Wednesday, May 9, 2012

That Familiar Philadelphia Feeling

Flyers eliminated from the playoffs? Check. Sixers squander a chance to advance to the second round by scoring just 26 points (26!) in the first half? Check. The Phillies blow a four-run lead to drop their second straight and remain in the basement of the NL East? Check and check.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are back in familiar territory as Philadelphia fans, and last night was a culmination of what life was like before the World Fucking Champions went strolling down Broad Street.

I spent the night at the Wells Fargo Center with a bad feeling from the get-go. A lot of people were jumping on the theory that the Flyers would collectively raise their games and individually step up in the absence of Claude Giroux, feed off the home crowd and stave off elimination for another day. And hell, if that happened, who knows what could happen? Claude would be back and raring to go in game 6. Win that, and it's a coin flip game 7 at home.

I was not so optimistic. Trading your best player for Zac Rinaldo isn't my idea of a good omen, even if every player in that locker room knew he had to elevate his game, and even with Andrej Mezsaros finally returning to action to replace the struggling Andreas Lilja. So as I took my seats up high behind the net manned by Ilya Bryzgalov, I expected the worst.



However, the Flyers came out with perhaps their best start of the entire postseason, if not the best start since game 6 against the Penguins. Philadelphia finally got its forecheck going, was controlling the puck and spending lots of time in New Jersey's zone. Zac Rinaldo came out with a ton of energy, hitting every Devil that moved, including this annihilation of Anton Volchenkov that really juiced up the crowd and help ignite the Flyers.

Shortly after a delay to get Volchenkov off the ice (he returned to action later), Max Talbot put the Flyers ahead thanks to some good, hard work by Brayden Schenn and Danny Briere. The Flyers had a lead, were pressuring the Devils and looked a lot more like the team that disposed of Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh in the first round. The Talbot-Rinaldo-Sean Couturier line was providing a ton of energy and taking it to Jersey, and the other lines were following suit.

But it wouldn't last. As has been the case damn near every time the Flyers have scored the game's first goal, their fortunes reversed. The Devils began to clog things up again and tighten up defensively, and just a little over two minutes after Talbot lit the lamp, Bryce Salvador beat Bryzgalov to tie the game. Eight-plus minutes of hard work and solid hockey went right down the tubes ... then the wheels came off.

Kimmo Timonen corralled a puck just inside his own blue line with David Clarkson bearing down on him. Timonen calmly played the puck back to Bryzgalov, who seemingly had plenty of time to move the puck either behind the net up the boards, outlet to Braydon Coburn or just fire it up the ice. Instead, he did this:

Granted, Timonen probably shouldn't have even played the puck back to Bryz seeing as he's not exactly adept at handling the puck, but come on now. He had so much time and so many options that it's unfathomable that Bryz would do what he did. First, he hesitated way too long despite having plenty of time to move the puck. Then he tried to put it the only place he couldn't, right back where it came from. And it led to one of the most back-breaking goals in recent memory.

That was all she wrote for the Flyers. After that, the Devils picked up their play and began to look like the same stifling defensive team that has dominating the Flyers all series long, while Philadelphia reverted to a team that couldn't even get past the neutral zone. It became New Jersey's game the second Bryzgalov made that indefensible gaffe.

Meanwhile, the Phillies were blowing a four-run lead, and the Wells Fargo Center was beginning to empty after Ilya Kovalchuk made it a 3-1 game 5 minutes into the third. I stayed to take in the pathetic seen, and the highlight was a slight confrontation caused by some Devils fans who threw beer on damn near our entire section. The Jersey fans in questioned were summarily kicked out, basking in the glow of the Devils doing what they had made a habit of doing to the Flyers in the 1990s and early 2000s.

By the time the dead Flyers were lining up for handshakes, the Phillies were in the midst of losing 7-4. Fantastic.



It's really hard to wrap my head around just how much of a slide the Flyers went on between rounds 1 and 2. After exploding offensively against the Penguins with a potent power play and looking a team that you could never count out, the Flyers morphed into a lifeless bunch. It started with the first period in game 1, when the Devils came out and completely owned Philadelphia in every aspect of the game. But that was easy to explain away and blame on the layoff after sitting a week prior to the start of round 2. And not much was thought of it when the Flyers then went on to reverse course, eviscerating Jersey in the second and third periods and winning in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead.

However, the first period of game 1 proved to be no fluke. The Devils outworked the Flyers in every game there on out, dominating the puck, throwing a ferocious forecheck at the Philadelphia defense, cycling with ease, clogging the neutral zone and suffocating the Flyers' forwards so much that their speed became irrelevant. New Jersey was just the better team in this series. They won all the battles, did all the little things and put the Flyers in their place. It was an impressive effort all around by New Jersey, and a lifeless one by the Flyers. It's hard to even say anyone played well for the Flyers in the series. Certainly no forwards stood out. Bryzgalov was average to bad at times, and he was actually the best Flyer in a few games. And the defense got owned by Jersey's physical, powerful style. Honestly, I think everyone looked bad with the exception of Braydon Coburn. He was the best Flyer this series in my eyes, a true workhorse, but then again, he wasn't immune to Jersey's relentless attack.

It truly was a team effort. Jaromir Jagr completely disappeared. So did Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds. Scott Hartnell too. Even Claude Giroux was a completely nonfactor with the exception of his two points in game four. At the end of the day, the Devils just wanted it more and played far better hockey. It is what it is. And what that is is a familiar feeling - the Flyers bowing out before any of us were ready for them to be done.

Just like the Phillies sitting in last place was quite the familiar feeling before the days of Charlie Manuel and Citizens Bank Park. And the familiar feeling would stick around late through the night.

After the game, I hopped on the subway and headed home. Once I got the el, I checked my phone to see the Sixers' score. The game had to be at or close to half, so I figured I'd get an update and then watch the second half at home. When I checked my phone, I first thought my eyes deceived me. With just a minute left in the 2nd quarter, my phone read, the Sixers had just 26 points. That can't be right. Maybe there was a delay and it was still the first quarter. Or the Scorecenter app was malfunctioning.

I checked back a couple minutes later, and there it was: Halftime, Bulls 35, Sixers 26. What? Really? I texted silver fox to see if this was true. He said it was. I was stunned.

Now, I know the Sixers are not a very dynamic offensive team, but 26 points in a half? That's unheard of. And to do it in a game in which they could eliminate the opponent and advance to the second round for the first in forever? Pathetic.

I'm not even sure how that happens, and needless to say, I wasn't excited to watch the second half of a game in which a combined total of 61 points were scored after 24 minutes of play. But I'm some sort of sports masochist, so I did, and what I saw in the second half was another horrible half of basketball, albeit one with a lot more points. Now the series sits at 3-2, though the Sixers do come home tomorrow with a chance to close things out.

Still, it was familiar watching the Sixers struggle. Just as it was familiar to see the Flyers get eliminated early and the Phillies lose in painful action as basement dwellers. It's like my entire life as a Philadelphia sports fan prior to 2008 all over again.

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