April 24, 2012

On to the next one.

It was roughly a year ago when the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Buffalo Sabres in seven games. In theory, this was a good thing; the charge for the Cup had begun anew.

But a little post-series optimism couldn't hide the fact that the Flyers were a flawed team. A late-season collapse carried over into the tougher-than-it-should-be showdown with the Sabres. And, as we all know, the Boston Bruins made them pay in the next round.

But in 2012, the excitement doesn't have to be faked or manufactured. A truly talented team was vanquished in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, and the Flyers have all the makings of a legit Stanley Cup contender.

The rookies are shining. The future captain is dominating. Ilya Bryzgalov came up big with 30 saves (just a game later than I'd hoped) and the defense was absolutely tremendous (40 blocked shots).

It got a little scary there, after the Game 4 thrashing and Marc-Andre Fleury's Game 5 goaltending clinic, but that's the best part of going up 3-0 in a seven-game series: It's damn hard for the other team to come back. Even if you're the "best team in the NHL," as many experts anointed Pittsburgh before the playoffs even began, the odds are good that you'll run out of gas.

And so the Penguins did. It was one of the zanier series in recent memory, and up until this weekend, asking whether either team had what it takes to play actual playoff hockey and make a serious Cup run was legitimate.

But Game 6 proved that the Flyers can play a 60-minute hockey game. They can forecheck, they can play defense, they can clear the crease and clog the passing lanes.

Whether they will do those things throughout the playoffs remains up for debate. My guess is yes; I think both teams lulled each other into a wide-open, up-and-back kinda game that neither really wanted to play. Things got out of hand quickly, and it wasn't until Games 5 and 6 that everyone worked out the jitters and settled down into a tighter, smarter style.

Luckily, the Flyers ended up being the survivors. And we learned a few things along the way: Some great comebacks showed that you can't ever count them out, and a solid Bryzgalov performance in the clincher (along with a nice long rest in before the coming series) might quell at least a few goalie-related fears. Bryz will never be perfect -- he probably won't outplay Henrik Lundqvist or Tim Thomas -- but he can do the job. I believe he can, at least.

But no one would turn down a little help from the hockey gods. Most Flyers fans are praying for a Washington Capitals win tomorrow or an Ottawa Senators upset on Thursday (or both) to avoid the vaunted Boston Bruins and New York Rangers in the second round. And, admittedly, the road to the Stanley Cup becomes a hell of a lot smoother without those two teams around.

So let's hope that fortune smiles on Philadelphia and the two biggest remaining threats to Flyers supremacy fall by the wayside. No offense to preferred opponents like the Florida Panthers or the New Jersey Devils, but nobody in Philly wants to be the best by beating the best. We just want the Flyers to win.

And if this series with Pittsburgh proved anything, it's that they can.

April 19, 2012

Time to shine, $51 million man.

In the wee hours that followed Game 2, I wrote that this Philadelphia Flyers/Pittsburgh Penguins series was "all about Bryz."

And in the wake of Game 4, this is more true than ever.

Ilya Bryzgalov was awful on Wednesday night. It's easy to forget that the Flyers had a 3-2 lead in the first period because of how fast Bryz gave it away. Five goals on 18 shots, especially in the playoffs, is the definition of pitiful.

But the Flyers still need him, because Sergei Bobrovsky was no better (five goals on 18 shots in his own right) and because this team will go as far as the goalie can take them.

He'll start Game 5. Hell, barring another epic collapse, he'll start Game 6.

He's their $51 million man, the guy who set the team's all-time shutout streak record earlier this year.

And he's as talented as he is mercurial, as skilled at tending goal as he is at getting in his own way.

Bryz was seemingly made of solid wood last night (and not in a good way), letting fat rebounds bounce off his rigid body and moving painfully slow from post to post.

Is his injured foot still bothering him? Or was it just a case of wilting under the pressure?

Doesn't matter. No one is happy that Bryz (and, to be fair, the rest of his team) came up incredibly small in a potential elimination game for Pittsburgh.

But there are three games left to make it right. The Flyers are 2-0 at Consol Energy Center in the playoffs and 4-0 there (minus the irrelevant last game of the season) in 2012.

This could all still end up being a funny footnote on the way to a Stanley Cup run.

But the defensemen have to play better (and probably without Nick Grossmann, for at least a game). The forwards need to backcheck and play some kind of defense themselves.

And, for once in this series, Bryz needs to put this team on his back. He made some sterling saves in Game 2, but now a superhuman effort is needed.

The Penguins are a dynamic offensive team, and the pressure in this series has started to shift. Easiest way to rise above that? A knockout game from your superstar goalie.

April 14, 2012

All about Bryz.

It's about so much more than Ilya Bryzgalov.

But in the end, it's only about Ilya Bryzgalov.

In the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers used three different goaltenders.

In 2012, there is only Bryz.

Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux both had hat tricks last night in Pittsburgh to steal an unbelievable 8-5 win over the Penguins.

But the highlight turned out to be this game-changing Bryzgalov save.

It's weird to look at a high-scoring game like this and point to goaltending as a key factor, but no Philadelphia fan would ever shortchange what Ilya Bryzgalov brought to the table in Game 2.

Maybe he wasn't the deciding factor, but it's become surprisingly comforting to see Bryz in the Flyers' net.

There was chaos all over the ice. Shots were coming from every angle, goals were being scored at an incredible pace. Sidney Crosby, Giroux and Evgeni Malkin -- the three best players in the National Hockey League -- seemingly lurked around every corner. Fans on either side of the rivalry were terrified.

But Bryz -- despite Pittsburgh's 28 shots, despite a minor freakout following the Penguins' fourth goal of the night, despite a reputation of coming up short in the playoffs -- never lost his cool.

This wasn't a game about save percentage or goals against average. It was about survival, and at the end Ilya Bryzgalov stood triumphant while Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury floundered.

In Philadelphia, it's always about the goaltending.

And for the first time in a long time, Philadelphia has a goaltender they can stand behind.

April 13, 2012

Flyin' high.

It was roughly a month ago at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and my dad and I were furious. I'm paraphrasing, but our conversation went something like this:

"Goddamn Flyers."

"Can't get anything going."

"No pressure, getting beat to every puck."

"Thank god for Bryz, else this would be a real blowout."

It was the game's second intermission, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were pushing the Philadelphia Flyers around. Shots were 27 to 10 in favor of the Penguins, and the Flyers had gotten just two of those off in the last 20 minutes. Sidney Crosby's return seemed to be elevating Pittsburgh to new heights, skill-wise and emotionally. There was no reason to believe that the third period would be any different.

But there we were, about 30 minutes later, hugging and screaming our heads off when Scott Hartnell ended the game with a deep wrister that snuck by Marc-Andre Fleury.

It was arguably the best comeback in recent Flyers history...until Wednesday night, when Brayden Schenn and Jake Voracek combined to take down the Penguins yet again and make Paul Holmgren look like even more of a genius.

This most recent resurgence was probably even more unexpected. It was the playoffs. It was in Pittsburgh, versus the trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup. And it was a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 deficit. Even with two periods to play, that's usually curtains.

But something happened as the game moved forward. Did the Penguins run out of gas after a blistering start? Did the Flyers begin to control the tempo, forcing Pittsburgh out of their puck-control mindset and creating a bunch more scoring chances on each end? Or did Ilya Bryzgalov just outplay Fleury from the second period on, keeping his boys in the game and starting the momentum shift that led to the Penguins' eventual demise?

Whatever it was, the Flyers shouldn't try and replicate the situation tonight. NHL teams aren't gonna blow many 3-0 leads at home, no matter the situation or opponent.

But it happened, and it puts the Penguins in a nice little hole. For whatever reason, there's something about the Flyers that makes them difficult to bury. Especially in the friendly confines of the Consol Energy Center.

Are the Flyers, as owner Ed Snider suggested, in the Penguins' heads?

Nah. Pittsburgh's just too talented. Probably nothing more than the post-game ramblings of a riled-up old man.

Win tonight's game and take the series back to Philadelphia with a 2-0 lead, however, and then you might have me sold.

The Flyers are owned by the New York Rangers. Owned. Meaning the Rangers won all six times the two teams played this year. If the Flyers happen to run into New York in the playoffs, I expect the ass-kicking to be swift and fierce.

But maybe the Flyers own the Penguins, too. Out of 2011-2012's five relevant meetings (the sixth game didn't matter for either team), Philadelphia won four of them.

And now the Flyers have an early (and unexpected) chance to step on the Penguins' throats. My brain tells me that this is a probable seven-game series and Pittsburgh won't go down so easily. But my gut says that Wednesday's game was a goddamn back-breaker, and recent history allows us to assume that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, noted arrogant whiners, might be getting a little bit frustrated.

"Who are these guys from Philadelphia? Why can't we take them down?"

I certainly expect the series to be knotted at 1-1 by midnight tonight. But after seeing what happened on Wednesday night, and experiencing that equally glorious bounce-back up close and personal back in mid-March, I don't think anybody out there can really say for sure.

April 4, 2012

Bring on your wrecking ball.

There are, admittedly, more than a few reasons to be pessimistic about the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will start the season on the disabled list. Placido Polanco is all but destined to join them. John Mayberry Jr. and Vance Worley are likely to regress from their stellar 2011 performances. And the team won 102 games last year, which is hard to top under any circumstances.

But come on! It's the start of the baseball season; everyone's even (including the Mariners and Athletics). Here are some nuggets that'll turn that frown upside down:

Freddy Galvis had a solid spring. His slash line won't bowl you over (.280/.295/.476 versus the random mishmosh that is spring training pitching) but somewhat capable hitting and plus defense would go a long way towards easing the pain of Chase Utley's inevitable demise. Let's cross our fingers and root for the .261/.299/.359 projected by ZiPS.

Jonathan Papelbon is good at throwing baseballs. Say what you will about Pap's contract; it's hard to argue with a career 4.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.018 WHIP. We'll all be crushed if he breaks down before the end of this four-year deal, but I don't think there's any reason for concern in 2012 or even 2013.

Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay still pitch in Philly. I know a lot of people were nervous about Roy Halladay's early struggles, but I'll start worrying when a little fire follows all that smoke. Otherwise, these three had a quiet spring, which is the best kind if you're a veteran pitcher. No one else has aces like these. No one.

Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence still hit in Philly. These guys are all really good at baseball. Chooch hit .479 in spring training. Rollins is back where he belongs a year after putting up an OPS+ of over 100 for the first time since 2008. Victorino was the team's offensive MVP last year, and Pence hit .324/.394/.560 in a Phillies uniform. Barring injuries (which are always a concern for everyone but Pence), there's not much to worry about here.

This video:

Isn't that great? Pap and his unexpectedly endearing arrogance. Jim Thome's ol'-fashioned ballplayer attitude. Howard's overall congeniality. Cliffy's blatant whatever-ness.

This is a fun team. These are fun guys. They've been enjoyable to watch and exciting to root for. Ten years ago, we would've killed for a squad like this. 

I think Philadelphia baseball fans have acquired a bit of a complex. Not like Boston fans, who now expect nothing but success (and are flabbergasted and insufferable whenever they "somehow" fall short), but a certain all-encompassing neediness where we want all the best players, only the best record, the biggest free agent signings, the most bang for our payroll buck...everything. Maybe to prove to the rest of the league that this team is for real, that 2008 wasn't a fluke and that the Phillies really are one of the premier franchises in baseball.

Which is understandable, except when you falter in a few postseasons and become blind to the obvious. Like the fact that three of the top seven or eight starters in baseball all pitch in Philadelphia. Or that we've had the privilege of watching Utley, one of the best second basemen of all time, ply his trade for the last nine years. Or that this front office, for all its missteps, will go the extra mile and shell out for Roy Oswalt, or Lee, or Pence, or Halladay, or whoever is available that'll help the team. Name another group of executives in baseball who've given their manager and the players this much help, especially at the midseason point. Things haven't worked out perfectly, but you can't say they haven't tried.

I know this doesn't mean much when talking about 2012 -- a "what's wrong" post would be twice as long as what I'm writing here -- but even after all the injuries, even without Howard and Utley, they still might be the best team in the National League. That's more an indictment of the league itself, but it's still very much true. Plus, you don't win any championships in April; if you did, the Phillies would have brought home two or three more.

Here is the 2012 prediction that I shared earlier today on Beerleaguer:
92 wins, another division title. The three aces all have great, relatively healthy years. Pap dominates. The offense sputters, despite a midseason trade for someone like Alberto Callaspo to fill in for an injured Polanco. Galvis is solid at worst. Utley contributes next to nothing.

Phillies win the World Series anyway. Everyone recognizes that dark times are ahead. Nobody cares.
And I meant every word of it. There are no sureties, in life or baseball, but I'm not prepared to write the Phillies off just yet. This upcoming season, for all our dourness, could end up surprising a whole bunch of people. Or, as Bruce Springsteen would put it, "C'mon and take your best shot, let me see what you got. Bring on your wrecking ball."