Flyers puzzled by fall from playoffs to worst in the East

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By Dan Gelston (AP Sports Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The vendor at the Flyers merchandise kiosk on the main concourse scrolled through his phone as disinterested fans breezed by the $70 Stadium Series sweatshirts and $250 jerseys that suddenly seem as unwanted as a face value ticket. Shortly before faceoff, customers! A Flyers fan stops by and spends $5.39 on a foam finger that is supposed to convey the home team is No. 1.

At least one Flyers fan in the stands had a different digit in mind.

The scoreboard cameras caught a man in the first period flipping Gritty the bird.

Yes, even the beloved Flyers furball can’t escape the wrath of agitated fans in what has become one of the biggest debacles in franchise history. The only part of the season more surprising than the unexpected popularity of their rookie mascot has been the dizzying dip in the standings from a year ago. The Flyers crashed from a 98-point team that made the playoffs to the one of the worst teams in the NHL; they fired the coach, the general manager and play in front of a half-empty Wells Fargo Center where tickets bottomed out at $9 a pop on StubHub on Wednesday.

Hey, for a night, the discounted ducats were worth the price – the Flyers snapped an eight-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over Dallas.

But the win was just a rare respite for a franchise barreling toward the Feb. 25 trade deadline on the brink of another shakeup. The suit and tie guys are gone. General manager Chuck Fletcher was hired in November to replace Ron Hextall, who could not turn the Flyers into contenders after 4+ seasons, and he promptly fired coach Dave Hakstol after three-plus seasons without a playoff series win. Interim coach Scott Gordon is 4-7-2 in his brief tenure.

That leaves the aging veterans in the orange-and-black sweaters, and perhaps some of the newer faces, on the market as Fletcher decides if the time is now for a full-blown roster revamp. Former All-Star forward Wayne Simmonds is in the last year of his contract and could be traded before the Flyers lose him for nothing. Simmonds, who has only 19 points this season, is perhaps the most important voice in the locker room and losing his leadership would hurt the Flyers as much as his point production. Just 30, Simmonds could be packaged for prospects and picks to a contender before he hits free agency.

”Right now, you definitely can’t look at the big picture,” Simmonds said. ”Obviously, the big picture doesn’t look good, so you’ve got to start small and we’ve got to start making strides from there.”

Hextall’s inability to turn things around was among the reasons he was unexpectedly dismissed Nov. 26. Philadelphia hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975 and was ready to try to contend after several years of retooling.

They instead enter Saturday’s game at New Jersey sitting 30th in the NHL standings at 16-22-6 (38 points).

How did it get this bad?

– Start in net. The Flyers tied an NHL record this week with Mike McKenna becoming their seventh goaltender to play this season. The Flyers became the fourth team in league history to hit that ignominious milestone and reached it in just 43 games. The Flyers banked on Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth to man the pipes while top prospect Carter Hart gained experience in the minors. Elliott and Neuvirth have been injured most of the season and patchwork effort was a bust, forcing the Flyers to call up Hart (3-4-1) last month to steady the team.

– The farm system had failed to produce stars after a string of bad drafts last decade and expected cornerstones such as Nolan Patrick (No. 2 pick of 2017 draft; 22 games without a goal), and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have yielded inconsistent results instead of serving as significant keys to a rebuild.

– The vets have disappeared. Claude Giroux, the last holdover from the 2010 Stanley Cup final team, is again an All-Star. But Simmonds, Jake Voracek, van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier have been hit by injury and inconsistency.

”When times do get tough, it’s what’s in our locker room that really matters and what really counts,” Hart said.

The 20-year-old Hart will be the anchor and has been an instant fan favorite. He’s been recognized a couple of times in public – he had to smile recounting a photo he took with an employee at a local Lululemon – but otherwise blends in like any other young kid walking a mall.

The Flyers have averaged more than 19,000 fans a game each season since 1996 but the crowd has thinned and ticket prices have hit rock bottom at the same time a $250 million renovation is underway at the Wells Fargo Center. It hasn’t helped that the 76ers, a fellow tenant, pack the place every night.

”The winning side of it is a lot more fun than the losing side of it, but we can only deal with the circumstances that we have and right now,” Gordon said.

Gritty has provided the Flyers a mainstream buzz they would have missed had it not been for his burst of supersized jersey full of fun.

Gritty kicked a field goal at a recent home loss blindfolded both in a nod to ”Bird Box” and a shot at Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey. Flyers fans saved their loudest cheers for the skit and accompanying Eagles highlights.

Once play resumed, they could have used the blindfold.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins hoping to win Stanley Cup, join Boston’s title parade

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BOSTON (AP) — It’s been more than three months since the last championship parade in Boston, and the city is getting antsy.

Sure, the Red Sox won the World Series last October. And the New England Patriots earned their sixth Super Bowl victory in February.

But since then: Nothing.

And Boston’s sports fans are counting on the Bruins to end the interminable title drought.

”It definitely lights a fire under you to see the other teams in the city bring home their championships,” defenseman Brandon Carlo said as the team prepared to face the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. ”We want to be a part of it.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Boston was a sad sack of a sports city, with the Patriots the joke of the NFL and the Red Sox mired in a dynasty of disappointment that would stretch to 86 years. The Celtics won far more than their share, but they endured the longest championship drought in franchise history from 1986-2008.

The Bruins went from Bobby Orr’s two championships in the early 1970s until Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron brought the Cup home in 2011.

If that doesn’t seem like a long time ago, try telling that to the newly spoiled Boston fans who have grown up with the Belichick-and-Brady Patriots and a Red Sox franchise that has won as many championships in the past 15 seasons as it did in the previous 100.

”It feels like there’s been a little bit of a gap in there,” said Carlo, a Coloradan who is 22 years-old, and has only been in the city for three years. ”The way things have gone for Boston, we’re looking to be like the other teams.”

And now they have their chance.

The Bruins are at their strongest heading into the Cup final, with a seven-game winning streak that includes a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Goalie Tuukka Rask has allowed more than two goals just twice in the past 13 games, and he won the last two playoff clinchers with a shutout. Brad Marchand is the leading scorer remaining in the playoffs.

And, with the Celtics done, the Patriots in the offseason and the Red Sox still recovering from their early season championship hangover, the Bruins have the city’s attention.

”We want to be considered the best game in town. Why wouldn’t we?” coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”We have some serious competition.”

Cassidy said he has developed a relationship with the other coaches in town, and he reached out to the Patriots for advice on how to handle the long layoff between series. The Celtics practice facility is next door to the Bruins’; on the morning of an NBA playoff game, Cassidy wore a Celtics shirt to his media availability.

When he took the podium for Wednesday’s news conference, Cassidy looked at the unusually large crowd and said, ”Red Sox off today?” (They’re on the road.)

The Bruins have also noticed the difference when they’re out and run into fans around town.

”You do see how the city rallies around you,” Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk said. ”I grew up in Edmonton, and we only have one sports team. To come in here, and there’s four sports teams and they’re usually pretty good, in the playoffs or in the hunt or winning.

”It’s very lucky to be playing here,” DeBrusk said. ”Ever since I’ve gotten here I fall in love with the city. To see the teams win around here, and how the people supported it, it’s very special.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Davidson takes reins of Rangers’ rare rebuilding project

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NEW YORK (AP) — Behind the microphone for the last New York Rangers championship in 1994, John Davidson is now front and center to try to parade the Stanley Cup down Broadway again.

Davidson recalled 1994 as one of the best times of his life, and after moving from broadcasting to the front office with St. Louis and Columbus has returned home to oversee the Rangers’ rebuilding process. The proud, big-spending Original Six franchise is in the midst of a rare youth movement, attempting step back to make the leap from annual playoff team to perennial title contender.

General manager Jeff Gorton began that at the 2018 trade deadline and will remain in control of day-to-day operations. Davidson is now his boss as team president and wants to be the soul of the organization by charting the right course to return New York to prominence, which for now means keeping it going in this direction.

”There’s a lot of work to be done here,” Davidson said Wednesday when he was introduced as the 11th team president in franchise history. ”There’s no shortcuts. It’s nothing but hard work, and it takes patience and resolve, and I really want to make sure that I use the word ‘patience’ and I use the word ‘resolve,’ because we’re going to be in a battle here to get this club to be better. But you have to be patient when you go through a build like this.”

Patience generally isn’t part of the fabric of New York sports or the Rangers’ MO. But Davidson said he is on the same page with owner James Dolan, president-turned-adviser Glen Sather, Gorton, and coach David Quinn on doing this right.

It helps that Davidson knows the Rangers inside out from parts of eight seasons as a goaltender and two decades as a broadcaster. This is a different challenge than the ones he undertook with the Blues and Blue Jackets, which seemed daunting at those times.

In some ways it’s easier because Gorton already took the first few steps and Quinn established a standard for players as a good starting point.

”I like that the entire organization stated that they were going to rebuild,” Davidson said. ”There’s no secrets to it. There’s no, ‘Well, we’re going to do this, but don’t tell anybody.’ This is something that has been very transparent and that’s a good way to go. There’s a game plan in place. The foundation is being built.”

Based on his success in building the foundation in St. Louis that has now become the basis for a Stanley Cup finalist, and ushering in an era of success in Columbus, Davidson looks like the perfect person to run the Rangers’ ship. Dolan said Davidson’s ”knowledge of the game, experience and passion for the Rangers made him the ideal choice.”

Davidson isn’t as ”green” as he was when he took over the Blues in 2006, and the lessons he learned from his first two front-office jobs should only help guide Gorton.

”I think it’s going to be a huge benefit,” Gorton said. ”He’s gone through it in two organizations. He’s done everything in hockey. His experiences, just his even-keel way about him, it’s going to be a great asset for us as we go through this process, there’s no question about that.”

The Rangers missed the playoffs the past two seasons and likely will again in 2019-20. But with the No. 2 draft pick and one of two potential stars – Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko – on the way and youth, and competitive balance so prominent in the NHL, Davidson isn’t acting like this is a long-range rebuild.

”It can be done because of the youth that plays in this league now,” Davidson said. ”Obviously the sooner you win the better and that’s the goal, but you have to do it the right way to get there.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, a key piece of that 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup team, believes Davidson has accumulated the right credentials in his previous two jobs to deliver another championship to New York.

”He’s made the transition each step along the way,” Leetch said. ”He’s admitted that each one wasn’t seamless: You had to learn, you had to ask others for help. And each one he’s made that transition and risen to the top at each level. To expect anything different would be wrong. I just think all those things together, and then the strong feelings that he has for New York City and the Rangers organization, just makes him the perfect fit at the right time.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins scrimmage a ‘unique’ opportunity; It’s different this time for Blues

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The 2019 Stanley Cup Final is also a battle between Jim and Pam from “The Office.” (NBC Boston)

• Team scrimmage a unique opportunity for the Boston Bruins. (Bruins Daily)

• A look at Patrick Roy’s candidacy for head coach of the Ottawa Senators. (TSN)

• Holland starting to clean house in Edmonton. (Sportsnet)

• Long-suffering Blues fans feel it’s different this time around. (ESPN)

• Blues heroics have wiped away decades of disappointment. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Why the status of Zdeno Chara doesn’t mean what it used to. (WEEI)

• Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy likens the Blues to Boston’s twin. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Berube’s Blues built on toughness. (TSN)

Alex Ovechkin will get a much-needed break, once the World Hockey Championships are over, that is. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Petr Budaj is heading to college… as a coach. (ABC Fox Montana)

• Adam Fox was worth the two picks the New York Rangers Rangers sent the Carolina Hurricanes. (EP Rinkside)

• Rangers offseason looking bright (NHL.com)

• Did what Washington accomplished last season have any bearing on the Bruins, Blues path to the Cup Final? (NovaCaps)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Magical playoff ride ends in more disappointment for Sharks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Magical comebacks, dramatic wins and the most talented roster in San Jose Sharks history weren’t enough to deliver the franchise its first Stanley Cup title.

A team depleted by several key injuries ended its season with a 5-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, turning the drama of Game 7 wins in the first two rounds into footnotes on a season that was ultimately a disappointment.

”We didn’t make it easy for ourselves the whole playoffs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. ”We always battled back. We got through a lot as a team. A lot of guys just battled. Just to get this far a lot of things have to go right. We battled together but came up short. It’s crushing to come this far and not get the job done.”

The goal for the Sharks was clear ever since they acquired two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa just before the start of the season. Coach Peter DeBoer told his team the ingredients were in place for that elusive first championship in San Jose. It appeared like that could be the case after the Sharks rallied from three goals down in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round to beat Vegas in overtime and followed that up with another Game 7 win against Colorado in round two.

But with Karlsson unable to play the final four periods of the postseason because of a groin injury that slowed him since January, and captain Joe Pavelski and two-way center Tomas Hertl also out after taking high hits, the Sharks didn’t have enough to handle the Blues.

This season ended like so many others for the Sharks, who have won more games than any other team and the second-most playoff series the past 15 seasons but still are seeking a first championship.

”They all hurt,” said center Logan Couture, who tied a franchise record with 14 goals in the playoffs. ”It doesn’t matter what the roster is. When you get this far in the playoffs or you make the playoffs it hurts. You get in the playoffs you believe you can win.”

Here are some other takeaways from the season:

JUMBO JOE: One motivating factor for the Sharks this postseason was delivering a title for beloved leader Joe Thornton. The greatest player in franchise history turns 40 in July and has not decided whether he wants to come back for another season. Thornton dealt with injuries early in the season, then had a strong stretch as a third-line center late before struggling a bit the final two rounds outside of a two-goal performance in Game 3 at St. Louis.

”He’s the face, he’s the heartbeat of the organization,” DeBoer said. ”I think like all the players in that room, as coaches we’re disappointed for not helping him get there. Because he gives you everything he’s got and should be there.”

CAPTAIN PAVELSKI: No player personified the Sharks’ grueling journey this spring more than Pavelski. His postseason started with a puck that deflected off his face for a goal. The injuries only got worse when his helmet violently crashed to the ice, leading to a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas. That led to the epic comeback with four goals on one disputed major penalty that will go down as the greatest moment in franchise history until the team wins a Cup. Pavelski made a triumphant return in Game 7 of the second round but got hurt again in Game 5 against the Blues. Pavelski turns 35 and heads into an uncertain summer of free agency following a 38-goal season.

KARLSSON’S FUTURE: It was a somewhat disappointing first season in San Jose for Karlsson and now the question is whether it will be his only one. He took about two months to find his groove and then played at an elite level for about six weeks. He hurt his groin in January and was never the same. He missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games and was never completely healed in the playoffs. He heads into free agency in July and his decision will impact what the Sharks will be able to do with Pavelski and other key pieces.

STEPPING UP: The biggest positive for San Jose this season was the emergence of Hertl and Timo Meier as building blocks for the future. The 25-year-old Hertl was the top-scoring forward for the Sharks with 74 points and showed the capability of manning a top line as a center. The 22-year-old Meier had 30 goals and looks like a long-time fixture as a top-six forward.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league during the regular season in his first year of a $34.5 million, six-year contract. He had a career-low .896 save percentage in the regular season and was pulled early in two of his first four postseason starts. He rebounded and was a key part of the first-round win over Vegas but finished the playoffs with an .898 save percentage.

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