Easter Sunday is shaping up as either a great sports day for Philly sports fans (if not quite parade worthy, sports-wise) or a day where enthusiasts of every faith will see their prayers unanswered.
As the roundball action—the game, if not the season—is concluding, the Philadelphia Flyers travel to Buffalo (for a 3 p.m. start) to attempt to knot their series at three games apiece. The conventional wisdom entering this series was that the Sabres were supposed to be a small speed bump on the way to greater destinations for the defending Stanley Cup finalists.
In the 76ers’ case, the 2010-11 season will probably be deemed a success, if a minor one, no matter the outcome of Sunday’s contest. Even if the Sixers catch fire and/or catch the Heat napping and prevail tomorrow, not even their eternally optimistic coach, Doug Collins, can foresee them winning four straight games? Can he?
The Heat, still a work in progress, come into every game knowing that they have two of the top five players (if not the top three—it’s subjective) in the league suiting up for them. Their third option, all-star power forward Chris Bosh, joins LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in making life miserable for Sixers defenders.
It is hard to see exactly what the Sixers would take from the season, and the series, if Miami completes the sweep. Yes, the Sixers were competitive in two of the three contests, but an educated observer always sensed that LeBron and company would make a key stop, score a big hoop or get to the foul line when it really mattered.
But if you are a Sixers fan looking for bright spots, it would be wise to look at Jrue Holiday, the 20-year-old, second-year point guard. Holiday has been the one mismatch in the team’s favor throughout the three games played, and he looks like the real deal in a league full of exceptional young point guards such as Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul.
If Holiday is not at that elite level yet, he has done nothing to extinguish hopes that he will soon arrive int hat company. In the series, he has averaged 17 points, five assists and two steals, while committing a total of only four turnovers. He has also, surprisingly, been their best three-point shooter, converting nine of 15 attempts form behind the arc.
After Holiday, the Sixers have received great play off the bench from Thaddeus Young—in the first two games, anyway. Elton Brand came alive in Game 3, and instant-offense energizer, Lou Williams, looked friskier in the last contest as well.
After that, it’s been a mixed bag. It would be rash to conclude whether Evan Turner will deliver the impact of an overall No. 2 pick. He has yet to light it up, but he has shown some flashes this season. Some.
And then there is the mysterious Andre Iguodala, who gives you a little (and sometimes a lot) of everything—but consistent scoring. One has to wonder if a Game 4 loss would mark the end of Iggy’s career in Philly. That is, if the team could get a suitor not scared off by his large contract. This topic clearly deserves its own column.
Still, the needle is pointing up for the Sixers, who had a disastrous 27-55 campaign last season. They have compiled 14 more wins and a playoff appearance this year, and are now led by a very popular head coach. If they are not always the lead story, they are relevant again. A win tomorrow would only boost perception of their season.
For the Flyers, it’s been a different type of season. Many pundits projected them to reach the Stanley Cup Finals again this year, and bring the coolest trophy in sports back to Philly for the first time in 35 years.
The orange-and-black team got out of the gates quickly, although it appeared disinterested in the last 15 games or so. Even with their late-season slump, the Flyers earned the No. 2 seed and a first-round matchup with an opponent that had compiled 11 fewer points in the standings.
But if Philly thought it was getting a reprieve in drawing the Sabres—while presumably waiting to play the Capitals, Penguins or Bruins in a later round—it was sadly mistaken.
To be sure, they have had some bad luck with their iron man veteran defenseman Chris Pronger sidelined since March 8, and leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter injured in Game 4. Pronger may return for Sunday’s clash, but it appears Carter will be out.
Having said that, the series is still far from over; after all, the Flyers rallied from three games to none down last year versus the Bruins. And how good is Buffalo, defined more by their grit and their excellent, USA Olympian goaltender Ryan Miller? This isn't Edmonton of the '80s.
Goaltending, of course, has been the biggest bone of contention for the Flyers vs. Sabres series. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky played well in a 1-0 season opening loss before yielding three goals on seven shots in the first 14 minutes of Game 2. He has been banished since, although we think he’s still been in the same building as the team ever since.
Super backup Brian Boucher saved Game 2, played well in another win in the next game and then lost his own 1-0 duel with Miller in Game 4. All seemed fine until his first period meltdown last night when he yielded three goals (two of the he-did-what?) variety last night before being yanked in favor of last year’s almost-hero Michael Leighton.
Leights, who only saw one game of NHL action this year, came in last night and was spotless for almost 50 minutes. Then came a long shot and a juicy rebound that was practically placed on a tee for Sabres left winger Tyler Ennis. Ennis easily put away the game-winner, setting up tomorrow’s elimination game...
Perhaps, Flyers fans should not worry too much, even if it’s not clear who coach Peter Laviolette will ask to man the crucial area between the pipes on Sunday. The orange-and-black, to its credit, is one of the league’s best road teams and seems to play well in desperation games.
To that end, and no matter whether Pronger plays or Laviolette, himself, is the goalie, they need to play with a little more urgency—if not desperation—on their ailing power play.
The Flyers—a team with seven 20-goal scorers—have lit the lamp only twice in 22 power play opportunities. The Sabres are a much more respectable four for 19 with the man advantage.
At the end of the holiday, it does not matter how the Flyers stay alive on Easter Sunday; they simply have to find a way, and then follow that up with a Game 7 victory at home, if such a game is played.
While I hate to jinx the hockey team with a prediction, I envision the Flyers showing just enough grit to eke out a Game 6 win to keep their once very promising season alive.
On the hardwoods, while a win would do so much to boost the spirits of Philly hoops fans on Easter Sunday, Miami is a very good road team who would like their next home game to be Game 1 of the second round versus the Celtics. That also looks like a probable outcome.
And if neither tilt goes Philly’s way, there’s always the Phillies in a 4 p.m. game at San Diego.
For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, as well as writing, speaking and interview requests, please e-mail: email@example.com or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.