grizzled veteran with playoff experience and a guy who contributed mightily for this team. Shelley has been missing with an injury, but all indications were that he could go if needed.

Laviolette decided against that for whatever reason, whether it was conditioning, too much time off the ice or Shelley still not being 100 percent. So the next logical choice would be rookie Ben Holmstrom. Not ideal, obviously, suiting up a rookie for his first NHL playoff game and just third NHL game period in the midst of a series tied at two games apiece, but it would have to do. Holmstrom did play two games this season and did not look overwhelmed.

But no, Laviolette didn't do that either. Instead, he dressed a guy who had exactly zero NHL shifts in his life, a guy who essentially is nothing more than a hitter. And while he didn't do anything stupid and actually threw some nice hits in his extremely limited ice time, the decision to dress Zac Rinaldo in a pivotal game 5 made absolutely no sense whatsoever. What was the purpose in dressing a guy that Laviolette literally could only use for a few minutes? What if one of the other forwards would have gotten hurt? Was he really prepared to let Rinaldo take more shifts? I just don't get it. Jody Shelley was a guy who helped get the Flyers to where they're at, just like Sergei Bobrovsky. And at least Ben Holmstrom contributed briefly to this team (playing in twice as many games as Leighton!). But when a few things didn't go the Flyers' way, when the series wasn't going quite as planned, Laviolette panicked and turned his back on a couple of the guys who helped get him to where he's at in favor of guys who had little to no impact on this season whatsoever.

I like Peter Laviolette. I'm glad he's the coach of the Flyers. But win or lose tomorrow night, he's put his team in a precarious position by making what can only be described as indefensible, panic-stricken decisions. And honestly, all I can ask myself is, "What is Peter Laviolette thinking?"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Leave Doug Collins Alone

After the Sixers got completely blown off the court by the Heat in game 2, Doug Collins gave an honest, candid assessment of the situation, saying that if Miami plays great, they're a better team.

To me, all Doug Collins was doing was stating the obvious and doing what we always ask of our sports personalities but rarely get, which is being honest. He didn't talk badly about his team or say his players were no good. He simply stated the undeniable fact that Miami won 58 games to Philadelphia's 41. Clearly they are the superior team. As a Sixers fan, I wasn't the least bit upset about that.

Then I tuned in to TNT's pregame show and had to listen to Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, two former players, say there is no way Doug Collins should have admitted that. (By the way, I'd like to personally thank TNT and DirecTV for not blacking out the TNT broadcast, mercifully allowing me to listen to Marv Albert and Steve Kerr instead of making my ears bleed with Marc Zumoff and especially the atrocity that is Eric Snow broadcasting a game.) Ernie Johnson tried to talk some sense into them, saying Collins was simply stating facts and being honest, not questioning his team. But Charles and Kenny had a different view.

Now, I completely understand what Charles and Kenny were saying. Barkley said he'd never want his best player or his coach to say something like that, because it makes players believe they can't win. And Kenny added that what separates pro athletes from everyone else is "delusions of grandeur," where every one of them honestly believes they are the best or capable of beating the best. I get that. I understand that. And I see where they're coming from. Barkley even went so far as to say he guarantees Monty Williams didn't tell Chris Paul and Hornets that, Lionel Hollins didn't tell the Grizzlies that and Nate McMillan didn't tell the Trail Blazers that. I get it.

But come on. Are we really going to try and use this against Doug Collins? The man has coached his ass off for the Sixers this season, giving this team a complete 180 in both production and attitude. He's motivated his players to get the most of their ability and found a way to make this team a legitimately competitive squad, albeit one that is far from competing for a championship. All he was doing was saying, look, if the Heat, with two of the best players on the planet and a third that has been an No. 1 option almost all of his life, play to the best of their ability, the Sixers can't match that. It's simply true, especially when Collins doesn't have the luxury of anyone like a Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge or even a Zach Randolph, all of whom are all stars.

Doug Collins doesn't have those type of players. He doesn't even have an all star on his roster. Yes, Elton Brand has been an all star in the past, but he's no longer that player anymore. And the team's "franchise player" is averaging 6 points a game in this series. Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks are not walking through that door. So let's just drop this whole charade that what Collins said was controversial or betraying some unwritten code. He's been coaching up his team and getting maximum effort out them, and he did that again last night. But the Heat are simply better, and that's why they won by six points despite the Sixers giving it their all.

Maybe we should focus more on what we're getting out of the Sixers. They surprised a lot of people by hanging tough in game 1 and even fighting all the way back to make a game of it after falling behind by double digits in the third quarter. And after Monday's shellacking, the Sixers could have easily folded, resided to the fact that no matter what they had no shot in the series. In fact, that's exactly what Charles Barkley said would happen last night, saying the Sixers had no shot to make it competitive and were going to get killed. Guess what? That didn't happen.

The Sixers came out with everything they had in the first quarter, much like they did in game 1, putting up 29 points and going up 8 after 12 minutes of play. And even as the Heat slowly took control, the Sixers never faded. They hung in there all the way to end, fought tooth and nail to stay close. It didn't result in a win, and the season will probably be over on Easter Sunday, but it was just more proof that these guys lay it all on the line for Collins, no matter what he says. So leave the guy alone.

As for the game, what can you do when Dwyane Wade goes for 32, 10 and 8 with a steal, two blocks while connecting on 12-12 from the line? What can you do when LeBron effortlessly gets 24, 15 and 6? What can you do when Chris Bosh was practically unnoticeable and still finished with 19 points and 6 rebounds? The answer is not much.

Elton Brand played as well as Elton Brand can play, working his tail off on both ends of the court and leading the Sixers with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Jrue Holiday showed he has the makings to be something special going for 20 points and 8 assists while connecting on 7-13 from the field and 4-5 from three. Spencer Hawes gave some spirited minutes, putting up 12 and 6 with two blocks.

But when push came to shove, the Heat simply have better players. Wade, LeBron and Bosh all were fantastic, while Andre Iguodala looked completely helpless out there, overpassing on every possession. Yes, he did manage a double-double, handing out 10 assists and getting 10 points, but I've never seen him so hesitant to shoot in my life. Normally, Sixers fans are begging Iggy to take less shots. Last night, he went to the other extreme. He came in averaging just 4.5 points in the first two contests, and that clearly had him psyched out. There were at least 5 times last night where he could have taken it to the rim and gone up strong, but instead made an unnecessary pass. And this is supposed to be your franchise player, a guy who only took 10 shots and made just three of them.

And the two biggest threats off the bench couldn't get much going either. Lou Williams did have 15 points, but he shot just 5-12. And Thad was invisible, going just 1-8 for 4 points. The Sixers simply don't have the horses to compete with Miami. That's why they're down 3-0, not because Doug Collins doesn't believe in his squad.

The only thing Collins is responsible for is this team's renewed energy and major turnaround. He's responsible for bringing life back into a previously lifeless franchise. He's the reason the Wells Fargo Center was packed last night. So please, just leave Doug Collins alone.

It's (Good) Friday, Time to Dance

Seeing as it's Good Friday and the Sixers' last game of the season will most likely be Easter Sunday in Philadelphia (and I'll be there!), might as well give them some love before it's too late. So please, kick back and witness Spencer Hawes teach us how to Dougie, which I assume is an ode to his coach, Doug Collins.

See you on Sunday, Spence.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Missing Piece

For the majority of my life, the Flyers have been one of the best franchises in the NHL. It truly began during the Eric Lindros era and has continued to this day, minus one epically bad season mixed in. Yet year in and year out, the Flyers have always come up short, whether it was an unexpectedly early playoff exit, the seemingly annual dismissal at the hands of the Devils or heartbreaking series a la Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

During this run of impressive regular seasons that ultimately end short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, one thing has been missing more than anything else. That thing is a goaltender that can literally win you not just a game, but an entire series, as every Flyers fan alive can attest to. Well, the Buffalo Sabres have that missing piece in Ryan Miller, and he is the only reason why this series is now tied 2-2 heading back to the Wells Fargo Center tomorrow night.

I could talk about the questionable referring — which had me screaming and yelling and jumping up and down — but as bad as some of those calls and no calls were (especially giving Mike Richards a major for that elbow), the referees didn't decide last night's game. Ryan Miller did. The Flyers could have had all the power plays in the world last night, and it wouldn't have mattered. Not only because their power play is a complete disgrace (seriously, it's fucking atrocious), but because Ryan Miller simply was not going to yield anything last night. For the second time in this series, Miller literally played flawless hockey.

And while the Flyers dominated the game for the most part after the first half of the first period, they weren't flawless. Particularly on the lone goal of the game.

The entire play was a series of mistakes. First, the Flyers backed up, allowing Buffalo to enter the zone easily, instead of holding the blue line. Then, after a nice poke check by Danny Syvret, Giroux couldn't get his stick on the puck, a difficult play. And most egregiously, Nikolay Zherdev, who every single person in the comments section insisted absolutely has to be in the lineup no matter what, tried to break out of the zone early on the original poke check instead of taking care of his defensive responsibility. That left Matt Carle in an impossible 2-on-1 situation, resulting in a slam-dunk goal for Jason Pominville.

That's why Zherdev has had such a difficult time staying in Peter Laviolette's lineup. For all the good things he does offensively, he goes and does that, completely ignoring his assignment defensively, resulting in a goal for Buffalo. It turned out to be the difference in the game. Well, that and Ryan Miller.

Honestly, it's difficult to be too upset with the Flyers last night. This wasn't game 1, where they generated very little great scoring chances despite controlling the game. After the initial 10 minutes, when Buffalo took it to the Flyers and scored the goal, the Flyers played exactly the way you want. They forechecked aggressively, cut down on mistakes, fired the rubber at Miller, got traffic in front, won puck battles, created tremendous chances. They just couldn't beat Miller. He was too damn good.

The best chance they had was on the play above, with Danny Briere all alone down low with the Buffalo goalie. It sure did look like Briere had a whole lot of room to score between Miller's legs, but Briere tried to beat him glove side. His former teammate would have none of it. Hindsight is always 20-20, and I'm sure Briere is kicking himself for not sliding between Miller's five-hole after his poke check missed, but what can you do? Sometimes you a goaltender can steal a game and even a series. So far, it's been Flyers 2, Ryan Miller 2. He's that guy the Flyers have been searching for forever. Unfortunately, he's winning games for the opposition.

And I mean this as no indictment of Brian Boucher. Boosh was fantastic again last night. He stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced, and the one he gave up he had absolutely no chance on. Boucher has been spectacular. He really has. But even with his impressive playoff numbers and awesome play in the two-plus games he's been in net so far, he won't singlehandedly win the Flyers a series the way Ryan Miller has singlehandedly evened this thing up for Buffalo. The guy is incredible, and it's incredibly frustrating that Philadelphia isn't up 3 games to 1 or done with the Sabres in a clean sweep. But what can you do besides keep cracking away and hoping you can crack through the way the Flyers did in games 2 and 3?

I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on a few Flyers in particular last night. For the second straight game, Kris Versteeg impressed the hell out of me. He was flying all over the ice, making plays, creating chances and playing sound defensive hockey. These past two games he's been every bit the player I thought the Flyers were getting when they traded for him. Glad to see him pick him game up. His forechecking and pressure on the puck was a big reason the Flyers got things going after that first 10 minutes.

And to me, even with James van Riemsdyk continuing to be the best skater on the ice and the top three lines creating chances, the fourth line was the best of the bunch last night.

Dan Carcillo had his best game in forever. He showed the offensive flair that had some people thinking he'd be much more than a fourth-line agitator when he was coming up. Carcillo was all over the place last night, drawing penalties and pounding the Sabres on both ends of the ice. He had a jump in his step that we haven't seen in quite some time. And his linemates followed suit.

Blair Betts and Daroll Powe have been stalwarts on the penalty kill all season long, and they were again last night, especially when killing off that five-minute major to start the third period. And at even strength, no line cycled the puck better or spent more time in Buffalo's zone than Betts-Powe and Carcillo. It really was an impressive showing by that trio. It's a shame they weren't rewarded with a goal.

But with the good came the bad. Namely, Jeff Carter injuring his knee on a collision with Tyler Myers. Missing a goal-scorer against a guy that's already difficult to score against is a big deal. Hopefully Carter is OK to go tomorrow night and/or Sunday, because with the way Ryan Miller has played in games 1 and 4, the Flyers will need as many goal-scorers as possible in the lineup.

And speaking of Tyler Myers, I cannot say enough about the kid. He has been downright awesome in this series, and he was against last night. In the NHL, we're used to our big defensemen being smart and using their reach, but not being that agile or fast. Zdeno Chara, Chris Pronger, even guys like Derian Hatcher before them use their size, strength, reach and smarts to dominate. Tyler Myers has all that, but he also has the speed and agility of players half his size. At 6'8" that's frightening. The kid has been the biggest standout on the blue line for either team thus far, and that's certainly not helping Philadelphia in finding a way to beat Miller.

Thankfully the Phillies won in come-from-behind fashion to give the day something positive. After the bats went silent Monday and Tuesday, it was Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino supplying the power and re-igniting the bats just as the Phils drew it up. Or something like that.

Anyway, it was nice to see Polanco have another monster game with his three-run jack to tie the game in the 6th and Victorino continuing his hot start with an absolute bomb in the 7th to give the Phils a 4-3 win and prevent the sweep. Unfortunately, no one could get a hit on Tuesday, when I sat out in the cold and rain to watch Roy Halladay labor through six innings only to have David Herndon surrender a game-ending (for all intents and purposes) home run on his first pitch. Oh yeah, and the Phillies only got two hits off Randy Wolf, one of which was a bunt single by Jimmy Rollins.

This week has not exactly been that great. Hopefully that all changes tonight with the Sixers getting a boost from the home crowd. Though somehow I doubt it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When a Playoff Win is More Painful than a Playoff Loss

After a weekend in which the Sixers came back from a double-digit second-half deficit much to my surprise – thanks largely to excellent play by Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday – to make it a game against the Heat and the Flyers outlasted the Sabres in a wild, terribly officiated game (on both sides) to even the series, I was all set to what each team had in store last night.

While the Flyers had yet to play their best game, they were the better team in both game 1 and game 2, and they had the best player through the first two games in James van Riemsdyk. I expected nothing less in game 3, perhaps even thinking the Flyers would put together a more complete game. That did not happen.

Things started out well, sure. The Flyers came out and applied some nice pressure early, earned themselves a power play and somehow, some way, miraculously tallied a power-play goal on a gorgeous shot by Jeff Carter.

Carter, who had played pretty poorly in the first two games, kept finding the puck on his stick in that first period, and he made no mistake on that laser of a wrist shot to beat Ryan Miller. But after that goal, the complexion of the period completely changed. As has been the case ever since the Flyers got in their late-season funk, they took the gas off the pedal once they got the lead.

The Sabres outworked the Fleyrs in every single aspect of the game, outshooting, outhitting, outchancing and out-faceoffing the Flyers. It was only a matter of time before Buffalo scored, and it came on the power play. What started out as a promising period devolved into complete domination by the Sabres. They outshot the Flyers 16-6 in the opening period, and for the first time all series, Buffalo looked like the better team.

Luckily Brian Boucher was up to the challenge the way Miller was in game 1, and the Flyers escaped tied at 1. Then they reversed roles in the second, with the Flyers outshooting Buffalo 15-10 and scoring twice to take a two-goal lead. One came on an awful turnover by the Sabres on a faceoff win. Scott Hartnell gave a little nudge, took the gift and hit Briere for an easy goal.

That goal gave the Flyers the jump-start they needed. From there, they began to play much better hockey, keeping most of the play in Buffalo’s end and asserting themselves. And with just over three minutes later, the much maligned Richards line broke through. Kris Versteeg made an awesome play to get the puck, found Mike Richards who waited patiently for the defense to come to him, then hit Nikolay Zherdev for the slam-dunk goal. It was a beautiful tic-tac-toe play, the type of thing we’ve been waiting for out of this line for months. In his first playoff game as a Flyer, Zherdev lit the lamp, giving all the people begging for him to get in the lineup even more ammunition.

I have to admit, it is nice having the play-making and finishing of Zherdev in the lineup, especially with the way this team has struggled to score goals heading in to the playoffs. But if you watched Zherdev closely last night, you can see why he’s in Peter Laviolette’s doghouse. Defensively, he was appallingly bad, rarely ever skating hard to back-check, often skating away from Sabres in the defensive zone and generally looking disinterested defensively. That’s why he has trouble staying in the lineup. He is a brilliant offensive player. He really is. And right now, the Flyers need that. But his defense is beyond terrible.

Speaking of terrible, I pretty much laid into Kris Versteeg after game 1.

Beyond his two-goal game against the Maple Leafs, he’s been so underwhelming since coming to Philadelphia and has dragged Mike Richards down with him. But last night, Versteeg was really good. He made very few bad decisions, kept it simple and worked extremely hard. His play to set up Zherdev’s goal was outstanding, and he had far more of those types of plays last night than the lazy, terrible and downright stupid ones he’s made a habit of. Last night, he was the player I thought the Flyers were getting, and that’s an extremely encouraging sign.

What was discouraging was that after a strong period in which they took a two-goal lead, the Flyers gave up a back-breaking goal less than a minute and half later. With less than two minutes remaining in the period, Brian Boucher completely boxed an easy shot to stop from far out. Of course it landed right on that little gnat Nathan Gerbe’s stick, who beat Boosh and completely changed the momentum of the game.

The Flyers did head into the third with the lead, but that goal took the wind out of their sails and gave Buffalo life. That led to a third period that was a lot like the first. Yes, the Flyers escaped with a 4-2 win on the empty-netter by Kimmo Timonen, but they weren’t the better team last night. The Sabres outshot the Flyers 11-4 in the 3rd, forced the Flyers to take a ton of penalties and ended with a 37-25 shot advantage.

Honestly, it was a painful game to watch, and it didn’t exactly instill a ton of confidence. Yes, they won, but the Sabres worked harder, looked hungrier and played better. Ville Leino was a nonfactor yet again, playing pretty poorly. The defense coughed the puck up way too much, with Braydon Coburn making two glaring giveaways in the 3rd. They failed to play well with the lead yet again. Richards, despite the great feed on Zherdev’s goal, still didn’t look right.

But a win is a win, especially in the playoffs. And despite being outplayed, there were plenty of good things to take away as well. The Flyers killed off a crucial 5-on-3 and a 4-minute double minor on Scott Hartnell. The work that Darroll Powe and Blair Betts do on the penalty kill is simply remarkable to watch. Without those two last night, no way the Flyers win that game.

JVR was once again the best player on the ice. He may not have shown up on the scoresheet, but he was everywhere once again. The guy is turning into a certified beast. He just won’t be denied. I can’t believe how far he’s come since last postseason. Riemer has been a lot better than anyone else on the ice in this series thus far, and I’m incredibly excited to see what he turns into. Versteeg had his best game in a long time, perhaps his best since becoming a Flyer. Timonen and O’Donnell played very well on the back end. And Boucher, despite boxing that one to lead to Buffalo’s second goal, was outstanding, stopping 35 shots and really stealing the victory.

You can say what you want about Boosh, but the guy shows up in the playoffs, evident by the fact that he has the fifth best goals against averages in his playoff career among active netminders. Great game by Boucher last night.

Having said that, the Flyers absolutely have to play better tomorrow night if they want to prevent the Sabres from evening this series up. In the first two games, the Flyers looked like the better team. The same cannot be said for last night’s game. Thank goodness for Brian Boucher.

As for the Sixers, their game turned out exactly as I expected. Game 1 was a wakeup call for the Heat. I’m sure Miami was just as surprised as I was that the Sixers didn’t fade after going down pretty big in the second half on Saturday, but they weren’t going to be caught off-guard again.

Miami played absolutely suffocating defense, limiting the Sixers to just 31 freakin points at half and winning going away 94-73. It was never even a contest and not a single Sixer besides Evan Turner of all people looked remotely competent offensively. This was the type of game you expect a team like the Heat to have. Miami’s third best player is so far superior than Philadelphia’s best, which is why I had and have no delusions that the Sixers might take a game. They did have a shot in game 1, but now they have none.

LeBron was a beast, scoring a game-high 29 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Oh yeah, and he did this:

Dwyane Wade wasn’t spectacular stats-wise, but he looked like his migraines were not an issue at all.

And Chris Bosh had his second straight double-double, putting up 21 and 11. The Sixers simply have no one who can even remotely match up with Bosh. Andre Iguodala, who has been awful offensively, can bother LeBron defensively. The Sixers can have guys funnel Dwyane Wade to help. But there is no one who can contain Bosh, and he’s been taking advantage.

That was what you call a good old-fashioned ass-whooping, and I’d honestly be surprised if either of the next two games in Philadelphia (I’ll be at game 3 on Easter Sunday, by the way) are remotely close. The Heat look like the team everyone thought they’d be when Wade, LeBron and Bosh united. And that’s a frightening thought.

Though as badly as the Heat beat in the Sixers’ brains last night, I didn’t find myself overly upset. The Heat are simply way better than the Sixers. But watching the Flyers get out-worked and outplayed in a victory was incredibly painful. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but watching that Flyers’ win was way worse than watching the Sixers’ blowout loss.

As for the Phillies, GM Carson said it best:

why is Kendrick in the bullpen and what the hell is the purpose of Michael Martinez. Rosters spots could be better spent.

The same thing goes for Danys Baez. Way to make me stay up for that loss, jerks.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I'm on Twitter Now, and No, I'm Not Happy About It

I heard so much about Twitter two years ago in one day that I never wanted anything to do with it. But Ed's been on me for months to get it, and now that meech brought The Fightins back, I'm joining the Twitter party. No, I'm not happy about it. So just follow me already: @RevPaulRevere

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nice of (One of) You to Show Up

As you may have heard, I attended game 1 of the Flyers-Sabres series last night with Adam EatShit. Maybe it was because I was there and felt the energy (and lack there of) of the building that led me to slightly disagree with Matt P's assessment of last night's 1-0 loss:

Sifting through the ashes of the Flyers' 1-0 loss to the Sabres to open the playoffs, it's hard to come down too hard on them despite losing a game we really wanted to see them win. They played well overall, with a single play that was by no means terrible leading to the game's only goal. The Flyers generated some very good scoring opportunities, but couldn't beat Ryan Miller, nor his defense, which clamped down on the slot and surrounding area once the Sabres had the lead. 

Yes, the Flyers outshot the Sabres 35-25 last night. Yes, they won the faceoff battle. Yes, they took less penalties, threw more hits and had more scoring chances. But being at the game and watching it all unfold, the Flyers hardly played well, at least offensively.

I agree 100 percent that the defense played extremely well. The Flyers surrendered just 25 shots, and the Sabres generated very few chances. When they did, Sergei Bobrovsky was there to answer the call. In his first career playoff start, Bob was stellar. While he did leave a big rebound on the game's lone goal, he did just about everything right last night, absorbing the puck and leaving few rebounds, never losing track of the puck, making all the saves you can expect. It was perhaps his best start in a month.

You'll get no complaints on Bob from me. Nor from the defensive work of the Flyers. The only negative came on that rebound goal by Patrick Kaleta, with Danny Syvret letting him get behind him and bang it home.

It would have been nice to see Syvret get in better position and take that away, but I won't be too hard on the young defenseman. He played fairly well.

What absolutely disgusted me last night was the complete lack of energy from any forward not named James van Reimsdyk.

First, let me get the good out of the way. JVR was absolutely awesome last night. He was head and shoulders the best player on the ice for either team, and that even includes Ryan Miller. This time last season, van Riemsdyk was struggling to get ice time in the playoffs and looked completely lost. But over the past couple of months, with the Flyers slumping, he's been one of the few consistently good forwards. Last night, he carried that over into the playoffs. JVR was flying all over the ice, creating a ton of scoring chances, backchecking hard, blocking shots, and honestly playing perhaps the best game I've ever seen him play. He was all amped up and ready to go.

The problem was none of the other forwards seemed too eager to join him. Yes, the Flyers looked really good early, creating a lot of chances, but after the first couple of minutes, many of those 35 shots were easy saves for Miller. Claude Giroux had some of his typical brilliant moments, but he also gave the puck away a ton. Danny Briere was humming, but he didn't really get things going the way he typically has against his former team. And barely anyone else did a damn thing.

Honestly, for all the shit the fans give Andreas Nodl, he may have been the second-best forward on the night for the Flyers. At least he consistently busted his ass and looked determined. I can't say the same for anyone else.

Ville Leino made a habit of trying to go through too many people again. Scott Hartnell was relatively quiet, failing to even stir the pot. The fourth line worked hard but couldn't generate anything more than a modest forecheck. Jeff Carter, save for his one great chance, was damn near invisible. And Kris Versteeg and Mike Richards actually were invisible, not doing a damn thing.

And that brings me to the root cause of the problem with the Flyers. Remember earlier this season, when the Flyers were ripping through the NHL and night in and night out looked far better than anyone else? During those times, Mike Richards was quietly playing some of the best hockey of his entire career. While the Briere line was lighting the lamp like crazy and Giroux was getting the headlines with his all-star level play, Richards was racking up the points himself, and doing so while being given a revolving door of wingers.

Every time a player hit a rough patch, Peter Laviolette would put that guy on Richards' line, and he'd snap out of the funk — Nikolay Zherdev, JVR, Dan Carcillo, even Nodl. Richards was not only playing his typical style of hockey, but he honestly was making his linemates better on a nightly basis.

Then Paul Holmgren went out and acquired Kris Versteeg, and everything changed. At the time of the trade, I was ecstatic. Versteeg has been a very good, very productive player for the Chicago Blackhawks before going to Toronto this season, and Holmgren didn't have to give up anyone on the roster to get him. It looked like a brilliant addition — another player who could play in all situations, a scorer and defensive player. But ever since that trade, the Flyers have been a mediocre hockey team at best. And Versteeg has been complete and utter shit.

I have no idea where the guy who looked so good in Chicago went. But I have been nothing but underwhelmed with Kris Versteeg since he put on the Orange and Black. He came here with a reputation of being a smart, hard worker who could make plays. He's shown absolutely none of that. At all.

Versteeg has been an even bigger perpetrator than Ville Leino when it comes to trying to do too much with the puck. He routinely tries to stickhandle through 2, 3, even four guys, rarely ever succeeding. He seemingly refuses to shoot, a trait that has rubbed off on most of his teammates. He rarely dumps the puck in to make the simple play, and he makes so many ill-advised passes that it drives me nuts. Last night, Versteeg continued to do all of those things, and he was without a shadow of a doubt in my mind the single worst player on the ice.

It pains me to say that, because I was all for this trade and actually liked Versteeg before he came here. But he has sucked ever since he got here, and he's sucked the life out of this team, especially the captain. Since being paired with Versteeg, Richards' play has plummeted. Initially, the two looked to have a good rapport, finding each other often and looking very comfortable. But it was all an illusion. All of Versteeg's bad traits have rubbed off on Richards, and the bad traits Richards' already had have magnified. Those two are supposed to be two of the top players on the team, but lately they've been playing like fourth-liners. And last night, they were completely invisible, save for the glaring bad plays Versteeg made.

Though the offense didn't go silent solely because of Versteeg and Richards. It began with the power play literally stifling all the early momentum the Flyers had in the game.

When the puck dropped, the Wells Fargo Center was rocking. The place was loud and energetic and the Flyers started well. Then they went on the power play and things came to a screeching halt. As has been the case virtually all season, the Flyers couldn't even get set up, let alone create opportunities. It was so bad that I honestly wished they could decline penalties in hockey.

And the biggest killer of all was the brief 5-on-3 they had in the second period. The Flyers came out in the second with their skates on fire, building a shot advantage and actually taking it to the Sabres. Eight minutes in, they went to the power play, and at the beginning it actually looked competent. Then Shaone Morrison slashed Richards to give the Flyers an abbreviated two-man advantage. The home team had all the momentum in the world. The place was rocking. And I was certain JVR was going to score sooner or later, if not on this power play than before the game was over. He just had that look in him last night.

But with all the momentum on their side and the Sabres reeling, Laviolette decided to use his timeout. I know he's a magician with his timeout use, especially in the playoffs, but to me this timeout made absolutely no sense. I understand maybe he wanted to set up a play and get his guys composed with the two-man advantage, but he also let the Sabres get a breather and gain their footing. It made no sense to me. Buffalo was on its heels. That timeout allowed them to get their bearings. And whatever was said in the timeout didn't work, because instead of generating any really good chances, the Flyers looked more determined to break the record for most consecutive passes without shooting on a power play ever.

It was embarrassing to watch. No one would pull the trigger. They just kept passing and passing and passing. And of course they didn't score. When the second penalty expired, all the air went out of the building. From then on, the place was dead quiet more than it should ever be in a playoff game. Sure, there were uproars when something happened, but the Flyers showed so little life after that that it was like a funeral in there.

I have to give credit where credit is do. The Sabres, despite surrendering 35 shots, played tremendous defense. They bottled up the front of the net, rarely let the Flyers establish their forecheck and cleared any rebounds Ryan Miller left out there, which were few and far between. And Miller was outstanding, just as you'd expect him to be. Even with the lack of quality chances, the fact the Flyers did spend more time in Buffalo's zone than their own, the fact that they did fire 35 shots at the goaltender, the fact that they did set up about 4 or 5 really great scoring chances would have been enough to beat damn near any other goaltender in the league. But Ryan Miller isn't just any other goaltender. He's a stud, and he played like one.

But to me, that doesn't and shouldn't let the Flyers off the hook. Simply put, not enough guys showed the desire to win, a common trait for this team heading into the playoffs. The only two players I can confidently say had really good games are JVR and Bobrovsky, and let's fact it, if your two youngest players are making the rest of the team look fairly bad in comparison in the playoffs, you're in trouble. And that was the case last night. Other guys had their moments, but no one else played with the intensity and desire that those two did, which is just unacceptable.

I also want to voice my extreme displeasure with Laviolette last night in the third period. Typically, when Lavvy sees a player that is simply going harder than anyone else, he'll double shift him to make sure he's on the ice as much as possible. He's done it numerous times this season, even if it's a fourth-liner like Darroll Powe. Last night, JVR was clearly that guy. He was infinitely better than the next best skater for either team. Yet when it got down to desperation time in the final six minutes, he didn't double shift Riemer at all. Instead, he double shifted Carter a couple times, a guy who showed very little last night. The one time he looked like he was going to do it, putting a makeshift line of Briere, Giroux and JVR out there, he called back JVR and sent out Hartnell instead. I just didn't understand it.

Maybe Laviolette wasn't comfortable putting a 21-year-old in that type of position, but it was a move I think you had to make. JVR was the best player on the ice, and he should have been given more time in the 3rd.

I guess it's hard to complain with him getting 18:29 of ice time, but he should have definitely been out there more than Carter, Hartnell and Leino, all of whom saw more action.

Now the Flyers find themselves in a 0-1 hole, a place they certainly didn't want to put themselves in with the way the season has turned on them. But it's nobody's fault but their own. Yes, Ryan Miller played great and the Sabres were limited offensively themselves, but the Flyers just didn't bring their A game offensively. And in all honesty, they haven't had their A game offensively in months. Trying to get it back against Ryan Miller and a stingy Buffalo defense is a tough proposition.

All I know is that the rest of the forwards better join JVR and Bobrovsky tomorrow, or this team will be watching the Phillies like the rest of us very soon.

At least Cliff Lee is still the greatest man who ever lived. Lee followed up Roy Halladay's complete-game win on Wednesday with a complete-game shutout of his own, striking out 12 Nationals while walking one and surrendering just three hits, giving the Phils the 4-0 win and 2-1 series victory. So there's that. At least all of the Phillies have been showing up to play.