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A (surprising) tale of two Philly teams

The most predictable thing about the world of sports is that it’s not really that predictable. Sure, there are times when teams and athletes live up to expectations. Other times, though, the unexplainable occurs. Like not having a legitimate punt returner on the roster for the first regular season game (but that’s a different story). I’m talking about teams that do better or worse than expected, and Philadelphia has an example of each.

At the start of the 2007-08 season, and despite having the NHL’s worst record last season, expectations were fairly high for the Flyers. Through a series of trades and free-agent signings they remade their roster, adding young talent, getting veteran stars from other teams (Daniel Briere and Kimmo Timonen) and solidifying their goaltending (Martin Biron). The goal: to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence and contend for a Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile, since the 76ers traded Allen Iverson to Denver in December 2006, their plan has been to get out from under the NBA’s monstrous salary cap -- getting expiring contracts in the Iverson and Kyle Korver trades and buying out dead weight Chris Webber’s contract. Their goal was to have money to spend on a significant free agent this coming summer, and hopefully contend for the playoffs next year. Despite finishing last season on a 17-9 run, no one expected the Sixers to finish much better than last year’s 35-47 record, and many prognosticators expected them to finish last in the Eastern Conference.

For a while things were going as planned. Then came February 5th.

The Flyers’ win that night pushed their record to 30-17-5, in first place in the Atlantic Division and within 3 points of first in the conference. Since then they’ve gone just 5-10-5, including a 10-game losing streak in which they earned only 2 points in the NHL’s bogus overtime/shootout format. They’ve had a habit, even in games they’ve won, of giving up goals late in a period. It happened again today, when they allowed the tying goal to Boston with under 30 seconds left in regulation, then lost in overtime. As a result, the Flyers are just one point ahead of Buffalo for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East, with Florida, Washington and Toronto still within striking distance, each team having 9 to 10 games left.

Meanwhile, the 76ers entered play back on that night in February at 18-30, but then went on a 5-game winning streak. That streak ended with the first game following the All-Star break but the next night the Sixers crushed the pathetic Knicks by 40, and have kept rolling ever since. Their 15-4 run has vaulted them into seventh place in the East, just two games out of fifth place, and ahead of 9th-place Atlanta by five games. While it’s true that the East is a pretty sad conference, during this stretch the Sixers have beaten Dallas, Phoenix and Detroit. And tonight they knocked off San Antonio, just one night after overcoming an 18-point 4th-quarter deficit to win at Chicago.

All season it was expected that only one of the two residents of the Wachovia Center would be in playoff games next month. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think that the one team more likely to make it would be the Sixers. -- Joe Guckin