Monday, February 13, 2012

The Sixers Are Tough, Flyers Are Soft and Temple Is Good

My weekend was about as disjointed as Philadelphia sports were this weekend. On one hand, I got to spend time with some longtime friends and act like we did when we were teenagers, and I got to take in my first Flyers game in a month or so. Good things, just like Temple dismantling Xavier and the Sixers destroying the lowly Cavaliers. On the other hand, I was I completely spent on Saturday and had to go into the office on Sunday. Not so good things, like the Flyers playing embarrassingly horrid defense while losing on back-to-back days, and the Sixers losing in the final seconds thanks to a miraculous shot by Chris Paul and a confusing final possession of their own.

Truth be told, the unevenness started earlier and week and simply continued right on through the weekend. You see, earlier in the week, my friends tried to get a decent chunk of tickets for the Clippers game. By the time everything got coordinated with who was in and who was out, the tickets that were available had vanished, meaning no Clippers-Sixers game for us. So instead, four of us all met up at a bar/restaurant where two of our others friends work to take in the game and act like we were in high school or college again.

We ate, drank, made fun of each other just like old times, all while watching the exciting Sixers-Clippers game. For a game that ended with just 155 total points, it was an exciting one. The Sixers were taking care of the ball and playing great defense … and so were the Clippers. It was like watching two teams mirror each other, though in the end, even in the face of great defense, the team with the best player on the court found a way to win, thanks to a remarkable shot by Chris Paul followed by an absolutely disgusting final play drawn up by Doug Collins that stood no chance of working.

It would have been nice for the Sixers to make some more shots, and pretty much anything other than the final look they got would have preferable, but even in defeat it was another instance of the Sixers showing they can hang with anyone. It took a truly great shot by Chris Paul to beat them, helped out by Reggie Evans coming in and rebounding everything in sight, something Sixers fans became accustomed to during Reggie's days in Philadelphia.

That ending put a sour taste on otherwise fun night. And that was only the beginning.

About 10 minutes after I woke up late Saturday morning, I got a call from my roommate asking me if I wanted two tickets to the Flyers-Rangers game. The only caveat was I had to drive from my home in Philadelphia all the way up to Hatboro to get them. It being quarter after 11 already, I didn't even hesitate, said yes, threw on some clothes and got in my car.

As I was driving to the pickup destination, I called my cousin to see what he was up to. He said he had a few things to do before I stopped him and asked if there was anything he absolutely had to do right away today, then followed up by asking if he wanted to go to the game. He said yes, and I told him to get his ass down to the Wells Fargo Center and I'd meet him there.

I made my pickup, sped back down 95 and met up with my cousin a good 20 minutes before the puck dropped, taking our seats in section 110, row 16.

Of course, the National Anthem was pretty much the best part of the game, thanks in part to some head-scratching officiating but mostly due to horrible discipline and laughable coverage by the Flyers in front of their own net, two common themes for the team lately.

The scoring got started after an absolutely bizarre set of circumstances. After a whistle, Stu Bickel and Tom Sestito got into a little bit. Bickel clearly was the one who engaged Sestito, even dropping his gloves first, and as the linesmen tried to break them up, the two of them were throwing punches over the top, nearly hitting the officials themselves. When it all shook out, somehow Sestito got two extra minutes, neither one got a fighting major, and the Rangers wound up with a power play, while both Sestito and Bickel picked up 10-minute game misconducts. All this despite the fact that Bickel started the whole thing.

It didn't make any sense. I saw it happen live. I watched the replay. And in no instance did I see any reason whatsoever why Sestito picked up an extra two minutes to give the Rangers the man advantage. And believe me, I'm always looking for reasons to blame Sestito for anything, because he is absolutely horrible at hockey. I honestly cannot understand why Peter Laviolette keeps this joker on his roster, even with James van Riemsdyk hurt. He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and there's no one I hate seeing on the ice more for the Flyers than Sestito.

But honestly, Sestito didn't do anything to deserve the extra two, so naturally the Rangers scored on the ensuing power play on a goal from Ryan Callahan. It may have been one Sergei Bobrovsky could have stopped, but it didn't help that the referees gift-wrapped the Rangers a power play. Danny Briere clearly felt the same way, because he was summarily issued a 10-minute game misconduct himself following the goal. Briere was serving the penalty for Sestito, and when he left the box he rightfully gave it to the officials. Then he was sent off the ice for a while to contemplate just how horrible that call was.

From there, the Flyers picked it up after getting outworked early by the Rangers. Wayne Simmonds remained red hot, scoring an absolutely beautiful deflection goal past Henrik Lundqvist to tie it up. In my humble opinion, Simmonds and Brayden Schenn have been the best two Flyers for the past couple of weeks now, and Saturday was no different.

Of course, a few minutes after a pretty bad non-call on the Rangers, Andrej Meszaros hooked a Ranger to give New York another power play. On the ensuing power play, Matt Read went to the wrong man on a rush, leaving Marian Gaborik of all people all alone in front of the net, yet another dreadful coverage breakdown. Gaborik proceeded to execute an unstoppable deflection by Bobrovsky to give the Rangers the lead yet again.

It's something that has become commonplace for the Flyers of late — surrendering a goal shortly after they score one. It's made things nearly impossible for the Flyers, and it reared its ugly head all weekend long.

However, in the second period, the Flyers really did take it to the Rangers. They outshot them 18-7, they hit any Ranger that moved, and they controlled play. Yet the only time they could beat the great Hernik Lundqvist was when Simmonds sprung Claude Giroux on a breakaway. And even then, it was no slam dunk. Claude made an absolutely insane series of dekes, the type of moves that make most goaltenders look silly. Yet as Claude pulled the puck back to his forehand to slide it by the out-of-position goalie, Lundqvist reached back and made the initial stop before Claude rammed it home on the second effort.

I know that Claude scored anyway, but that first stop by Lundqvist was absolutely insane. I honestly don't think there's another goaltender alive who could have done what Lundqvist did there. Thankfully Claude stayed with it and tied the game, but before you knew it, there the Rangers were on yet another power play, reclaiming the lead on a slam-dunk goal by Callahan, his second. The guy was all alone, and Bob never stood a shot. Just like that, the ice cold New York power play tallied three times on the man advantage thanks to horrific breakdowns by the Flyers in front of the net, and the Rangers went to the third with the lead.

From there, things only got worse. Bob got left out to dry yet again on a goal by Artem Anisimov, and Ryan Callahan completed the hat trick to propel the Rangers past the Flyers for the fifth time in as many meetings this season. To add insult to injury, the referees again somehow managed to give a Flyer two extra minutes after a fight/scrum despite no evidence to support it. This time it was Zac Rinaldo, who picked up an extra 2 minutes for roughing after Brandon Dubinsky tripped him and the two fought. If you can explain to me how the hell the Flyers go down a man twice after pretty even scrums in one game, I'd love to hear it. Horrible officiating.

But the officiating had little to do with the Flyers' incredibly bad breakdowns in front of their own net, terrible turnovers and penchant for giving goals right back. That's all on them. Right now, they are incredibly soft in their own end. Matt Carle has developed a case of the yips and won't hit anyone. Not a single defenseman, from Kimmo to Coburn to Meszaros to Gustafsson to Bourdon, will even attempt to move a guy from the crease area or around it. Hell, they won't even touch a guy near there, oftentimes failing to even mark him. It's pathetic. And sad. Not one of them has even a little bit of Chris Pronger's nastiness in them, and it shows, to the detriment of the team.

The game just reinforced the difference between the two teams. The Rangers are everything the Flyers want to be but aren't because of their lack of discipline and soft nature right now. The Rangers play north-south hockey, get the puck deep, bang, forecheck hard and control the puck. They play sound defensive hockey, clog the lanes in the neutral zone and account for their man in the defensive zone. They block a ton of shots, and they have what the Flyers never have, a truly elite netminder who never is the reason his team loses. New York just doesn't beat itself, and that's why the Rangers have the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Conversely, the Flyers are a mentally soft team that takes way too many penalties, too often tries to make the fancy pass instead of the easy play and cannot do seemingly anything right in their own zone these days. The power play is disjointed. The penalty kill is struggling and overworked. And when they need a big save, they don't get it. Right now, they're simply not a good enough hockey team to compete for the Stanley Cup, whereas the Rangers are. They're just too soft and too undisciplined.

Basically, the complete opposite of the Sixers and the Temple Owls. Because after a terrible showing yet again against the Rangers, I was at least treated to two dominant victories by the Sixers and Owls.

In another total team effort, the Sixers annihilated the Cavaliers in Cleveland 99-84. Six players scored in double digits in a nice rebound win, and the Sixers continued to manhandle the bad teams they face. They still may have some work to do to beat the likes of Miami, but the Sixers are clearly moving the right direction by laying waste to the teams they're supposed to beat.

Even more encouraging, however, was Temple's emphatic 85-72 win over Xavier at the Liacouras Center late Saturday night.

We all know that Xavier has struggled ever since the ugly brawl against Cincinnati. But the Musketeers are still the team with the most talent in the Atlantic 10, a team that was considered one of the best in country earlier this season. So any victory is impressive against Xavier, especially one as dominant as Temple's Saturday night.

Going against what was considered perhaps the best backcourt in the nation heading into the season, it was Temple's Ramone Moore and Khaliff Wyatt who one-upped the highly regarded Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Moore, the A-10's leading scorer, was the most dynamic player on the court, scoring a game-high 30 points on 9-16 from the field and 5-8 from three, while Wyatt, who is now second in the A-10 in scoring, put up 18. And while Holloway and Lyons combined for 38 points themselves, they shot a combined 11-30 from the field and could rarely find an easy basket.

On the inside, Michael Eric completely dominated Kenny Frease. Eric had 11 points, 16 rebounds and 1 emphatic block, while Frease was limited to 18 ineffective minutes, posting just 2 points and 1 rebound. Now the Owls have a firm grasp on the top spot in the very good A-10, and with Eric solidifying them inside, the Owls are going to be extremely tough come tournament time. At 19-5, leading the A-10 and having a huge victory over Duke, the Owls are pretty much a lock for the tourney, continuing Fran Dunphy's success since taking over for the legendary John Chaney.

To me, it's really a shame that Scootie Randall has been out all season with an injured knee. Given that he hasn't played all year and the rumors continue to ramp up that he's redshirting, it's a pretty safe bet to assume he won't be returning at all. I mean, we are in the middle of February. And that's a shame, because with a healthy Randall, this could be a team with the potential to be a darkhorse Final Four team. I know that may sound homerish, but Temple is a veteran team that doesn't turn the ball over, plays great defense and never gets rattled. The trio of Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore and Khaliff Wyatt is a veteran group of ball-handlers and scorers. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is the guy who does all the little things, crashing the offensive boards, playing tough d and battling guys bigger than him. Michael Eric is a vastly improved offensive player who gives them a huge presence inside at both ends of the court with his return. Anthony Lee showed promise with Eric out and has continued to play well. And guys like Aaron Brown and even T.J. DeLeo have given Temple good minutes all season long. The only thing they're missing is a lockdown perimeter defender, and Scootie was that — not to mention a versatile offensive player that would give Temple yet another weapon.

Sadly, it looks like Scootie won't get that chance, and that's a shame. But even without him, this Temple team is good. They have a few bad losses, but they've more than made up for that with some very big wins and by taking control of the A-10.

And thank god for the Owls and Sixers on Saturday night, because after I got some work done at the office yesterday, I headed home to watch the Flyers take on the Red Wings.

I shouldn't have bothered. Because while it was an exciting game that featured two more goals by Brayden Schenn — did I mention that I thought he and Simmonds have been the best Flyers of late? — and a pretty exciting back-and-forth game, it ultimately ended much like the game on Saturday.

The Flyers lost 4-3, once again leaving Red Wings wide open in front of the net, once again getting burned by penalties and once again failing to build any momentum by giving goals right back after scoring one of their own. Like I said, this team just isn't good enough right now to compete for a Cup.

The good news is that talent-wise, they are right there with the likes of Detroit and New York. It showed by the way they've been in games against those teams. But they still make too many mistakes, have too many breakdowns, take too many penalties, where the better teams play smarter. They aren't physical enough in their own end, and they seem to lacking a lot of the mental toughness that was there as players were dropping like flies earlier in the year.

There's still time to turn it around, but right now the Flyers are soft. Thank goodness that's not the case with the Sixers and the Temple Owls.

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