Greg Paone

An exclamation point to cap Claude Giroux's stellar week

An exclamation point to cap Claude Giroux's stellar week

The NHL on Monday afteroon placed a cherry on top of the Flyers' successful week.

After posting three goals and three assists in the Flyers' four victories, captain Claude Giroux was named the NHL's First Star of the week.

Giroux's best performance in a studded week came on Thursday when he potted a power-play goal and two assists in the Flyers' 5-3 victory over the visiting Montreal Canadiens. He also scored against the Coyotes on Saturday and the Golden Knights on Sunday, giving him a goal in three consecutive contests.

Giroux's line with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny has been on fire lately. In the four games this past week, the trio combined for 16 points (seven goals and nine assists, including a seven-point showing in Vegas on Sunday evening.

The captain's redemption tour after last season's down campaign has showed no signs of slowing down. Giroux is now up to 64 points (good for sixth in the NHL) on the season with 18 goals and 46 assists in 56 games. That's already more than his 58-point showing in 82 games last season.

Calgary Flames star and South Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau was named the second star of the week while Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk was named the third star of the week.

Minus a goalie, Flyers treading murky water

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AP Images

Minus a goalie, Flyers treading murky water

We are flooded by so many good Philadelphia sports vibes these days, it’s almost kind of weird. We’re not used to this. We don’t know what to do with it. It’s like this unheard of fog we never want to shake.

And the Flyers did their part last week to make sure the fog didn’t lift and that the good vibes kept rolling into town.

The Flyers went 3-0 last week with a frantic 2-1 OT win over the Hurricanes in Carolina on Tuesday night, a sound 5-3 victory back home over the Montreal Canadiens to cap parade day and then finished things up with a hard-fought 4-3 shootout victory in Arizona over the Coyotes on Saturday night.

Let’s continue to express our feelings in a deeper manner with this week’s Flyers observations.

• On Saturday night, the Flyers got over whatever it is about the lowly Coyotes that brings out the worst in them as they topped Arizona for the first time in four tries. And in a shootout no less. But the obvious black mark is how Brian Elliott skated gingerly off the ice during the shootout with what GM Ron Hextall is calling a lower-body injury.

A big reason for the Flyers’ success this week was the play of Elliot, a rock-solid presence in net who was clearly sorely missed in the four-game losing streak that extended across the All-Star break. He was excellent in Carolina on Tuesday with 27 saves. And then he gave the Flyers what they needed against Montreal and Arizona. Simply put, he’s been very reliable and the results have shown for the Flyers.

Conversely, Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been all that reliable this season Again, injuries have played a role, as his career arc continues to dictate. But when he’s been healthy in net, the consistency just hasn’t been there. And as the Flyers head into an important stretch with four of the next six games against teams nipping at their heels in the Metropolitan Division, they need consistency in net.

With as jumbled as things are, if Neuvirth can’t provide that this time around as Elliott is on the shelf, the Flyers could be looking up again in the standings.

• What a beautiful mess that OT was in Carolina on Tuesday night. The Flyers had no business coming out on top in that overtime session as the Hurricanes carried play, controlled the puck, skated circles around the sloppy Flyers and fired six shots on Elliott in the 4:56 played.

That sequence late where Elliott made a save and then Claude Giroux batted the puck out of the air to prevent the winner from going in behind Elliott was a wacky as it gets, but it worked.

Jordan Weal then scooted down the wing and slipped a softie past Cam Ward for the winner.

The 3-on-3 is designed to be fast-paced and action-packed, but that was a disaster that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of. And it worked.

• Remember how discombobulated the Flyers’ power play seemed prior to Thursday’s game vs. the Habs? The power play was just 3 for 30 in the previous 10 games prior to Thursday and things were not smooth, to say the least.

Enter a scoop of the perfect medicine, the Montreal PK, a unit that entered Sunday ranked 25th in the league and surrendered power-play goals to Giroux, in his office at the dot, and Jake Voracek, who whistled one off Carey Price’s ear on Thursday.

The power play struck two more times in the desert on Saturday courtesy of Giroux and Wayne Simmonds.

When this power play is clicking, it can carry the Flyers. With questions looming in net, the power play is going to come more in focus as the Flyers may find themselves in offensive barnburners more often than not. If the last two games are any indication, that’ll be just fine. But we know how streaky this power play is and things can turn sour again in the blink of an eye.

• Ok, so maybe I’m thinking too much into this, but I was watching the shootout in Arizona on Saturday night and it just seems like most of the Flyers’ shootout attempts are missing something. It’s like they struggle to get the goalie moving and then have no option but to shoot right into him.

I watch other teams’ shootouts and their shooters are getting the goalies shifting around the crease. So many times, the Flyers have nothing to shoot at because the goalie isn’t moving.

Am I crazy?

• Seriously, though… let’s take a peek at the Metropolitan Division standings. There are so many cooks in the kitchen right now. Washington is ahead of the pack with 69 points. After Pittsburgh won Sunday afternoon, the Penguins are second in line with 66 points. Prior to Sunday night’s contest in Vegas, the Flyers check in at third with 63 points. And then there’s New Jersey (62 points) and Carolina (61 points) in the wild-card spots. And Columbus and both New York teams are lurking just behind.

The Flyers just happen to play the Devils, Blue Jackets and Rangers in four of the next six games. Those are eight critical points on the table for all those teams.

Yes, these games have incredible importance and the pressure is on because heading south could happen quickly. But on the other hand, destiny is in your hands. And that’s true for the Flyers here.

Coming up this week: Sunday at Vegas (8 p.m. on NBCSP), Tuesday vs. New Jersey (7 p.m. on NBCSP), Friday at Columbus (7 p.m. on NBCSP), Sunday at the New York Rangers (12 p.m. on NBC).

DiVincenzo helps Villanova avoid a nightmare

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USA Today Images

DiVincenzo helps Villanova avoid a nightmare

BOX SCORE 

There’s been a lot of talk around these parts lately about dreams and nightmares.

And Saturday afternoon’s matchup for No.1 Villanova sounded like the most nightmarish one possible.

Coming off a stunning 79-75 upset at the hands of St. John’s, which was previously winless in the conference, the shorthanded Wildcats, minus forwards Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, were tasked with facing their Big East kryptonite, Butler, which had toppled Villanova on three straight occasions.

It wasn’t easy, especially early on, but a redheaded Superman stepped out of the phone booth and helped the Wildcats turn the nightmare scenario into the dream of solving that Bulldog kryptonite.

Donte DiVincenzo dropped a career-high 30 points, including 20 during an explosive second half, as the Wildcats overcame an early 13-point deficit to take their first lead early in the second half and never let go of the stranglehold to beat Butler, 86-75, on Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center. It was Villanova’s first win over Butler since Feb. 20, 2016.

The top-ranked Wildcats improved to 23-2 on the season and 10-2 in the conference. Butler fell to 17-9 on the campaign and 7-6 in Big East play. Villanova still hasn’t lost back-to-back games since March 2013.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright admitted afterward that worry had set in early in the contest as the ‘Cats fell behind.

“Yeah, you are,” Wright said. “You realize you have a lot of young guys out there and they have a really good team.”

But enter DiVincenzo to wash the worry away. There was no way this game ended up the way it did without his sterling performance.

Villanova was having trouble keeping up in the first half with hot-shooting Butler, which shot 56 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown in the first half. Kelan Martin, who also finished with 30 but had 17 in the first half, and the Bulldogs had an answer for everything the ‘Cats threw at them en route to leading 38-30 with 1:48 left in the half.

DiVincenzo started the wildfire of a 21-4 run over the next 6:55 of game time that brought the whiteout-clad sellout crowd of 20,683 to its feet and sent a furious jolt of energy throughout the entire building. It was one those hallmark devastating runs the Wildcats use to just bully teams into submission. This one saw Villanova take supreme control with a 51-42 lead, and the ‘Cats never looked back.

DiVincenzo had 11 of those 21 points.

“I think [Butler] is very good at containing the three and also being able to guard one-on-one,” DiVincenzo said after the victory. “They did a great job guarding one-on-one and sometimes we just did a great job of making shots.”

DiVincenzo’s 30 points bring a gaudy, eye-popping nature to them. And rightfully so as he was spectacular on the offensive end and was clearly the Wildcats’ MVP on this February Saturday. But Wright was way more impressed with something else his redshirt sophomore forward did against the Bulldogs.

“You guys are going to think I’m nuts, but he probably played his best defensive game of the year,” Wright said of DiVincenzo. “He had 30 points, but he was at the top of the zone, he kept people in front of him, he guarded everybody. He was involved in rebounding. He didn’t get a lot, but he was in there keeping balls alive.

“It was really what he did defensively and to be able to play 40 minutes that hard defensively.”

That defensive effort spread throughout the Villanova sideline as the ‘Cats just smothered Butler in the second half. The Bulldogs shooting percentage plummeted to just 34 percent overall and 31 percent from downtown in the final 20 minutes. Villanova, on the other hand, shot 56 percent in the second half and never stopped punishing Butler for its faults until the final buzzer blared throughout South Philadelphia.

“They turned up the energy early in the second half,” Butler’s Martin said. “They just came out and made their shots. Some tough shots, as well. They chipped away, but we fell.”

There was a noticeable difference on the defensive side of the floor for Villanova and it helped turned the tide in the second half.

The Wildcats are notorious for their staunch man-to-man defense. But without both Booth and Paschall, two looming interior presences, Wright decided to dial up a ferocious zone defense that muzzled the Butler attack — the same Butler attack that shot a blistering 15 of 22 from downtown during a 101-93 upset of Villanova back in December in Indianapolis.

“Our man-to-man is a little more complicated,” Wright said. “[Freshman] Jermaine [Samuels] hasn’t been practicing. He’s only been at two practices. We played him and then when we had to play [freshman] Dhamir [Cosby-Roundtree] with two bigs out there. We felt we couldn’t guard them man-to-man. We had Collin [Gillespie], Omari [Spellman] and Jermaine out there, three freshmen in a zone and they did a hell of a job.”

“[Zone] is not that much different,” DiVincenzo said.  “We practice it a lot. So we’re used to playing it because we practice it every day. Like Coach said, we had to put the young guys out there who hadn’t played it that much. But we play it throughout the season and they did a great job out there.

“It’s just communication. Know where their scorers are and just make sure everyone is on the same page.”

While as intense as it gets, the Villanova zone did not catch Butler head coach LaVall Jordan by surprise.  But still, his team’s responses to it were fleeting at best.

“We have to do a better job against a zone like that. It kept us out of the paint,” said Jordan, whose team had just 10 points in the paint all day long.

“We expected some zone just with the injuries they have. Coming into the game, I didn’t know how much to expect. But it’s a part of their package defensively. … We could have handled that better.”

Just what Villanova needs, another weapon in its arsenal.

Injury updates
Wright said after the game that Booth is still weeks away from returning as the guard’s broken hand is still in a cast.

Things are much more cloudy for Paschall, who is out with a concussion suffered in a nasty fall while leaping for a rebound last week vs. Seton Hall.

“With concussion protocol, it’s just one day at a time,” Wright said. “He’s still a number of days away at best-case scenario.”