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Prime time games for Eagles during 2018 regular season

Carson Wentz throws four touchdown passes while leading the Eagles to a 34-24 triumph over the visiting Redskins. The Eagles, with the best record (6-1) in the NFL, take a firm grip on first place in the NFC East.

Monday’s win over Washington convinced Eric Fisher that Chip Kelly’s innovative techniques work. Fisher tries to incorporate Kelly’s style into this week’s column.

The Greek God of Wrestling explains how the Hardys and other wrestlers are taking control of their careers. Achilles Heel also tells you who became Ring of Honor’s new world champion, wonders what’s next for Goldberg after winning the WWE Universal Championship, and marvels at the reaction Undertaker can generate without saying a word.

Archive for the ‘NHL’ Category

Stanley Cup preview: First impressions

Posted by Eric Fisher On April - 11 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

There isn’t much separating most of the playoff teams in the standings, so there shouldn’t be too much separating them during the first round of the playoffs.

The Penguins (see Flyers-Penguins preview) are trying to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the Islanders won four straight from 1980-83. The Capitals are seeking their first Stanley Cup, but must get past the Blue Jackets, who are seeking their first playoff series victory.

In the Western Conference, former Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette is trying to get his Predators back to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Penguins last year. The Golden Knights were surprise division winners in their first year or existence, but they must get past the experienced Kings during the first round.

With so many teams so closely matched, it’s difficult to predict what will happen during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

BLUE JACKETS vs. CAPITALS

Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets rely on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2016-17 Vezina Trophy winner, in goal. Bobrovsky had a 2.42 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. His history in the playoffs, however, hasn’t been so good. He’s 3-10 with a 3.63 goals-against average and .887 save percentage. The Blue Jackets need Bobrovsky to play like he does during the regular season. The Blue Jackets have a solid defense. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski form the top pairing. The trade deadline addition of Ian Cole adds depth to a defense that also includes Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray and David Savard. The Blue Jackets also added forward Thomas Vanek and center Mark Letestu at the trade deadline, but the biggest acquisition for the offense was made last June, when they acquired forward Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 55 assists) from the Blackhawks. Panarin plays on the top line alongside rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 28 assists), the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Capitals: The Capitals are led, as always, by forward Alexander Ovechkin (left), who led the NHL in scoring with 49 goals. The problem for the Capitals is scoring depth. The second line of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky could be the key to this series. If they produce, the Capitals will have a much better chance than if they don’t. The defense doesn’t stand out, which makes the goaltending an even bigger issue. Head coach Barry Trotz is going with goalie Philipp Grubauer in Game 1, but the fact that it was a tough call between Grubauer and Braden Holtby doesn’t bode well for the Capitals.

Analysis: The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series, losing to the Red Wings in 2009 and the Penguins the past two seasons, but this may be the year they reach the second round. The future of Trotz hangs in the balance, which is never a good situation for a first-place team. Bobrovsky should give the Blue Jackets an edge in goal. The Blue Jackets have a better defense and they can put a lot of resources into stopping Ovechkin, although they need to avoid being shorthanded too often. Blue Jackets in 6

ATLANTIC DIVISION

DEVILS vs. LIGHTNING

Devils: After missing the playoffs for five straight years, the Devils return to the postseason as the fifth-place team in the Metropolitan Division, meaning they’ll take on the Atlantic Division-champion Lightning. The Devils are led by MVP candidate Taylor Hall (39 goals, 54 assists), who reaches the postseason for the first time in his 8-year career. Nico Hischier, th top overall pick in last year’s NHL Draft is second on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 32 assists. The Devils picked up burly forward Patrick Maroon to steady their second line. Travis Zajac centers the third line, and the fourth line features ex-Lightning center Brian Boyle and speedy Michael Grabner, acquired from the Rangers. Keith Kinkaid appears to have the edge over Cory Schneider in goal, although the Devils haven’t announced who will start Game 1.

Lightning: The Lightning are loaded. Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists) and Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 59 assists) lead the way on offense, but the Lightning have plenty of depth. When Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan are on the fourth line, it speaks volumes about the quality of the top three lines. Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman (17 goals, 46 assists, plus-32) anchors a defensive corps that also includes former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. Former Flyer Braydon Coburn is part of the third pairing. Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.62 goals-against, .920 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Analysis: The Devils are one of the few teams that can almost match speed with the Lightning, but they can’t match them in talent. The Lightning will try to take away Hall’s production with their top two defensive pairs. The Devils don’t’ have anyone on their defense comparable to Hedman. Lightning in 5

MAPLE LEAFS vs. BRUINS

Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs were upstarts last season when they took the Capitals to six games in a first-round series. This year they aren’t simply happy to be here. Mitchell Marner – non-Canadians are excused for saying “Who?” – leads the Maple Leafs with 69 points (22 goals, 47 assists). Auston Matthews, the top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is next with 34 goals and 29 assists. Patrick Marleau, acquired from the Sharks for leadership, scored 27 goals. Former Flyer James van Riemsdyk is on the third line, which says a lot about the Maple Leafs’ depth. Federik Andersen (2.81 goals-against, .917 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Bruins: The Bruins’ top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron consists of three 30-goal scorers. The challenge for the Maple Leafs will be to stop that line. If Rick Nash returns from a concussion, the second line of Nash, David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk could also cause problems. The third line, centered by David Backes, has been boosted by the late-season addition of Ryan Donato. The defense is solid, even if Zdeno Chara isn’t quite what he used to be. Tuukka Rask provides quality and playoff experience in goal.

Analysis: The Bruins have been the NHL’s hottest team since December. There’s a feeling that the Maple Leafs are a team on the rise, but the Bruins are the pick here – barely – due to playoff experience. Bruins in 7

WESTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION

AVALANCHE  vs. PREDATORS

Avalanche: The Avalanche, who qualified for the playoffs by defeating the Blues in their final regular-season game, are led by MVP candidate Nathan McKinnon (38 goals, 58 assists). McKinnon is joined on the top line by Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 37 assists) and Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 55 assists). Mark Alt, claimed on waivers from the Flyers, is part of the third defense pairing. With Semyon Varlamov sidelined by a “lower body” injury, former Kings goalie Jonathan Bernier will start Game 1.

Predators: Guided by former Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette (left), the Predators compiled the most points in the NHL. The Predators are build from the goal and out. Pekka Rinne (42-13-4, 2.31 goals-against, .927 save percentage) could win the Vezina Trophy. Defenseman P.K. Subban could be in the Norris Trophy conversation, with his effectiveness on the power play adding to his credentials. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis form an underrated defensive pairing. Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson form the top line, but the rest of the forward lines are balanced and effective. Nick Bonino, signed away from the Penguins, and Ryan Hartman, acquired from the Blackhawks, anchor one line,w with Kyle Turris centering another line. Center Mike Fisher came out of retirement to solidify the fourth line, which includes former Flyer Scott Hartnell.

Analysis: The Predators lost to the Penguins in last season’s Stanley Cup Finals. Nobody should be surprised if Peter Laviolette’s squad returns to the finals this year. The Predators will concentrate on limiting McKinnon’s opportunities. This appears to be a bad matchup for the Avalanche. Predators in 4

WILD vs. JETS

Wild: The Wild knew what they had in the first line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, but nobody could have envisioned veteran center Eric Staal (42 goals, 34 assists) resurrecting his career to this extent. Former Penguins Matt Cullen provides plenty of playoff experience on the third line. With Ryan Suter lost for the season due to a broken ankle, the Wild need defenseman Jared Spurgeon to be fully recovered from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the final 12 games of the regular season. Devan Dubnyk (2.52 goals-against, .918 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Jets: Patrik Laine, 19, led the Jets with 44 goals, including 20 on the power play. Blake Wheeler also piled up power–play points, with his 40 ranking second in the NHL. Wheeler, who scored 23 goals, tied Claude Giroux for the NHL-lead in assists with 68. Laine plays aside Paul Statsny. Connor Hellebuyck starts in goal ahead of former Flyer Steve Mason.

Analysis: The Wild have much more playoff experience, including in goal. If the Wild can avoid being shorthanded too often, they can limit the Jets’ offense. The Wild would be my pick except for concern over Spurgeon’s hamstring. Jets in 7

PACIFIC DIVISION

KINGS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Kings: Anze Kopitar, an outstanding defensive player, set career highs in goals (35), assists (57) and points (92). Kopitar centers Tanner Pearson and Dustin Brown on the top line. Jeff Carter scored 13 goals and registered nine assists in just 27 games. That total includes a hat trick against the Coyotes on March 29. If Carter rounds into form for the playoffs, the Kings’ second line, which includes Tyler Toffoli, could be dangerous. Fourth-line forward Nate Thompson was a nice pickup ahead of the trade deadline, as was defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Drew Doughty remains an elite defenseman. Jonathan Quick remains an elite goalie.

Golden Knights: The Golden Knights were surprise winners of the Pacific Division. One reason they finished first is goalie Marc-Andre Fluery, who posted a career-best .927 save percentage. Another reason is center William Karlsson, who emerged from obscurity with 43 goals and 35 assists. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare plays a fourth-line role similar to what he did with the Flyers.

Analysis: The Golden Knights are a terrific story. Unfortunately for the Knights, the Kings have the defense to negate the high-scoring Golden Knights’ offense. It’s playoff hockey. Defense and goaltending win in the playoffs. Fleury has been terrific this season, but Quick is just as good. The Kings lead the NHL in penalty-killing at 85 percent. Defense and experience will prove to be the difference. Kings in 6

SHARKS vs. DUCKS

Sharks: Evander Kane, acquired from the Sabres at the trade deadline, joines Joe Pavelski and Joona Donskoi on the top line. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl add value to the second line, but the key for the Sharks’ offense may be defenseman Brent Burns (12 goals, 55 assists). Although Burns gets most of the attention on the back line, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a terrific defensive-minded defenseman. The Sharks hope to get veteran center Joe Thornton (knee injury back in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 23. Martin Jones is the No. 1 goalie.

Ducks: The Ducks have a terrific top line in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. Limited to 56 games, Getzlaf only scored 11 goals this season, but he is nearly a point-per-game player during the postseason. Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverbert make the second line dangerous, and Adam Henrique and Ondrej Kase do the same thing for the third line. Defenseman Cam Fowler will miss this series due to a shoulder injury sustained at the beginning of the month. The Ducks must hope that Francois Beauchemin and company can hold down the fort. Starting goalie John Gibson missed the final three games of the regular season. If he’s not ready for the start of the series, Ryan Miller is an excellent backup.

Analysis: The Sharks and Ducks are developing quite a California rivalry. The Ducks have had the edge in this matchup, but the injury to Fowler could tip the series in the Sharks’ favor. In the end, the Ducks might have too much offensive firepower for the Sharks. Ducks in 7

SECOND ROUND

Eastern Conference

Blue Jackets over Penguins

Lightning over Bruins

Western Conference

Predators over Jets

Kings over Ducks

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Lighting over Bruins

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Predators over Kings

STANLEY CUP FINALS

Predators over Lightning

Flyers Notebook: Final playoff push

Posted by Eric Fisher On April - 1 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

One week. Four games.

That’s what remains of the Flyers’ regular season.

How they perform in those four games will determine if they extend their season with the playoffs. Their performance may also indicate how the Flyers will fare if they reach the postseason.

Entering Sunday’s games, the Flyers are in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division with 92 points. The Penguins (96 points) are in second place with three games remaining. The Blue Jackets (94) are in third place with three games remaining. The Devils (91) are one point behind the Flyers with four games remaining.

With nobody from the Atlantic Division in competition for the wild card berths, both wild cards will come from the Metropolitan Division. The team trying to catch the Flyers and Devils is the Panthers (86), who have five games remaining.

If the Flyers earn a split in their final four games, the Panthers would have to win their final five games to tie the Flyers. If the Flyers falter, however, it opens the playoff door for the Panthers.

The Flyers start off the final week of the regular season Sunday (12:30 p.m.) against the Bruins, who have surged to the top of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings. The Bruins game is followed by three games against teams that are out of the playoffs. They visit the Islanders on Tuesday (7 p.m.), and then return home to host the Hurricanes on Thursday (7 p.m.) and the Rangers on Saturday (7 p.m.).

Battling the Bruins, who are in a fight with the Lightning for first place in the Atlantic, is obviously more challenging than facing non-playoff teams, but don’t expect the Islanders, Hurricanes and Rangers to roll over and play dead. The Islanders, with a 2-8 record over their last 10 games, are the most likely opponent to not put up much of a fight. But the Hurricanes are .500 during their past 10 games, and the Rangers are 4-4-2.

Finishing ahead of the Devils also gives the Flyers the best chance to advance beyond the first round. The fifth-place team from the Metropolitan Division will open the playoffs against the first-place team from the Atlantic, which will be either the Bruins or Lightning. The fourth-place team will face the Metropolitan champion. Entering Sunday’s games, the Capitals were three points ahead of the second-place Penguins, with one game in hand. Both Capitals goalies have “tweaked” injuries during the past two weeks, so Washington would appear to be a more vulnerable opponent than either Boston or Tampa Bay.

The first order of business, though, is to make the playoffs. The Flyers have four games to make that a reality. Then they can worry about playoff position and potential first-round opponents.

*****

NET NEUTRALITY: The Flyers certainly can empathize with the Capitals’ injury problems in goal. The Flyers got Michal Neuvirth back for the first time since Feb. 18 on Wednesday against the Avalanche. Neuvirth played well, but had to leave the game in the second period with another “lower body” injury. Fortunately, Petr Mrazek made 17 saves in relief to secure a 2-1 victory over the Avalanche.

Mrazek played well this past week. He relieved Alex Lyon in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins last Sunday, and then played well during a 3-2 overtime loss to the Stars. Lyon, who had played well in relief of Mrazek the previous week, was sent back to the Phantoms before Wednesday’s game, only to be recalled on an emergency basis after Neuvirth was injured again.

What’s clear is that head coach Dave Hakstol, despite saying all the right things, doesn’t have total confidence in any of his goaltenders. That’s why it was significant that Brian Elliott, who has been sidelined since February after undergoing abdominal surgery, practiced with the team on Saturday after skating on his own for a few weeks. The Flyers’ best chance to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs would be to have a healthy Elliott. If the Flyers can secure a playoff spot by mid-week, it would be beneficial to have Elliott try to work off some rust during the Flyers’ final two games.

*****

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES: Petr Mrazek has been inconsistent since being acquired by the Flyers in February after both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth were sidelined by injuries. This past week was a good week for Mrazek, who will be counted upon to continue his fine play during the final week of the regular season and, if necessary, the playoffs.

There is a technical flaw, though, that is driving me crazy. On several occasions, Mrazek has sprawled to make a save on one side of the net. As he scrambles back into position, instead of pivoting so he can maintain sight of the puck, Mrazek turns his back on the play as he spins back into position. The problem is that, even if he ends up in the correct position, he can’t react to the play quickly enough because he has lost sight of the puck.

A fundamental when defending in sports, whether it’s basketball, football or hockey, is not to lose sight of the ball or puck. That principle is particularly important for a goalie. Mrazek might not have stopped the deflected shot that won the game for the Penguins in overtime last Sunday, but he would have had a better chance if he hadn’t lost sight of the puck while he spun his way back into position just prior to Sidney Crosby’s shot.

*****

CAREER YEAR: With four games remaining, Claude Giroux has matched his career high with 93 points. That total includes 27 goals and 66 assists, which ranks second in the NHL, only one assist behind Jets right wing Blake Wheeler.

Giroux has points in six straight games and 14 of his last 15. The six straight games includes back-to-back games with three assists.

His sustained excellence has probably elevated Giroux past Sean Couturier in the race for the Bobby Clarke Award, given to the Flyers’ most valuable player. His recent points streak has also elevated him past Eric Lindros on the franchise’s all-time points list. Giroux (668 points) now ranks fifth on the Flyers’ all-time list, nine ahead of Lindros and 29 behind Rick MacLeish.

*****

HOT STREAK: With five goals in his last seven games, Travis Konecny has provided the Flyers with the spark they’ve needed on offense. Konecny (23 goals) is tied for third on the team in goals with Wayne Simmonds, behind only Sean Couturier (31) and Claude Giroux (27).

*****

HAGG SITTING: Robert Hagg has been a healthy scratch the past few games. Although Hagg and partner Radko Gudas certainly had a rough night during a loss to the Red Wings, it does not warrant Hagg not playing since March 20.

Gudas appears to play his best when paired with Brandon Manning. Travis Sanheim has found a comfortable role matched with veteran Andrew MacDonald, who was paired with Hagg before Hagg’s injury.

Hagg has been steady and reliable for most of his rookie season. I don’t understand how, after two games following a return from an injury, Hagg has found himself the odd man out due to issues with defensive pairings that aren’t his fault.

*****

VEGAS A WINNER: In their first year of existence, the Vegas Golden Knights have won the Pacific Division title. Players such as William Karlsson (42 goals, an NHL-leading plus-46) have taken major steps forward and the rest of the team, including former Flyers center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, have embraced their roles.

Embiid injured in collision with Fultz