Monday, January 31, 2011

Top 10 QBs in the NFL

I'm not feeling so hot today, and I have a ton of work I need to catch up on. So instead of me writing a ranting and raving post about how the Sixers should be ashamed of themselves for blowing that game on Friday and Nova should be kicking themselves for ending up with Antonio Pena taking the three they needed instead of finding a way for Corey Fisher (the one who passed up a contested shot to pass to Pena), Corey Stokes, Maalik Wayns or even Dominic Cheek, just go over to Ed the Sports Fan and read the Top 10 Quarterbacks in the NFL post, which I was asked to participate in.

For the record, my list went like this:

1. Tom Brady
2. Peyton Manning
3. Drew Brees
4. Aaron Rodgers
5. Ben Roethlisberger
6. Philip Rivers
7. Michael Vick
8. Matt Schaub
9. Tony Romo
10. Matt Ryan

Also, nice win there by Penn State. How did this team lose to Maine?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Halfway Home: A Look at the Flyers' Veterans

With the all-star break upon us, I've been breaking down of the players through the first 50 games of the 2010-11 season over the past few days. Wednesday, I kicked things off with the newcomers. Yesterday, I checked in on the Flyers' "young guns." Today, in the final installment, I take a look at the veterans.

Mike Richards

It has been an interesting year for the face of the Flyers franchise. With players such as Claude Giroux, Danny Briere and Sergei Bobrovsky stealing most of the spotlight, and deservedly so, Richards has gone somewhat under the radar. Yet everyone should take notice of the captain's play, because he is quietly having one the best seasons of his career. And arguably, it's been his most impressive.

For starters, Richards is tied for the team lead in points with Claude Giroux and leads all Flyers with 30 assists. He has 14 power play points and 5 shorthanded points. His offensive production (17 goals) and defensive work are as good as ever. But that's not the most impressive thing about Mike Richards this year. Not in the least.

The area that Richards has excelled the most this season has been the influenced he's had on everyone he plays with. The captain has had a revolving door of linemates. At varying times this season, he's centered Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Andreas Nodl, James van Riemsdyk, Nikolay Zherdev, Dan Carcillo, Darroll Powe and even Eric Wellwood. At one point, his wingers were the 23-year-old Nodl and 21-year-old van Rimesdyk, neither of whom had played in a full season's worth of games in the NHL (though Riemer came close, dressing for 78 games last year). And he still leads the best team in hockey in points.

Most notably, he's been the guy Peter Laviolette has looked to to kick-start the struggling players — JVR, Zherdev, Carcillo — and the one he trusts alongside the inexperienced Nodl. And every time, those guys have responded by playing harder and better. Let's not forget that he still has been doing all the many things he's always done. Richards still plays relentless defense, still throws his weight around, still kills penalties, creates shorthanded chances, racks up goals and assists. And his versatility on the power play — he can play point or forward — has let Laviolette continue to tinker with an inexplicably ineffective power play unit.

He may not be getting the kind of attention that he has in the past. It's easy to get overshadowed when so many players around you are having career years. But take notice, because Richards is having a career year himself. When he first took over as captain, questions abounded about whether or not he was suited for the role. This season, he's been everything you could ask for out of a captain and more.

Danny Briere

Now this is the Danny Briere Flyers fans have been waiting for ever since he signed that lucrative free agent contract with Philadelphia. Finally healthy and playing the entire season at center, his natural position, Briere is in the midst of a career year, by far his best as a Flyer. The numbers are staggering: a team-leading 26 goals (good for 5th in the NHL), 45 points (trailing only Giroux and Richards on the team) and a plus-16 rating. Prior to this year, Briere had never been a plus-player for the Flyers (-25 overall in three seasons). He has five game-winning goals, second most in the NHL — tied with Jeff Carter. And he's been named an all-star, albeit it as a late addition.

This year, he's the one guy you want on the ice more than any other when the Flyers need a goal. He's simply been sniping it. And his line is the one line you want out there when you need offense. All season long, Briere has centered the best team's best line. He's playing with a renewed energy that was sparked in the postseason, and he's playing better than ever, even at age 33. There are no more grumblings about his contract, no more calls for him to be traded. The biggest key of all is that he's managed to stay healthy. And the move back to center certainly didn't hurt.

Jeff Carter

With one too many centers, Jeff Carter has been the man most asked to play out of position at wing this year, something that began last postseason. (Well, Carter and Giroux, who often interchange spots.) At the beginning of the year, Carter was still struggling to adjust to that role. His scoring was down a bit, and he just looked a little out of sorts. But man, when he did figure it out, he took off.

Carter is up to his usual goal-scoring tricks, trailing only Briere for the team lead with his 23 goals. He is also the only Flyer with 20 goals and 20 assists, making him the fourth guy on the team with at least 40 points; he has 44. Unsurprisingly, Carter also leads the team in shots by a wide margin, trailing only Alexander Ovechkin and Dustin Byfuglien in the entire league with his 213 shots on goal. And even though he spends a lot of time at wing, he's been the best faceoff man on the team, winning 55.6 percent of his draws.

Most recently, he's been especially hot. Playing alongside Claude Giroux and Nikolay Zherdev (and before van Riemsdyk was hurt, with Giroux and JVR), Carter's line has been the most dominant of late. He and Giroux are working incredibly well together and seamlessly alternating back and forth with each other between center and wing. And the chemistry they've developed, no matter who the third guy has been, has blossomed into something special of late. Witness (4:25 in):

Carter is simply continuing to do what Jeff Carter does. He's shooting the puck, scoring goals and playing sound defensive hockey. At times, he's even used his strength a little more, knocking Sidney Crosby off the puck in one game and throwing more checks than he has in the past. Nothing to complain about with Jeff Carter, the man who's had the hottest stick on the team the past couple of weeks.

Scott Hartnell

Over the years, I've pretty hard on Scott Hartnell, particularly the last two years. While he brought plenty of offensive talent and aggressiveness to the team, he always seemed to take it away with mind-numbingly stupid penalties. Lazy penalties. Bad turnovers. Inexcusable cross-ice pass attempts. His penchant for losing his footing. And oh yeah, his numbers started to decline as his bone-headed plays mounted. By the latter stages of last year, I was ready to be done with him, happy to see Scott Hartnell move on.

Then, when the Flyers desperately needed him after injuries to Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter in the playoffs, Scott Hartnell took his game to a whole new level. Skating with newly acquired Ville Leino and Danny Briere, Hartnell was a new man. He had an awesome playoff. He stopped taking stupid penalties. He stayed out of the box. Yet he never lost his edge or aggressiveness. It looked like he had turned a page. Still, I waited with baited breadth to see how he'd perform this season. Were the playoffs the start of a new and improved Scott Hartnell, or was it simply an anomaly?

As it's turned out, Scott Hartnell is a changed man. He is playing exactly the way he did last postseason. Through 50 games, he has 17 goals and 17 assists. He's a plus-16. And he's taking far fewer stupid, lazy penalties. Yes, his 103 penalty minutes are second on the team, but they're made up more of hustle plays, defending his teammates and getting unlucky than they are of unnecessarily throwing a late hit or lazily putting his stick in the midsection of an opponent. Hartnell has been disciplined, intelligent, and quite frankly good. It's the best season he's had a Flyer, even if he doesn't top his line of 30 goals and 60 points from 2008-09. Just like his linemate Briere, there were fan movements to trade away Hartnell. Now those are all gone, and even with his haircut, he's once again back to being a fan favorite. Hartnell and Briere should buy Ville Leino something very nice, because Ville has been a sort of miracle worker in helping turn Hartnell's and Briere's careers in Philadelphia around.

Kimmo Timonen

I have spent a lot of time praising Kimmo Timonen on this site, particularly this year. And it finally occurred to me the other day: Kimmo Timonen is my favorite player on the Flyers, or at worst, tied as my favorite with Claude Giroux. Without a doubt, he takes Kim Johnsson's spot on my 5 favorite Flyers list, and he may even challenge for the No. 1 spot before it's all said and done. I love watching Kimmo Timonen play. Absolutely love it.

Chris Pronger is widely regarded as the best defenseman on the Flyers, and that may be true. Pronger is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, and he brought a toughness and stability the Flyers didn't have on the blue line before his arrival. But watching the Flyers on a daily basis, Timonen is every bit as important, and right now, every bit as good. He leads the Flyers in ice time. He has more points, 25, than any other defenseman on the team. He has 10 more blocked shots than anyone else on the squad. And he is a very impressive plus-14 while routinely going against the opposition's top line and killing penalties. Oh, and he's a tremendous quarterback on the point as well.

Admittedly, I knew very little about Kimmo Timonen before he came to Philadelphia. Now I understand why. He doesn't do things to stand out or call attention to himself. He simply does everything right, all the time — all the little things, all the big things, everything. He's the type of player you have to really watch on a regular basis to truly appreciate. Thankfully, as a Flyers fan, I get to do that. This year, he's been tremendous, just as he always is. Philadelphia is privileged to watch him ply his trade here. And even at 35 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Matt Carle

Last season, Matt Carle had the luxury of being paired with Chris Pronger. Pronger's influence rubbed off on Carle, who had a breakout-type season. This year, with Pronger spending considerable time as an unhealthy scratch, it wouldn't have been surprising to see Carle slip a little bit. It would have been a little disappointing, but completely understandable. Thankfully, that hasn't happened.

Carle has had an even bigger breakout season to date. His 24 points through 50 games have him on pace to eclipse his career high of 42 points all the way back in 2006-07 with the Sharks. He's fourth on the team with 23 assists, most among Flyers defensemen. And his plus-22 rating trails only Meszaros, the NHL leader in plus/minus. Carle is tied for fourth in the league in that category, by the way.

No matter if he's paired with Pronger, Andrej Meszaros or even at times Sean O'Donnell, Carle has taken another step forward. He is one of the strong suits on the league's strongest defense corps. A lot of that can be attributed to the influence Chris Pronger has had on him. But the bulk of the credit has to go to Carle, a guy who many saw as a disappointment following his second season in the league. Now Carle is developing into one of the better skilled defensemen on this team or any other.

Chris Pronger

Pronger started the season on the shelf, and with so much depth on the blue line, he was worked back in slowly. Then, just as he was beginning to get into things, especially blasting rockets from the point on the power play, Pronger got hurt again. That has resulted in Pronger missing 15 games thus far, though thankfully he's back and healthy again.

When he's been in the lineup, Pronger has been his usual dominant self. He has 21 points in 35 games, and his four goals are tops among Flyers defensemen. He's still tied for second with Claude Giroux in power play points, his 13 trailing only the captain's 14. He's still worked up to a plus-10. And even with missing 15 games, he's still third on the team with 87 blocks, trailing only Timonen and Carle. The best part is, with three true top-quality pairings, Pronger's ice time has dropped, meaning he'll be fresh down the stretch and come playoff time.

He certainly hasn't played in the number of games he'd like, but when he's out there, he's still one of the best in the business. And his timing and conditioning are starting to come back. That's evident by his four assists against Montreal Tuesday night.

Braydon Coburn

After an outstanding 2007-08 campaign playing next to Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn was expected to be the next young defensemen to take off. But when Coburn was moved away from Timonen to spread the wealth on the blue line, he began to struggle. The arrival of Chris Pronger last year allowed Coburn to reunite with Timonen, but something still wasn't quite right with him. He looked like a player who had regressed and may not be able to get it back, at least not in Philadelphia. The Flyers underachieved the entire regular season, and Coburn was part of the problem. He finished with just 19 points and was a minus-6.

Then Coburn quietly had a very good playoff run, just like most of the Flyers, and really regained his confidence with a full season under his belt next to Timonen. This year, he's carried that strong play over the way Briere and Hartnell have. While he only has 10 points, somewhat surprising and disappointing for a player with so much speed and offensive skill, a guy who's never afraid to join the rush, he's rebounded nicely from a rocky 2009-10. Paired again with Timonen, he's facing the opposition's best more times than not, and he's doing a damn good job. He's a plus-14 on the year, and the last match-up they had with Washington, he and Timonen put on a clinic through two periods on how to shut down Alexander Ovechkin.

The more he plays with Timonen, the more his game resembles the way Kimmo plays. And that's a good thing. Coburn has done what so many Flyers have done this season — brought his game to a new level. It's nice to see him rebound from last year, because everyone can see the talent he has.

Blair Betts

Betts is basically the perfect fourth-line center. Even while spending a large portion of his ice time a man down, he's a plus-3. He wins crucial faceoffs, blocks an inordinate amount of shots for a fourth-line forward and is simply fearless. Defensively, there are few better on this team. And every now and then, he'll contribute on the scoresheet: he has 3 goals and 6 assists.

Blair Betts is the type of guy you love to have on your team. I've marveled at watching him kill penalties the past two seasons for the Flyers, first alongside warrior Ian Laperriere, then and now with Darroll Powe. He's a master at it. Every team needs a Blair Betts, a guy unafraid and more than willing to do the dirty work. He doesn't ask for praise and he rarely gets praise. He just goes out and busts his ass to give the scoring lines a nice break without the team seeing a drop-off. If you don't appreciate all the things Blair Betts and players of his ilk do for your hockey team, you don't really know much about hockey.

Brian Boucher

The biggest question mark for the Flyers heading into the season was the same thing that's always the biggest question mark for the Flyers heading into every season: the goaltending. Luckily for the Flyers, veteran Brian Boucher and rookie Sergei Bobrovsky have locked down the position all season long.

Bob won the starting job out of training camp and played brilliantly to start the season. Boosh, backup turned starter turned injured turned hero turned injured again turned backup turned hero again turned injured again last year, found himself as the backup once again, but a backup who had to be ready for the call at any moment. You never know what you're going to get out of a rookie in net, especially one who came in speaking very little English.

Well, Boucher has found his way into 20 games this season, starting 18 to Bobrovsky's 31. When Bob started to struggle, Boosh got hot. When Boucher cooled, Bob's stepped it up. The two have combined to be better than anyone could have expected. For his part, Boucher is 11-6-2 this season. He is tied with Bobrovsky with a .920 save percentage, near the top 10 in the NHL, and his 2.41 goals against average is right there as well. He's been the perfect mentor for Bobrovsky, an unselfish guy who has been everything from rookie phenom and playoff stalwart to longtime backup and occasional starter. The wisdom he can impart on Bobrovsky is invaluable. And he still has plenty of value between the pipes, evident in his play. He's been particularly impressive in shootouts, and he's having one of the better years of his career. He may let up an occasional soft goal here and there, but you couldn't ask for much more out of Brian Boucher this year.

Michael Leighton

Remember him? The guy who saved the Flyers season not once, but twice. The guy who went from the waiver wire to the Stanley Cup Final. The guy who played the best hockey of his life when the Flyers desperately needed it. I mean, without Leighton's unexpected play last year, the Flyers could have easily fallen back from the pack and blown up the entire team. Who knows where the franchise would be right now without him?

But man, what a difference a year makes. Leighton had a very pedestrian Final against Chicago, let up the weakest Cup-winning goal of all time and things have continued to spiral downward. Yes, he did sign a nice contract to remain property of the Flyers, but an injury opened the door for Bobrovsky to take his roster spot. Since, the play of Boucher and Bob have slammed Leighton's door shut. He has only played in one game for the Flyers, and he didn't look good. Yes, he won the game, but he also gave up four goals. He's been a Phantom ever since.

As we saw last year, anything can happen. Leighton is just one injury away from being back on he big club, but that's what it's going to take to get another shot. He's been an unknown career backup for a reason. Philadelphia will never forget what he did for this organization. He should never have to buy another beer in this town again. And maybe he'll be back. But this is Bob's time, and Boucher is there to help him out. Leighton is really the one Flyer who hasn't been able to build off last year's surprising playoff run. It's a shame, but it's hard to sympathize with him given just how awesome this team has been this season without him. I wish him the best. But I'd be lying if I said I hope he gets another shot in Philadelphia.

Honestly, it's difficult to find many negatives when evaluating each individual Flyer. So many players are having outstanding seasons, career years, and the team is having such tremendous success that it's difficult to find anyone not playing well. That's why they have the most points in NHL — everyone is doing their part to help this team succeed.

It's been a fun first 50 games building off last season's improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Let's hope it continues all the way to hoisting the most treasured trophy in professional sports.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Yesterday, I was watching Sportscenter as the news broke from that Jeff Fisher would not return as Tennessee head coach. Immediately, I sent a text to Adam EatShit and Arkansas Fred:

Fisher as dc? Bring in haynesworth

Just about every Philadelphia Eagles fan alive thought the same thing. We already have Jim Washburn as d-line coach. Might as well get Jeff Fisher as the defensive coordinator, figure out a way to bring in Albert Haynesworth and immediately have a couple of heralded defensive minds, a major force on the defensive line when motivated and most likely an improved defense. Plus, if Andy Reid decided his time was up, Fisher would be a nice guy to have step in as the next Eagles head coach.

While this all seems like a pipe dream, especially today with reports that Fisher is not headed to Philadelphia, it made this video Adam sent to me last night even better: Philadelphia Eagles Rap 1988: Buddy's Watchin' You. It's particularly relevant given that Jeff Fisher began his NFL coaching career working under Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia. Enjoy.

Good god the 80's were terrifying. Cocaine's a hell of drug.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Halfway Home: A Look at the Flyers' Young Guns

With the all-star break upon us, I'm going to do a breakdown of the players through the first 50 games of the 2010-11 season over the next few days. Yesterday, I kicked things off with the newcomers. Today, I take a look at the Flyers' young guns. Check back tomorrow for a look at the veterans.

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm defining a "young gun" as any player with less than five years of experience in the NHL. Yes, I'm fully aware that that means the 27-year-old Ville Leino, in just his third NHL season, is included while younger guys like Braydon Coburn and Mike Richards fall under the veteran category. That's just the way it goes. So without further ado …

Claude Giroux

It didn't take very long for Philadelphia Flyers fan to notice that Claude Giroux was going to be a star. You could see he was on the precipice last year, and now, in his third true season in the NHL (he played in 2 games in 2007-08), the 23-year-old Giroux has entered the field of young NHL stars, literally. Before Danny Briere was added to the All-Star squad, Giroux was the lone Flyer to make the team.

It's easy to see why. Through 50 games, Giroux is tied with Mike Richards for the team lead in points with 47. He's second behind Richards with 28 assists and third on the team in goals with 19. And he's scored three shorthanded goals, combining with Mike Richards for six in all as the most dangerous penalty-killing duo in hockey. Arguably, he's been the best player on the NHL's best and deepest team.

Giroux has developed into a fantastic two-way player. He's physical, aggressive, smart. And his offensive prowess is off the charts. He can snipe a shot, dig around the net, make passes that no one else even sees, and he can grind along the boards, knock people off the puck and explode through the neutral zone. Honestly, it's hard to find any weakness in his game. He even has the versatility to play wing or center, alternating roles of late with Jeff Carter. He's played wing alongside Richards, centered several different lines, and now is playing mostly center with Jeff Carter and Nikolay Zherdev skating alongside him. That line has been out of this world the past couple of games.

We all knew Claude was going to be something special, and now he is. He's easily this city's most favorite Flyer right now, and why wouldn't he be? Claude is awesome.

Ville Leino

Once again, I would like to thank the Detroit Red Wings for giving away Ville Leino to the Flyers. For whatever reason last year, Leino couldn't consistently crack Philadelphia's lineup after coming over from Detroit. This despite playing brilliantly when called upon. But then Leino got his chance in the playoffs and completely took off. He combined with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell to form Philadelphia's best line in the run to the Stanley Cup Final, and it's simply been more of the same in his first full season in Philadelphia.

Leino is tied for second with Sidney Crosby for plus/minus among all forwards, sitting at plus-20 on the season. His 25 assists are good for third on the team, and his 36 points put him just four away from becoming the fourth Flyer with 40 points on the year. But more importantly is that his chemistry with Briere and Hartnell has carried over into this season. That line has been by far the Flyers best and most consistent all year. They've combined for a staggering 115 points as a line in 50 games — 54 goals and 61 assists. And Leino is as big a reason as any that both Briere and Hartnell are having their best seasons as Flyers. His playmaking ability is truly invaluable on a team with so many goal-scorers. Thanks again, Detroit.

James van Riemsdyk

Last season, James van Riemsdyk didn't have the kind of rookie year expected form a No. 2 overall pick — especially when the No. 1 pick in your draft is Patrick Kane. And JVR got off to quite the slow start this year as well. So slow, in fact, that he went goal-less through the first 17 games of the season. Not good. Even worse, he found himself as a healthy scratch on a few occasions. But ever since his last healthy scratch, JVR has been a man a mission, looking much more like a veteran than a 21-year-old.

Since that dreadful start, van Riemsdyk has had one of the hotter sticks on the team. He went from nonfactor offensively to scoring 12 goals and adding 11 assists, good for 23 points, and he's a plus-14 on the year. As has been the case with several Flyers this year, van Riemsdyk got his confidence back playing alongside Mike Richards. Richards, JVR and Andreas Nodl started to develop some chemistry, and once Riemer's confidence was back, he moved to a line with Giroux and Carter. That line didn't miss a beat either, as van Riemsdyk continued to score and use his size, strength and speed to create chances.

Unfortunately, van Riemsdyk suffered a lower-body injury in a loss to the Devils last week and missed the past two games. But he'll have no trouble getting back in the lineup with the way he was playing. Hopefully he keeps it up and develops into the player the Flyers thought he could become. After a slow start, he looks to be on his way.

Andreas Nodl

If you had to pick the most pleasantly surprising skater on this team, it would unquestionably be the 23-year-old Andreas Nodl. Nodl came into this season having played a total of 48 NHL game over two seasons. Last year, he skated just 10 times for the Flyers. Hardly anyone thought he would even spend much time with the big club this year — he was expected to be the best player on the Phantoms.

Instead, Nodl has forced himself into the lineup with his surprisingly effective play. I'll give you one guess on whose line he's spent the majority of his time. Yeah, Mike Richards.

Nodl has played in 41 games this year, and he has 9 goals and 9 assists. He's a plus-13 — he's never been a plus player in his career before. And he's accepted the challenge of being a shutdown defensive player on a line with Richards. The guy has even seen occasional time on the power play and PK, something no one could have seen coming.

There's no guarantees that Nodl will be in the lineup the rest of the season, but he's done nothing to warrant a demotion as of yet. Without question, Andreas Nodl has been the biggest surprise outside of Sergei Bobrovsky on this team.

Darroll Powe

Darroll Powe has the unfortunate distinction of being one of only three Flyers to be on the wrong side of the plus/minus statistic this season, and the only Flyer to be a minus player (he's a minus-1 right now) while having played in all 50 games. And guess what? That doesn't reflect how valuable he is to this team at all. Because Darroll Powe is one of those players that every championship team needs — the hard-working grinder who can and will do just about anything required of him to get a victory.

Powe is actually one of my favorite players on this team full of likable players. He won't wow anyone offensively —  he has just 3 goals and 8 assists — but his hard work does allow him to move up from the fourth line quite often. His hustle is unmatched, giving it his all every single shift, and his aggressiveness is never questioned. Darroll Powe was tailor-made to play in Peter Laviolette's aggressive forechecking system. He leads the Flyers with 122 hits, creates rushes with his speed and plays outstanding defensive hockey. His hard work has earned him double-shifts in several games, and it's not uncommon for him to move up to the Richards or Giroux line.

But where Darroll Powe makes his living is as a fourth-line checker and incredible penalty killer. The Powe-Blair Betts-Jody Shelley line is exactly the type of fourth line every hockey hopes to have. All three players are tough, smart and defensive-minded. They grind out hard shifts, and can even put some sustained pressure in the offensive zone by forechecking hard and cycling the puck. And no one forechecks better than Darroll Powe. Then you take Betts and Powe and you have one of the most impressive penalty kill duos out there. Richards and Giroux can create shorthanded offense in an instant. Powe and Betts simply shut down the opposing PK, using lively sticks, blocking passing lanes, laying out for shots and winning battles to clear the puck. Darroll Powe is an unsung hero for all the work he does winning those battles, throwing thunderous hits and killing off penalties. He's easily one of my favorite Flyers, and it's easy to see that he's one of Laviolette's favorites too.

Dan Carcillo

When the Flyers traded for Dan Carcillo during the 2008-09 season, it was an unpopular move. Fan favorite Scottie Upshall was shipped out of town. But it didn't take long for Flyers fans to fall in love with Carcillo. He's aggressive, he fights, he agitates, he talks, yet he has some decent offensive game too. Overnight, he became a fan favorite. The same cannot necessarily be said for winning over Peter Laviolette.

With so much depth and talent, Carcillo has suited up in just 28 games this season. The play of Nodl, Zherdev and JVR is certainly the main culprit, but so is Carcillo's often wild antics. More times than not, it's a good thing for the Flyers. That's evident by the team's record with and without Carcillo in the lineup: The Flyers are 22-4-2 with Carcillo and just 11-8-3 without him.

For the most part, Carcillo has been a good soldier this season. He's upset with being a healthy scratch so often, but for the most part he's played smart, disciplined hockey. He has just four points on the year, but he did score in his last game. He's also a minus-6. Basically, it's been an up-and-down, frustrating season for him, and things probably won't get any easier.

When van Riemsdyk get healthy, he'll likely be left watching yet again. That's because for every good thing Carcillo does, he can do a something bad. Take the last game against Montreal. He scored a goal and helped seal the victory. He also took a bad retaliation penalty to negate a would-be Flyers power play, and then got hit with a 10-minute game misconduct. When he's at his best, he's taking the opposition out of its game by being a great agitator, can add a little offense here and there, and will protect his teammates and drop the gloves. At his worst, he becomes a wild man gunning for someone, anyone, takes stupid penalties and let's his temper get the best of him. He'll be fighting all season to get in the lineup. While the team's record with him suggests he should play more, I have a feeling we won't see a ton of Carcillo barring any injuries.

Oskars Bartulis

Prior to the the start of the season, Oskars Bartulis was expected to be battling for the seventh defenseman spot with Matt Walker. By opening night, he found himself in the lineup with Chris Pronger recovering from offseason surgery and Matt Walker suffering an injury in the preseason. The second-year defenseman held down the fort admirably, but it's hard to judge where he's at right now.

Last season, he showed promise, and he did play well early this year. Still, he has only seen action in 12 games, where he didn't register a single point, and he sits as a minus-4 on the year. And by the time Matt Walker got healthy, Walker replaced him in the lineup for a few games while Pronger healed his in-season injury. The jury is still out on Bartulis, but we probably won't see him much if at all the rest of this season. The Flyers are just too deep and talented on the blue line for him to get any significant action.

Update: The Flyers just waived Matt Walker, so looks like Bartulis is the guy should the 7th defenseman be needed.

Stupid Name, Insane Game

A couple days ago, I told my roommate that I don't think I want to root for Jimmer Fredette because of his stupid first name. I told him that I don't have anything against Fredette, but I really, really hate that name. Jimmer? Are you serious?

Then I saw him interviewed on PTI the other day, and he was a great interview. I found out his give birth name is actually James, which is somewhat of a relief, and Jimmer came about because his mother started calling him that as a child to be different from Jimmy. Then it just stuck. OK. I guess that makes his mother the bad guy here, because Jimmer is still a god-awful, stupid name. And come on, Jimmer. You're a grown man now. I'm not sure how you didn't put a stop to that Jimmer nonsense at some point in high school at the latest.

But I digress. I didn't want to be a Jimmer Fredette fan because it pains me to hear his name. Then I finally got to see him play for the first time this season last night, and god damn, I am a Jimmer fan.

All week long we heard about how last night's match-up between No. 9 BYU and No. 4 San Diego State in Provo was the biggest game in Mountain West history. ESPN had been hyping it all week. So after grabbing a few rounds at the corner bar to cope with the insane amount of snow falling, we headed back to my house and turned on ESPN to take in the game. Only it wasn't on ESPN. Or ESPN2. Or any other normal channel. No, the "BIGGEST GAME IN MOUNTAIN WEST HISTORY" was on CBS College, a station not everyone gets with their cable packages. Thankfully I do, but that's really dropping the ball by the major NCAA basketball networks. How can you not have this game on a prime channel? Makes no sense to me.

Anyway, back to Fredette. After starting out slow and getting killed on the glass by San Diego St. — especially their star Kawhi Leonard, who finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds — Jimmer took over. And I mean took the fuck over. He scored the last 15 points of the half for BYU, totaled 20 in the first 20 minutes alone. He did it by driving to the hoop, pulling stop and goes, using his body, draining ridiculously deep threes. You name a way to score, and Jimmer did. It was amazing.

At times, he was a bit out of control. Nearly every time he touched the ball, he got himself up in the air. Sometimes that hurt him. Mostly it didn't. And he always looked to score first, rarely passing the ball. That's evident by his, ahem, 0 assists last night. But damn was he fun to watch. Really fun.

And he just kept going. In the second half, BYU pulled away, and Jimmer scored another 23 points, finishing the game with 43 in all on 14-24 from the field, 5-8 from three and 10-11 from the line. He played 39 of a possible 40 minutes. And he put on an offensive display that I'm not sure I've ever seen.

People may wonder if Fredette can really play in the NBA. After watching him last night break down San Diego St.'s NBA-caliber athletes and doing it in a variety of ways, there's no doubt in my mind he can. Today. In fact, I'd trade Evan Turner for him right now. Not because Fredette is a better all-around player than the current 76er, last year's National Player of the Year that went 2nd overall in the draft. But because he can do one thing, score, at an incredibly high level. Turner does a lot of little things pretty well, but nothing great. Fredette is a great scorer and great shooter. But he's so much more than that.

Look at J.J. Redick. He's become a very good contributor to a good Orlando Magic team. Of course, he was a great player in college, one of the greatest NCAA basketball scorers of all time. But Fredette's game is so much more advanced offensively than Redick's was when he was at Duke. Redick did most of his damage working off screens and getting open for shots, especially from three. Fredette certainly does that, but he also handles the ball like a point guard, creates shots for himself off the dribble, can get to the rim, and, if last night is any indication, can use his body to shield defenders and still make buckets after contact as well as anybody. He really is remarkable. And let's not discount his shooting. Once he steps over halfcourt, he's deadly. And the kid is shooting 90 percent from the line. There's a reason he leads the nation in scoring at 27.4 points per game, a reason he's shooting 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. A reason that he, along with Jared Sullinger and Kemba Walker, is the talk of college basketball right now. Because he's damn good.

I may hate his stupid name, but there's nothing not to like about Jimmer Fredette's offensive game.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Halfway Home: A Look at the Flyers' Newcomers

Last night, the Flyers beat the Canadiens 5-2 to improve to 33-12-5 on the season. It was an all-around team effort, highlighted by this incredible shift from the Carter-Giroux-Zherdev line.

After getting outplayed much of the first period, Montreal took three successive penalties, giving the Flyers two 5-on-3 power plays at the end of the period. Philadelphia made them pay, scoring twice: the first by Jeff Carter and the second by Kimmo Timonen. After that, the game was never really in doubt. Chris Pronger had 4 assists on the night. Mike Richards and Danny Briere each had two points. The Carter-Zherdev-Giroux line was awesome, with both Carter and Giroux scoring, and Zherdev playing the most physical game of his Flyers career. Dan Carcillo scored before eventually getting a 10-minute game misconduct late in the 3rd. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 29 shots. And the most impressive players to me were Darroll Powe, Blair Betts and Sean O'Donnell, all of whom were beasts on the penalty kill. Powe broke up several passes and played with his trademark intensity, Betts was a one-man shot-blocking machine, clearing the puck with ease, and O'Donnell simply didn't let any Montreal forward do anything against him. It really was a thing of beauty, with every Flyer having a hand in the victory, and that's been the case all season long.

Now with the all-star break upon us, the Flyers sit atop the entire NHL with 71 points. They have four players with at least 40 points, six with 30 points and 10 with 20 points. Eight Flyers have at least 10 goals, 6 have at least 20 assists, and 12 are in double figures in assists. They are the deepest team in hockey, and as it currently stands the best. So over the next few days, I'm going to do a breakdown of the players through the first 50 games of the 2010-11 season. Today, we start with the newcomers.

Nikolay Zherdev

When the Flyers signed Nikolay Zherdev, it certainly raised some eyebrows. Zherdev spent his first five seasons in the NHL as a complete enigma, first for the Columbus Blue Jackets and then a year for the Rangers. He was known as an incredibly talented offensive player, but a guy who maddeningly would disappear for long stretches of time. To make matters worse, he was never confused for Mike Richards or Pavel Datsyuk when it comes to playing responsibly in his own zone.

That led Zherdev to leave the NHL an unwanted man after the 2008-09 season with the Rangers, playing last year in the KHL. His signing was probably the most confusing of the entire offseason. And for the first half of the first half, Zherdev was exactly what he's always been: an enigma.

One night, he'd score an amazing goal.

The next night, he'd forget to mark his man in the defensive zone, take a bad penalty or completely disappear. One game he's scoring twice against his old team. The next night he's a healthy scratch for playing undisciplined and ineffective hockey.

But then something clicked. When Zherdev was sitting as a healthy scratch and watching James van Riemdsyk turn his season around, watching Dan Carcillo play hard, even if at times dumb, he started to get it. On this team, with all this talent, the only way he was going to play and get ice time was to work hard. And ever since, he's been doing just that.

It first started skating alongside Mike Richards. The influence of the captain was immediate, as Zherdev started to back-check hard and still score dazzling goals. And since JVR got hurt and Peter Laviolette put him on a line with Carter and Giroux, Zherdev has been awesome. He's playing hard in all three zones. He's still scoring goals and making plays. He's no longer trying to take on three guys all by himself. And last night, he even started to get into it physically, throwing several big checks and never backing down.

Even with the ups and downs early on, it's hard to find much to say negative about the Zherdev signing, especially of late. He has 15 goals and 4 assists on the season. He's been a plus player (plus-6), something he never was in Columbus. And since joining Carter and Giroux, he's been part of the best line for the Flyers the past two games. Finally, it looks like Nikolay Zherdev is getting it. Finally, it looks like he's putting his incredible skills to proper use. Being on a team with so many other talented players, a team that was two wins away from hoisting the Cup last year, a team with leadership — Pronger, Richards, Timonen, Betts, etc. — all over the place, has brought out the best in him. And if he reverts back to an enigma, he simply won't play. Not with James van Riemsdyk, Andreas Nodl and Dan Carcillo all chomping at the bit to earn ice time.

Andrej Meszaros

Right from the get-go, I was excited about the Meszaros signing acquisition. Even though he struggled in Tampa Bay, Meszaros was/is a talented, still young defensman (he's only 25). He had some spectacular years in Ottawa, and coming to a Philadelphia defense corps that already boasted four outstanding defensemen took a lot of pressure off him. All he's done this season is rejuvenate his career, playing the best hockey of his life.

Right now, Meszaros leads the entire NHL in plus/minus, skating at a plus-28. He has 18 points (3 goals, 15 assists). And thanks in large part to his incredible play, the Flyers didn't miss a beat on the blue at the beginning of the season without Chris Pronger, and kept on rolling when Pronger went down with a broken foot. The 6'2, 218-pounder has brought another physical presence to the back end, trailing only Darroll Powe for the team lead in hits with his 103. He has a heavy shot, which has started to find the back of the net recently. And his size and speed have allowed him to play in every situation, thriving even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. I couldn't be more happy or impressed with Meszaros. His signing is looking like a brilliant move.

Sean O'Donnell

It's hard to talk about Andrej Meszaros without talking about Sean O'Donnell too. Last postseason, especially during the Stanley Cup Final, it was evident that the biggest area of need for the Flyers was on the blue line. While they did boast two impressive top pairs — Timonen-Coburn and Pronger-Carle — they relied entirely too heavily on those four guys. Pronger and Timonen regularly logged nearly 30 minutes a game, and by the time they had to take on a deep and talented Chicago attack, they were worn down. So what did Paul Holmgren do? He brought in Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell.

Those two, paired together most of the season, have given the Flyers the single deepest defense corps I can ever remember. Plenty of Meszaros' success can be attributed to skating alongside the veteran O'Donnell, who won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim with Chris Pronger. O'Donnell will never be confused with Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Leetch or even Kimmo Timonen or Chris Pronger. But he is a really, really good NHL defenseman. That's why he's been in the league for 18 years.

O'Donnell's not an offensive defenseman. Not in the least. He's your classic stay-at-home guy. And an incredibly effective one at that. He's not fast. He's not flashy. He's just good. He uses his massive body to its fullest advantage, positions himself superbly and rarely makes a mistake. Watching him move Canadien after Canadien off the puck last night, blocking shot after shot and making smart play after smart play, I was amazed. He only has 1 goal and 10 assists, but his contributions are much greater. He and Meszaros are capable of shutting down a top line. That gives the Flyers three defense pairings that can do that. No one else in the league can say that. Sean O'Donnell and Andrej Meszaros have been godsends. They really have been.

Jody Shelley

I have to admit, I didn't really understand why the Flyers went out and inked Jody Shelley to a three-year, $3.3 million contract. That seemed like a lot of money and a lot of years for an older goon. What I didn't realize then was just how much Shelley brings to the table.

Jody Shelley is a fourth-line guy. Always has been, always will be. On a team as deep and talented as the Flyers, he doesn't get much time. But the time he does get is always deserved. Shelley is much more than a fighter, believe or not. Don't get me wrong, he'll throw down with anyone, and he's not going to put up a ton of points. But he's also a very intelligent, very responsible player. He takes plenty of penalties, evident by his team-leading 108 penalty minutes. But there aren't many of them that are dumb or unnecessary. He protects his teammates. He throws devastating hits. And he works hard in his own zone. For a guy who doesn't do much offensively, he's been a mainstay, even with the Flyers carrying NHL-caliber extra men all season.

He's been a great fit with Blair Betts and Darroll Powe, working hard as the defensive-minded checking line. Hell, Shelley is even a plus player, sitting at plus-4, and he does have four points (2 goals, 2 assists). Then you take into account that his teammates love him, and that he is a real leader. His voice carries weight in the locker room. And he's been nothing short of a strong addition to this club.

Sergei Bobrovsky

The talk of the town this offseason revolved around this mysterious 22-year-old Russian goaltender the Flyers had found. He was creating quite a buzz with his impressive play, and wouldn't you know it, he was named the starter on opening night. Could it be true? Could the Flyers really have unearthed the young, talented goaltender they've been searching for my entire life? No one really knew. Then we saw Bob play.

The rookie netminder started out the season on fire, playing as good a goal as anyone in the league. Then, as is wont to happen, he hit a bit of a slump and found himself on the bench. Brian Boucher played tremendous, and we all waited to see how the young Russian would respond. All he's done since is win his past six starts and continue to impress. Yes, he gave up a weak goal last night, but he's been far better than anyone could have ever hoped.

Bobrovsky has 21 wins in 31 games started (32 played), most among all rookie goaltenders. In fact, only six goalies in the entire NHL have more, and none of them have played in less games than Bob. HIs .920 save percentage is the best among all rookie goaltenders and puts him just outside the top 10 in the NHL. And his 2.42 goals against average is right there as well.

Sergei still has some work to do on his stick handling and at times he seems to make himself too small too quickly for such a tall guy, but that's nit-picking at this point. His athleticism is unparalleled. His flexibility is astonishing. And he's lightning quick from post to post. The best part of all is that he never seems to get phased and he's been lauded for his incredible work ethic. Hopefully Bob can continue to develop and establish himself as a true No. 1 NHL goaltender. He looks to be on his way, that's for sure. I think it's safe to say no one saw that coming. He's certainly been the biggest and most refreshing surprise so far.

Matt Walker

It's hard to make any definitive statements about Matt Walker, the man the Flyers got in return for Simon Gagne in the wildly unpopular trade with Tampa Bay. He got hurt in the preseason and has played in just four games for the Flyers. With Pronger, Timonen, Coburn, Carle, O'Donnell and Meszaros —  not to mention Oskars Bartulis — don't expect to see much of him the rest of the way. His acquisition was much more about shedding Gagne's salary to open up room in order to bolster the defense corps, which is exactly what Holmgren did.

Let's not forget Eric Wellwood either, who was called up from the Phantoms and played three very impressive games for the Flyers.

Wellwood had a goal and an assist in his three games, and more impressively, he looked like he belonged in the NHL. He threw checks, played hard defensively and showed plenty on the offensive end. However, he won't be back with the big club this season barring any extenuating circumstances. Not with the way these guys are rolling already with an odd man out — right now JVR with his injury. Still, he was impressive when called upon, and it's reassuring to know he's capable if need be.

Judging solely on the players that made their Flyers debut this season, you have to give Paul Holmgren a passing grade, in fact, he passes with flying colors. Guess that's why he got that three-year extension.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

If You Could Add One Player …

So the other day, my roommate asks me, "If you could add one player in any sport to a Philadelphia team, who would you add?" At first I hesitated. One athlete and one athlete only, regardless of sport. Then it hit me relatively quickly. Blake Griffin. No question about it.

For me, Blake is a no-brainer. He would bring some much-needed excitement to the Sixers, and with all due respect to the rest of the NBA, no one is more of a must-see player right now than Blake Griffin. That doesn't mean he's the best, but he's the one guy I'd want in this city more than any other right now.

The funny thing is, as my roommate pointed out, a few months ago I might have said Cliff Lee. And I probably would have. Now I don't have to, because we all know the greatest man who ever lived is back where he belongs.

We both agreed that Griffin was a tremendous pick, and if you had to pick just one athlete to come to your city, it would almost have to be a basketball player. The reason being that one NBA superstar can change the course of a franchise more than any one player can in football, baseball or basketball all by himself. Of course there are exceptions, so we took it a step further: Who would you add if you could add one player to each team in each sport?

That's when it gets tricky. You can look at it one of two ways: Adding that player to your team's current makeup, or the guy you'd like to start your team from scratch with. For instance, for football, my roommate said he take Ndamukong Suh, and he might even take him over anyone else in any sport.

Frankly, that choice is hard to argue. I'd absolutely love to have Suh terrorizing the NFC East as a member of the Eagles. But if I had to add one player right now to this current Eagles roster, I think it would be Patrick Willis.

My reasoning for Willis is twofold. For starters, the Eagles haven't had a terrorizing linebacker since a young Jeremiah Trotter, and it's a position they sorely need an upgrade in. Second, he would bring a presence that opposing offenses fear, a hard-hitter who will terrify wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks alike. That's something they haven't had since Brian Dawkins went to Denver.

Of course, in reality, I desperately want the Eagles to sign Nnamdi Asomugha and pry Albert Haynesworth away from Washington to reunite with Jim Washburn here in the Philadelphia. Just imagine Haynesworth and Trent Cole up front with Asante Samuel and Nnamdi protecting the back end. Still, in a dream scenario, Patrick Willis is my guy.

However, if we were starting a team from scratch, Aaron Rodgers would be my man. He's only 27 and on the precipice of being one the few elite quarterbacks in the NFL, the most important position in professional sports.

As for baseball, that's a no-brainer for me: Albert Pujols.

There's really no debate, especially when it comes to the Phillies. They already have the most ridiculous pitching staff assembled in my lifetime. What they're lacking is a power-hitting right-handed bat. Pujols is just that. Yeah, he plays first, but who cares? I'd trade Ryan Howard for him today. In fact, if the Cardinals can't sign him, I'm down with a sign and trade, sending Howard back home to St. Louis in exchange for Albert.

That's no slight to Howard, who I love, but Pujols is the best. Even if the Phillies had no hitting at all, Pujols is still my pick. He's just so much better than everyone else in baseball right now. He's my guy.

Then there's hockey. With the Flyers currently tied for the most points in the NHL with Vancouver, there isn't much this team lacks. The one obvious area would be goaltender, that ever-elusive position for the Flyers. However, 22-year-old rookie Sergei Bobrovsky has been fantastic, as has veteran Brian Boucher. And the team is stacked with talent.

Still, I'll take a goalie. And my guy is Ryan Miller.

Miller's have a little bit of a down year, but he's been so damn good in front of a mediocre team. I'd love to see him in Orange and Black. Of course, it wouldn't hurt to get an Alexander Ovechkin or, dare I say, Sidney Crosby. But I like rooting against those guys too much. Give me Ryan Miller.

But first, give me Blake Griffin. He's one player I'd trade an entire franchise for. He's just that good and that fun to watch.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Making Statements

This weekend it was bitterly cold here in Philadelphia. We're talking so cold your face hurts when you go outside. So naturally, it made for the type of weekend where your best bet was to hunker down inside and relax on the couch.

Thankfully, it was the perfect weekend for that. Saturday marked one of the best slate of college basketball games I can remember it a while: UConn-Tennessee, Ohio St.-Illinois, Texas-Kansas, Michigan St.-Purdue, Cincinnati-St. John's, Kansas St.-Texas A&M, Temple-Xavier … and those are just some of the great matchups. Of course, the day started with the most enticing game of all, Villanova taking on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

The funny thing is Syracuse has all the Philly guys and Nova has all the New York City guys. The Orange have three players — Scoop Jardine, Rick Jackson and Dion Waiters — from Philadelphia and just one from NYC, Griffin Hoffmann. Villanova has three players — Corey Fisher, Antonio Pena and JayVaughn Pinkston (suspended for the semester) — from New York and just one from Philadelphia, Maalik Wayns.

Simply put, Nova looked awesome on Saturday. I'm not sure I've ever seen a team bust up a Jim Boeheim zone so effectively in my life. The Wildcats played the most patient offensive game I can remember under Jay Wright, working the ball around, using the shot clock and getting incredible looks. It didn't hurt that everything they threw up seem to go in.

Watching Villanova in that first half, when they outscored Syracuse 40-29, it looked like they were shooting into the ocean. Maalik Wayns flat out dominated, scoring 17 of his team-high 21 points in the first half, nine of those coming from beyond the arc. The Orange had absolutely no answer for Wayns, who came out gunning from the opening tip-off. It was easily Wayns' most impressive half of basketball to date, and his teammates followed suit. Nova hit 8 threes in the first half alone, with Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, who each scored 16 points in the game, chipping in.

And with Nova lighting it up from beyond the arc, Syracuse had to start extending its zone even more. That made them vulnerable inside, and the Wildcats obliged, picking Cuse apart down low. It was really a thing of beauty.

However, you knew Nova couldn't keep shooting the way it did in the first half the entire game. And they didn't. The shooting cooled off a bit in the second, and Syracuse made its run. Neumann-Goretti's Rick Jackson was a monster inside, putting up 16 points and 15 rebounds, and Kris Joseph, back from a head injury, scored a game-high 23 points, including a huge steal and dunk that made things incredibly tight.

In the end though, Nova was just too much. Wayns and Fisher far outplayed Scoop Jardine, who had a dismal game: 2 points, 1-8 shooting, 3 assists, 2 turnovers. Stokes rebounded from his embarrassing game against UConn to net 16. And Antonio Pena made it four Wildcats in double digits, with 10, 7 and 4. The biggest key, though, was Nova's efficiency. Going against one of the nation's best defenses, the Wildcats made it look effortless. They carved up the zone, shooting 50 percent form the field and 45.8 percent from three. They also ensured victory by going 22-24 from the line, having about as good a shooting game as a team can have.

Conversely, Nova's own defense was outstanding, limiting the Orange to just 43.5 percent shooting in the game.

It was a huge statement by Villanova in the packed Carrier Dome — a statement that they weren't going to let last year's road loss at Syracuse haunt them, a statement that the sophomores are ready to take the next up and make up for last year's departed seniors, a statement that they're not going anywhere. It was a really impressive victory, and it was my favorite Nova player, Maalik Wayns, who led the way.

Unfortunately, the impressive road play wouldn't extend to Temple. Xavier is one of the toughest places in the country to play, so I pretty much expected the Owls to lose. But how they lost was the depressing part, getting virtually nothing, and in Lavoy Allen's case literally nothing, from their best players. Temple's three top scorers on the season — Ramone Moore (14.9), Juan Fernandez (10.4) and Lavoy Allen (10.1) — combined to shoot an embarrassing 5-20 from the field for just 16 points. Lavoy Allen was a complete nonfactor, literally giving the Owls nothing offensively with zero points. He picked up two quick fouls in the game and had to sit the majority of the first half, then compounded that by being a complete fucking moron to start the second, committing fouls on back-to-back freaking plays. That meant he had to sit again for nearly the entire game. He played just 13 minutes, grabbing just 3 boards, in the biggest game of the season so far. Absolutely horrendous and inexcusable performance by Allen.

Lavoy wasn't alone. Juan Fernandez, who looks to still be struggling with his ankle, scored just 6 points on 2-9 shooting and turned the ball over 4 times. He also proved that he still has no left hand, attempting a layup on the left side with this right hand with a defender there instead of going left and easily making the layup. He did get fouled, but it would have been an and-1 if he had a left. The fact that any D-1 basketball player can't make a left-handed layup is absurd. I can make a left-handed layup, and my left hand is retarded.

Then there is Ramone Moore, who went scoreless in the first half and finished with 10 points on 3-8 shooting. When add in that Michael Eric looked like he had never played basketball before in his life, you wonder how Temple wasn't down by a million points. The fact that the Owls were even in this game late is a miracle. And the only players that were keeping them in the game were Scootie Randall and Khalif Wyatt.

Randall had a career game, scoring 17 points in the first half just like Wayns had for Nova and finishing with a game-high 28. His three-point shooting — he went 5-9 — and overall play kept Temple in it. If it wasn't for Scootie, this thing would have been over by halftime.

And Wyatt provided a huge spark off the bench, scoring 19 points and connecting on 4 threes to help Temple tie it up in the 2nd half. But this was a game where the Owls needed their stars to shine. Instead, Allen, Fernandez and Moore didn't even bother to show up. For Xavier, Tu Holloway led the way with 21, 9 and 7; Mark Lyons added 19 and 5 more; and Jamel McLean had 16 and 7. The Minutemen's best played well. Temple's might as well have stayed in Philadelphia.

Nova kicked things off right, but then the Flyers lost to the lowly Devils, despite this awesome goal on Richard to Giroux to JVR play:

Then Temple brought it all back down to earth with uninspired play by its stars.

Luckily, there was still plenty of excitement. Jared Sullinger was monstrous in Ohio St.'s 73-68 win. The freshman phenom had 27 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks. I don't care what the Sixers have to do to get him in the draft, but they have to get him. He's a beast.

Speaking of beasts, Blake Griffin did this:

And this:

I would trade the entire Sixers roster for him.

Oh, and Kevin Durant did this:

Damn. I really wish the Sixers, who did beat the Jazz by the way, were fun to watch again.

Thankfully, the Flyers are. Yesterday, they provided a great appetizer the NFL Championship games, easily defeating the Blackhawks 4-1. Claude Giroux was the best player on the ice yet again, notching an assist on all four goals. And Jeff Carter continued his hot play, scoring goals 21 and 22 to go along with an assist. Ever since Giroux and Carter have been playing together, both of them have been dominant.

Sergei Bobrovsky was excellent as well, stopping 30 of 31 shots, the loan goal coming on a penalty shot by Marian Hossa.

The victory really showed the different directions the teams have headed since the Stanley Cup final. Chicago lost key players and are now struggling to hold on to a playoff spot, sitting at 7th in the West. The Flyers added key pieces and now hockey's deepest team, with three incredible scoring lines, an excellent checking line, and three legitimate top defense pairings, which has resulted in and NHL-leading 69 points.

It was a statement game for the Flyers and a great way to rebound from the loss on Saturday. That's what it was, a statement weekend. The Flyers, Villanova, Xavier, Jared Sullinger, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin all made major statements. So did the Bears and Jets, but theirs weren't nearly as good.

Theirs were Andy Reid-like statements, baffling coaching decision statements. For the Bears, it was that dreadful 3rd and 3 reverse call, a play they unnecessarily wasted a timeout for with the clock already stopped only to lose yardage and keep the clock running. Horrible.

For the Jets, it was the insane decision to keep Shonn Greene on the bench in favor of LaDanian Tomlinson on the final two drives despite Greene killing it, not to mention a slew of questionable play calls.

Please let the Packers win.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Message for David Wright

Just watch.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Sir Charles:

Enough said.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Astonishing Icing Out of Jrue Holiday

You saw it. I saw it. And if you didn't see it, you are incredibly lucky.

Up 4 with 22 seconds to go, Andre Iguodala decided it would be a good idea to reach in on Jason Richardson at the three-point line. Then the damn shot goes in. You can call it ticky-tac, because frankly it was. Iguodala barely touched Richardson. But it was insanely stupid regardless. Iggy should have been nowhere near even touching his man behind the three-point arc, let alone reaching his hand in. But he did, finding an even more creative way to prove just how un-clutch he truly is. If you're in a tight game down the stretch, Andre Iguodala will find a way to screw it up — offensively or defensively. Being that close to Richardson is just plain inexcusable.

But you know what's just as inexcusable? The game plan down the stretch by Doug Collins.

I like Doug Collins. I think he's a pretty good coach and has a great basketball mind. But sometimes he does things that just make absolutely no sense whatsoever. His designed offense in the final minutes of last night's blown game was one of those times.

With less than 3 minutes to play, the Sixers trailed Orlando by a bucket. That's when Jrue Holiday hit a tough turnaround jumper to tie the game with 2:15 remaining. After a stop, he then hit another sick turnaround to put Philadelphia up 84-82 with 1:35 remaining. The second-year point guard was coming up big in the clutch … and then he didn't touch the ball the rest of the damn game.

Instead of keeping the ball in his starting point guard's hands, the kid who just hit two awesome shots to tie the game and then give the Sixers the lead, Doug Collins elected to run the offense through Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala the rest of the way, with those guys iso-ing on one side of the floor and playing a two-man game.

Just to make that clear, Collins thought it would be a better idea to put the ball in Lou Will's hands, the same guy who clanked a couple key free throws recently, to make the decisions, and the run the entire offense around him and Iguodala, who despite a few game-winners in his career has proven to be a less-than-optimal option in the clutch, than it would be to let his starting point guard who had a hot hand decide the outcome with the ball in his hands. Isn't this guy supposed to be a wise, veteran coach?

Predictably, Collins' plan couldn't have backfired any worse. Yes, Iguodala did hit one of his cringe-worthy fadeaway jumpers with 1:04 left to put the Sixers up 86-84, and Lou Will added a free throw off a tech to make it 87-84 with 49.4 left to play. Hell, the Sixers even extended the lead to 89-84 with a couple more Iggy free throws. Then the other shoe dropped, and it all came crashing down. After J.J. Redick made it 89-86, Lou Will only made one of two from the line with 22.1 left. If he hits them both, the game is over. He did not.

That's when Iguodala committed the foul, Richardson hit the three and capped off the four-point play, and Lou Will ended regulation with one more iso play that resulted in a fall-away three-point heave with a power forward covering him. Yes, the shot rattled around and looked like it was going to fall, but it didn't. And even if it did go in, that doesn't mean it was a good shot. It wasn't. At all. Why Lou didn't drive past the bigger, slower Brandon Bass to the hoop — especially with Dwight Howard fouled out — is beyond me.

Even more baffling is why Collins completely took Holiday out of the offense after he had hit two big shots late in the fourth and was doing a good job scoring, finishing with 16 points.

I just don't get it. After hitting consecutive shots to give the Sixers the lead, Jrue didn't get another shot up. Not one. Meanwhile, Williams and Iguodala took every shot in the final 1:35 of regulation and the entire overtime with the exception of a Thaddeus Young dunk with 43 seconds remaining a missed Evan Turner hook shot with 2 seconds left.

Uncoincidentally, the Sixers blew another late lead and lost in overtime. The future of this team is Jrue Holiday. That's plain for everyone to see. Now's the time to put the ball in his hands when it matters. Instead, his coach and teammates iced him out when in the most important moments of the game, and a late lead turned into an embarrassing overtime loss. Again.

We know how the story ends with Lou Will and Andre Iguodala deciding the outcome. It would be nice to find out if things could be different with Holiday. Now it's up to Collins and his teammates to allow that to happen.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Unlearning How to Hate: The Parallels of Sidney Crosby and Kobe Bryant

Watching the Flyers' 3-2 overtime victory last night provoked several thoughts that rattled through my brain: The Jeff Carter-Claude Giroux-James van Riemsdyk line is on fire, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn were putting on a clinic on how to shut down a superstar, Ville Leino has to be way smarter than to try to thread a pass in his own zone through two sticks with his team up two in the third period and that overtime winner was a thing of beauty, from Matt Carle's stick work and pass to Andrej Meszaros' shot to JVR's screen.

But the thing I couldn't help but think of more than anything else was just how much more I appreciate Sidney Crosby's game over Alexander Ovechkin's these days. I would have never said or at least admitted that just a few years ago. Don't get me wrong, Ovechkin is one of the greatest players in the entire world, a world-class goal-scorer and aggressive checker. But his game has holes. He's not great defensively. He doesn't kill penalties. And at times, like the first two periods of last night, he can be invisible. It's been something of a habit at times this season, part of the reason he's off to the slowest start of his career.

Ovechkin did turn it on in the third and wound up sending the game to overtime, but that made the difference in his game and Crosby's even more apparent to me.

Admittedly, I don't watch the Penguins as much as I probably should. But every time I do — and I do watch them plenty seeing as they're division rivals of the Flyers — I don't see Sidney Crosby suddenly turn it on and start to dominant at a certain point in the game. Nope. What I see is a player who plays his best, works his hardest and dominants from the opening faceoff to the final horn. He doesn't suddenly kick it into another gear the way Ovechkin did last night, because he plays the entire game in that gear. There is no on and off switch with Crosby. He's just always on.

He's willing to do all the little things that Ovechkin doesn't do, either by choice or by design. He plays in all situations, the main playmaker on Pittsburgh's power play and a sound, hardworking guy on the penalty kill. He can thread a pass as well as anyone, and also score goals at a rapid clip. Even with his current injury, Crosby leads the entire NHL in points and is second in goals. Then you add to that the work he does in the corner, how difficult he is to knock off the puck, how he makes his teammates better and works hard to improve his game every season, and I can't help but marvel at the guy.

Again, this is something I would have never said about Crosby when he first entered the league, when he was young and childish and heralded without necessarily earning it quite yet. And in a lot of ways, his career is beginning to resemble Kobe Bryant's to me. Let me try to explain.

Like any good Philadelphian, I learned to hate Kobe Bryant when he became a Los Angeles Laker, even more so when his Lakers took on his hometown Philadelphia 76ers. Bryant grew up in the Philadelphia area. His dad played for the Sixers. He was one of our own, and Philadelphia loves to root for its own … until you start acting a fool and cross us.

That's what Bryant did. It began with embracing a little too much the L.A. persona. Sure, Temple's Eddie Jones played for the Lakers, but he never embodied the L.A. guy. Kobe did almost from day one. In fact, his presence forced Jones out the door, and immediately Kobe became the Robin to Shaq's Batman. But that wouldn't last. Kobe and Shaq began to feud, and a rift was enveloping the team. To many outsiders, it was perceived to be Bryant's fault, him acting like an ungrateful, petulant child trying to push Shaq aside. That started to irk Philadelphians, the I'm-too-good-for-this attitude, and then came the tipping point: The 2001 NBA Finals.

Behind Allen Iverson's remarkable MVP season, the Sixers went all the way to Finals to take on the mighty Lakers. That's when Kobe, given the opportunity to pay homage to his hometown while going for a ring himself, spit right in our faces. He didn't even try to be humble or appreciative of the city he once called home. Instead, Bryant told the world he wanted to rip Philadelphia's heart out. Right then and there, Kobe was dead to us. All of us. He could do nothing right from that point on.

But a funny thing happened to me over the years. I started to really watch Kobe Bryant play, really began to study how hard he worked, really began to appreciate his play. And slowly, the hate began to fade. No, I'll never own a Kobe jersey or root for his Lakers to win, but I can't help but watch in awe as this man does every damn thing in his power to be great. He busts his ass on defense, has every shot and pass in the book, isn't afraid to bark at his teammates when necessary and encourage them too. And you know he kills himself to be the best. I can't help but admire that.

The same goes for Sidney Crosby, the man who has been public enemy number 1 in my home city since his first NHL shift.

In the beginning, the disdain was well-deserved. Crosby entered the league with what seemed like a silver spoon in his mouth. The NHL hyped him up so much that he felt entitled to calls. He made a habit of diving. And he never lacked for complaining. I hated him. I hated everything about him. Sure, he was ridiculously good even as a rookie, but he acted, much like Bryant did early his career, like a spoiled punk. And worst of all, he did it here in Philadelphia as a member of the rival Penguins.

I was content to call Crosby a pussy, praise Ovechkin as the game's best and propel the hate. But then a funny thing happened. I began to watch Crosby's game closely. Every year in the league, he got better, and every year, he toned down the theatrics. He entered the league as a poor faceoff man. Now he's one of the game's best. He was called more of a playmaker than a goalscorer. Now he's one of the two or three best (if not the best) goal scorer in hockey … all while still being the best playmaker on the planet. He's gotten stronger, smarter, better. He's won a Cup, earned respect, and does everything in his power to be the best. Just like Kobe Bryant. And I can't help but appreciate that.

I hate Pittsburgh, hate everything about it. But the more I watch Sidney Crosby play, the more I see him work and work and work to get better, the more I see him come back with something new to add to his game when he seemingly has it all already, the less I hate him. I won't ever root for him to win another thing in his life. In fact, I hope the Penguins lose every game for the rest of eternity. But I know that won't happen, because Sidney Crosby works too hard and is just too damn good to let that happen. And frankly, I just can't hate him for that.

Sometimes, you have to just set hate aside and appreciate greatness while you can.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I Should Have Off During All Basketball Marathons

You know how I know there is no justice in this world? Two reasons, really. Number 1, the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament are still not national holidays, which is just completely absurd. And number 2, my company doesn't give its employees off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day despite it being recognized as a national holiday … which pisses me off to no end because every MLK Day there is a star-studded basketball marathon.

Yet thanks to work, I missed Louis Williams showing Andre Iguodala what clutch is.

That shot sent the game to overtime, where Andre Iguodala took Lou's hint by hitting the go-ahead jumper with 37 seconds left to give the Sixers a 96-92 win. Lou Will had perhaps his best game of the season, scoring a team-high 23 points on 8-15 from the field including the game-tying three, and he received a ton of help from his two highest-paid teammates. Elton Brand continued his quietly good season, posting yet another double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds, not to mention five blocks. And Andre Iguodala matched Brand's double-double with one of his own, putting together an all-around excellent floor game: 16 points on 6-10 shooting, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and just 1 turnover. The win propelled the Sixers to 7th in the East, for whatever that's worth.

I also missed Blake Griffin continue to demolish all comers with a career-high 47 points.

Don't look now, but the Clippers have won 10 of their last 14 games, including victories over the Lakers, Heat, Nuggets and at Chicago. Not only should Blake Griffin be a lock for the Rookie of the Year and starting in the all-star game, but if the Clippers, who currently reside in 13th in the West (6 games behind 8th-place Portland), somehow manage to sneak into playoff contention, he just may be an MVP candidate. The man is a monster. He really is.

And I missed all but the final minute of the Villanova-UConn game up in Storrs, walking through my front door just in time to see Corey Fisher tie the game from the line with points 27 and 28 with 35 seconds left only to get thwarted by a ridiculous floater by Kemba Walker.

I thought for a split second that Fisher's last-second heave from half court was going to go in, and why wouldn't I? Fisher was awesome yesterday, scoring a game-high 28 points, dishing out 6 assists with zero turnovers and matching Kemba Walker and the rest of the Huskies shot for shot down the stretch. Well, at least until that last one.

The problem is Fisher was a one-man show. Literally. He was the only Wildcat to score in double figures. His usual partner-in-crime and Villanova's leading scorer Corey Stokes didn't make a single field goal (0-6) and finished with just three points. Maalik Wayns struggled with just 9 points and 4 turnovers while shooting 4-10 from the field and 0-4 from three. And Mouphtaou Yarou, who played so well against Lousiville, did manage to grab 10 boards, but shot only 3-8 from the field for 8 points.

Setting aside Fisher's 10-22 performance, the rest of the Wildcats shot a dismal 12-38, with not a single other Wildcat besides Fisher making a three-pointer. Meanwhile Walker, who struggled shooting (6-18), managed to still score 24 points thanks to getting to the line 12 times while receiving huge help from Alex Oriakhi (14 and 12) and freshman Jeremy Lamb (14 and 8).

Fisher still almost willed the Wildcats to victory with virtually no help at all on the road in a tough environment. While the loss is tough to swallow, that bodes well for the Wildcats. There won't be many games, if any at all, where only one Villanova player scores in double figures, and I'd be shocked if Corey Stokes has another game remotely resembling yesterday's. Regardless, Nova suffered its first conference loss of the season in a really remarkable finish.

Thankfully, I did get to watch the two games that had the most native Philadelphians in it: Syracuse-Pitt and Kansas-Baylor. (By the way, did you know Villanova only has one player —  Maalik Wayns — from Philadelphia? Seriously, check out the roster.)

Between Syracuse and Pitt, there are five Philadelphians (well, one's from Chester, but close enough). For the Orange, as you should well know by now, there is Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine, who were teammates at Neumann-Goretti, and freshman Dion Waiters from Burlington Life Center Academy.

For Pitt, there's senior Brad Wanamaker from Roman Catholic and junior Nasir Robinson out of Chester.

Philadelphia was all over the place in the game with the single craziest first half of basketball I've ever seen. That's not even hyperbole. Honest. I have never in my life seen anything like the first half of this game.

Feeding off the home crowd and amped to give their Big East rival its first loss of the season, the Panthers came out like a buzzsaw, giving Cuse no room to move or even breathe with suffocating defense and scoring at will inside on offense. Before you could blink, Pitt was up 19-0. That's right, 19-0.

But just as quickly as Pitt burst out to that improbable lead, it vanished. Jim Boeheim steadied his troops, and all they did was go on a 17-0 run themselves to make it a two-point game. It was unreal. I can't believe I actually saw that happen. A 19-0 by one team followed by a 17-0 run by the other to start the game. After such a frenetic start, suddenly both teams were back to square one. Unbelievable.

By halftime, it was just like any other game, with Pitt leading 31-27 and eventually winning 74-66 after the Orange climbed all the way to tie it at 41.

And leading the way for Pitt was the two local Philadelphia boys. Nasir Robinson was the player of the game, netting a game-high 21 points on 8-12 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds and two assists. Wanamaker did a little bit of everything with his 15 points trailing only Robinson's 21 for Pitt while nabbing 5 rebounds, 6 assists, a steal and a block.

Syracuse's Philly trio wasn't quite as good. Rick Jackson did record yet another double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds while also registering three blocks and three steals; Scoop Jardine did score the second-most points for the Orange with 12 behind C.J. Fair's 16; and Dion Waiters did get 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals off the bench. But with their best player and leading scorer Kris Joseph out, Syracuse needed more from them. Jardine shot just 4-13 from the field, not making a single shot inside the three-point arc, and missed both his free throws. Jackson missed 6 of his 11 shots and failed to get to the foul line. And Waiters shot just 3-9 himself, failing to reach double digits to help make up for Joseph's absence.

The good news for the Syracuse faithful and Philadelphia hoops enthusiasts is that North Philadelphia native and Academy New Church senior Rakeem Christmas, who is headed to Syracuse next year, has been named to the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit U.S. roster.

Check out Christmas and his ANC teammates — Villanova-bound Savon Goodman and Pitt-bound Malcolm Gilbert.

And that brings us to the nightcap: Kansas-Baylor. The Jayhawks, now one of only three unbeaten teams remaining in the country along with Ohio State and San Diego State after Syracuse's loss, won easily 85-65. They may be the most loaded team in the nation, and that's thanks largely to the twins from Philadelphia, Markieff and Marcus Morris.

Marcus leads in the Jayhawks in scoring at 17.2 points per game and leads the Big 12 in field goal percentage at an absurd 61.2 percent. Markieff leads Kansas in blocks with over one a game and leads the Big 12 in rebounds at 8.7 per contest. Basically, they've been dominant all year, but never more dominant than last night.

In that 20-point victory, the Morris brothers combined for 44 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks. They shot a combined 19-24 from the field. 19-24. That's 79 percent. Markieff only missed one shot, going 9-10 for 19 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Marcus was way off by comparison, only making 10 of his 14 shot attempts for 25 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals. Ho-hum. Nothing to see here.

Damn. Those two are good. Too bad they didn't stick around the city to play their college ball, but man are they fun to watch.

And really, all those games were or would have been a blast to watch, just like the first two days of the tournament are so much fun to take in. Which is why I should always have off during basketball marathons, like the one that takes place every MLK Day. It's the only reasonable thing to do.