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Consecutive games in which Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. has hit leadoff home run

The Phillies have the worst record in the major leagues. Are they truly this bad? Eric Fisher says the situation may be even worse than it appears.

What if, like the participants in WWE’s Royal Rumble on Sunday, we could throw out all the people we’re sick of in the local sports scene? Eric Fisher gives his best effort to eliminate those who need to go.

In the first Sixers Notebook of the season, Eric Fisher looks for opportunities for the Sixers to get their first victory. He also expresses concern about Nerlens Noel (pictured), wonders how Tony Wroten will adjust once Michael Carter-Williams returns and suggests the Sixers may eventually regret trading away point guard Elfrid Payton on draft day.

Archive for February, 2018

Flyers Notebook: Tremendous Turnaround

Posted by Eric Fisher On February - 25 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

Not so long ago, the question was whether the Flyers would make the playoffs. The new question is whether the Flyers can win the Metropolitan Division.

Entering Sunday’s games, the Flyers have 76 points, tying them for second place in the Metropolitan Division with the Penguins (with a game in hand on the Pens), only one point behind the first-place Capitals. As far as making the playoffs, the Flyers have an 11-game cushion on the Islanders, the first team in the Eastern Conference outside of playoff position.

The Flyers reached this lofty perch with a 9-0-1 stretch that includes their current five-game winning streak. They have lost their top two goalies and their leading scorer on the power play to injuries, but the train keeps on rolling.

The train keeps on rolling because Alex Lyon and the newly acquired Petr Mrazek have filled the goaltending void. It keeps rolling because veterans such as Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are playing so well. It keeps rolling because Shayne Gostisbehere has developed into a terrific two-way defenseman. It keeps rolling because young players such as Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick seem to get better every game.

In other words, the Flyers are receiving contributions throughout their lineup. When Brandon Manning produces a goal and two assists, as he did during Saturday’s 5-3 road victory over the Senators, you know things are going right.

In addition to Manning score his sixth goal of the season during the win over the Senators, rookie defenseman Robert Hagg scored his second goal. Second-year defenseman Ivan Provorov opened the scoring 28 seconds into the game. The goals from three defensemen is indicative of the type of group effort the Flyers have received during February.

With Monday’s game in Montreal the only one remaining in February, the Flyers haven’t lost in regulation since Feb. 1.

A big part of the Flyers’ success during February seems to be confidence. The Flyers haven’t been overwhelming the opposition. The 4-1 victory over Las Vegas on Feb. 11 stands out as a dominant performance. Most of the other games have been close. The Flyers survived a challenge from the cellar-dwelling Coyotes to win in a shootout, with Michal Neuvirth becoming the first goalie in NHL history to win a shootout in relief, making five saves after Brian Elliott was injured during the second shootout round. The month also includes overtime win over the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Canadiens, and a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Blue Jackets.

The Flyers seem to possess a belief that they will win rather than a fear that they will lose. Whether it was Jordan Weal’s goal with four seconds remaining in overtime against the Hurricanes or Sean Couturier’s overtime goal against the Blue Jackets, the Flyers never seem to lose faith that they’re going to win. The same was true when Voracek tied last Tuesday’s game with the Canadiens with 1:25 remaining in regulation and then scored 1:26 into overtime to lift the Flyers to victory.

This doesn’t look like the same team that lost 10 straight games during December. The standings don’t lie. And neither do our eyes.

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TRADE DEADLINE: With the Flyers on a roll, general manager Ron Hextall may be reluctant to make a trade that might disrupt the team’s chemistry. Hextall was forced into trading for goalie Petr Mrazek by injuries to starter Brian Elliott and backup Michal Neuvirth. Elliott had abdominal surgery and is expected to be sidelined until at least late March. Neuvirth is exected to be out at least until the middle of March with a “lower body” injury sustained during last Sunday’s 7-4 victory over the Rangers.

Alex Lyon performed admirably against the Rangers, but Hextall wasn’t going to leave the Flyers’ push for the playoffs – and toward the top of the division – rest in the hands of Lyon. He acquired Mrazek from the Red Wings for a conditional fourth-round pick in this year’s NHL Draft and a conditional third-round pick in 2019.

If Hextall can get an additional scorer or veteran defenseman for a mid-round draft pick, he may do it before Monday’s trade deadline (3 p.m.), but the Flyers’ surge toward the top might make him hesitant to trade, for example, center Valtteri Filppula, whose contract expires after this season.

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SECOND THAT EMOTION: Nolan Patrick is rewarding the patience of head coach Dave Hakstol and the Flyers organization. There were calls to send Patrick to the minors as he struggled during the first half of the season, but Patrick has picked up his game since the All-Star break. The second overall pick in last year’s NHL Draft, Patrick has goals in his last four games.

With Wayne Simmonds expected to miss 2-3 weeks with an “upper body” injury, Patrick has taken Simmonds spot on the first power play. He scored the game-winner from that spot in front of the net during Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the Blue Jackets.

With nine goals, Patrick is on the verge of giving the Flyers their 11th player with double digits in goals. More importantly, Patrick is demonstrating that the Flyers might have a terrific center for many more years.

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HOT FEBRUARY: Another player who has dramatically stepped up his game is defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. He hasn’t scored since Feb. 1, but Gostisbehere has 16 assists during February. His plus/minus ranking for February is plus-12, raising his season rating to plus-15.

Gostisbehere has transformed himself from a gifted offensive defenseman to a tremendous two-way defenseman. How good has Gostisbehere (10 goals, 40 assists) become? Good enough to give Ivan Provorov some real competition for the Barry Ashbee Award, which is given to the Flyers’ top defenseman.

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GIROUX SIZZLING: Claude Giroux has been on fire lately, registering three goals and five assists in his last four games. Giroux now has 74 points, which ranks third in the NHL.

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STEADY COUTURIER: Sean Couturier’s goal-scoring has slowed down, but he’s still playing a terrific all-around game. He only has three goals in his last 17 games, but it a plus-13 during that same stretch. During the Flyers’ five-game winning streak, Couturier has just one goal, but is plus-7. For the season, Couturier is tied for ninth in goals (29) and tied for fifth in plus-minus rating (plus-27).

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IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED …: In my most recent Flyers’ notebook, I mentioned that Jori Lehtera was the only player on the roster without a goal. Lehtera finally scored during last Sunday’s 7-4 victory over the Rangers, but not before a false celebration. Lehtera was given credit for deflecting a shot past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, only to have the scoring changed (correctly) to defenseman Andrew MacDonald. But Lehtera scored during the third period to notch his first goal of the season.

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THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS: Rookie forward Oskar Lindblom has looked good in three games since being called up to fill the roster spot opened up by Wayne Simmonds’ “upper body” injury. Lindblom is quick, has good vision and isn’t afraid to battle along the boards or in front of the net. He didn’t make the team out of training camp, as some expected, but it appears that could be the last time he doesn’t make the team out of training camp for the next 5-10 years.

Meanwhile, defenseman Travis Sanheim has been on fire since being sent down to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Sanheim has one goal and 14 assists and is plus-12 in 15 games with the Phantoms. Sanheim made too many mistakes in the defensive zone while with the Flyers, so the plus-12 is particularly encouraging.

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HTTING THE ROAD: The Flyers complete their Canadian trip Monday (7:30 p.m.) against the Canadiens, and then return home Thursday (7 p.m.) to host the Hurricanes before heading to Florida for games Saturday (1 p.m.) against the NHL-leading Lightning and Sunday (3 p.m.) against the Panthers.

Sixers Notebook: Surging toward playoffs

Posted by Eric Fisher On February - 25 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

The Sixers are surging. After dropping to .500 (25-25) with four losses in five games, the Sixers have won seven games in a row.

Not only have the Sixers put some space between themselves and the Pistons (28-30), the first team outside of the playoff picture, but they join the Wizards, Pacers and Bucks as Eastern Conference teams with 25 losses. The Sixers (32-25) are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference because the Bucks have one more win and the Packers and Wizards each have two more wins, but the Sixers are closer to the middle of the playoff picture than they are to missing the playoffs.

Not only are the Sixers winning, but they’re winning in impressive fashion. Five of the seven wins during the current streak have been by double digits.

The two victories that weren’t by double digits were also impressive. The 104-102 victory over the Heat and the 116-115 triumph over the Bulls, games sandwiched around the All-Star break, were both “gut check” games. The Sixers beat the Heat without center Joel Embiid, who sat out with a sore right ankle. The victory over the Bulls required some late-game heroics, including a steal of an inbounds pass by Embiid, setting up the tying and game-winning free throws by Ben Simmons with 5.6 seconds remaining.

Another impressive aspect of the Sixers’ winning streak is that different players have stepped to the forefront. The first and last games of the streak featured dominating performances by Embiid, who had 27 points and 13 rebounds in the streak-starting win over the Wizards and produced 28 and 14 during Saturday’s 116-105 win over the Magic. Embiid also had 29 points and 16 rebounds during a victory over the Clippers. Embiid was also terrific during Thursday’s victory over the Bulls, but it was Simmons, with a career-high 32 points and 11 assists, not to mention the tying and winning free throws, who led the way.

With Embiid sidelined, Simmons had 12 rebounds and 10 assists during the victory over the Heat, but its Dario Saric who led the Sixers with 19 points. Saric also led the Sixers in scoring with 24 points the previous game against the Knicks, although the headlines were stolen by guard T.J. McConnell coming off the bench to post a triple double.

The Sixers have put themselves in good position not only to qualify for the playoffs, but to secure a good seed.

Before we get too excited, however, it should be noted that six of the seven teams the Sixers defeated during this winning streak are in eighth place in their respective conferences or out of the playoff picture. The only exception was the Wizards, who were missing guard John Wall. Six of the seven games were also at Wells Fargo Center.

The young Sixers sometimes seem to spend too much time reading their press clippings, which lead to stretches like the four-losses-in-five-games stretch that preceded the current winning streak. The test for the Sixers will be to avoid those types of stretches as they try to extend their winning streak and continue their playoff push.

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MISSING PIECE: The addition of Marco Belinelli has already paid off for the Sixers. He scored 17 points in his Sixers debut, a 104-102 triumph over the Heat just before the All-Star break. He struggled to score five points Thursday against the Bulls, but rebounded with 15 points during Saturday’s win over the Magic. The 31-year-old Belinelli provides the Sixers with a veteran presence and another outside shooter, a need that has grown with the increasing inconsistency from outside of Robert Covington.

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OUT OF THIS WORLD: The Sixers’ young trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric helped the World team defeat Team USA, 155-124, in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend. Simmons made all five of his shots from the field and dished out a game-high 13 assists in 23 minutes, and Saric, who made 4 of 7 shots from 3-point range, added 18 points in 21 minutes.

After missing the game before the All-Star break with right ankle soreness, Embiid only played nine minutes during the Rising Stars Challenge. He may have been saving himself for Saturday’s Skills competition (he was eliminated in the second round) and Sunday’s All-Star Game.

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AVOIDING THE HEAT: After participating in all three events during All-Star weekend, Joel Embiid is probably fortunate that the Sixers pulled out a 104-102 victory over the Heat without him in the game before the All-Star break. If the Sixers had lost the game Embiid sat out with a sore right ankle, there definitely would have been some grumbling about his participation in three nights of All-Star activities.

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PLAYOFF PROPOSAL: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of seeding all 16 teams in the playoffs rather than doing the seeding within each conference. Although it’s an interesting idea, this would render the conference standings relatively unimportant. The conference seeding already diminishes the importance of the divisional standings, but, aside from determining which teams make the conference, the conference standings would become less important if the teams are seeded in the playoffs without regard to conference.

Another reason not to make this change is that seeding teams from both conferences together would, over time, reduce rivalries. One way in which rivalries develop is from having teams meet frequently during the regular season and then during the playoffs. Are the Sixers ever going to develop a rivalry with the Jazz? No. But they could develop one with the Bucks if they meet them in the playoffs a few times.

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ROCKETS SHOOT TO TOP: The Rockets have won 11 straight games (through Saturday’s games), moving to the top of the Western Conference with the NBA’s best record (45-13). The defending-champion Warriors (46-14) are percentage points behind.

Meanwhile, the Spurs, with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference, don’t expect to have forward Kawhi Leonard back this season, according to head coach Gregg Popovich.

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CHANGE AT THE TOP: The Raptors (41-17) have passed the Celtics (42-19) and moved into first place in the Atlantic Division. That battle will have important implications for playoff seeding. The second-place team would drop to at least third in the playoff seeding.

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HTTING THE ROAD: After playing six of their previous seven games on the road, the Sixers will play eight of their next nine games on the road. A busy week starts Sunday (8 p.m.) against the Wizards. That is followed by games Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) against the Heat and Thursday (8 p.m.) against the revamped Cavaliers. The Sixers return home Friday (7 p.m.), their only home game during this nine-game stretch, to host the Hornets. They return to the road next Sunday (March 4) against the Bucks (8 p.m.).

Brian Dawkins' Hall of Fame speech