PawSox prospect preview

By Eddie Pannone

In today’s day and age of baseball, good two-way catchers are difficult to find. There are guys who can handle the work load behind the plate or put up solid offensive numbers, but few can do both. The Red Sox may have found themselves one of those few.

Top prospect Blake Swihart made his Triple-A debut last season at age 22 and showed why he has unique skill for a catcher. MLB.com has compared him to a young Buster Posey, a big reason why his name has come up the most in trade discussions. So far, Boston has been unwilling to part with him.

Swihart, a switch hitter, uses the whole field and consistently hits line drives which should translate into a good average. He can hit for decent power because he makes such solid contact and once he matures physically 20 home runs is possible. PawSox manager Kevin Boles said that Swihart is more consistent from the right side of the plate and can expand the zone at times, so look for him to work on his left handed hitting and plate discipline in 2015.

When talking about Swihart’s defense, Boles raved about how athletic he is behind the dish. It’s this athleticism that leads scouts to think he could play another position to preserve his offense. The organization has no plans to move him, however, and has the potential to be a Gold Glover. His quick feet allow him to block the ball well as well as get in position to throw out runners. He has a strong arm, leading the Eastern League (Double-A) by throwing out 47% of base runners.

An all-round talent at a position where those skills are tough to find, Swihart will almost certainly spend 2015 in Pawtucket. As the only other catcher on the 40-man roster, he’s the top option for promotion should Christian Vazquez or Ryan Hanigan get hurt. It doesn’t appear that major strides in his game are needed, and this season should be about fine tuning his game and making adjustments throughout the season. In a system full of talent, Swihart is Boston’s top prospect and arguably the top catching prospect in baseball for a reason.

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Hitting their stride

With only 16 games left in the AHL regular season, the Providence Bruins are playing their best hockey of the season. The team, who had been fighting for their playoff lives a month ago, is in good position for postseason play as they have won five games in a row, seven of 10, and 11 straight at home. Currently they sit fifth in the East with 72 points, though they are just two back of being in third.

This success starts in net, as the combination of Jeremy Smith and Malcolm Subban has been lights out. The young Subban has received much attention as one of the organization’s top prospects, and he has played well since his disastrous NHL debut. His performance at that level has not impacted his AHL game, as the 21-year-old has a solid .922 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against average.

While Subban gets the headlines being a prospect, Smith has been the best goalie on the team all season. Smith is second in save percentage at .934 and fourth in GAA at 2.04. He set a single game high for any AHL goalie with 52 saves on Sunday and Coach Bruce Cassidy said that he has found his stride and is working hard towards making an NHL roster.

Offensively, the team’s first line has taken off since the trio of Alexander Khokhlachev, Seth Griffith and Colin Stewart came together. Stewart has flourished in his role as a veteran goal scorer with 8 in his last 11 games and 12 in just 33 games this year. Cassidy likes having him with Khokhlachev and Griffith because he allows them to play their game and help them improve as players. The results speak for themselves.

It isn’t all positives, as Matt Lindblad and David Warsofsky both have foot injuries and are unlikely to play this weekend. The P-Bruins have a favorable weekend schedule, facing three teams below them in the standings including two in the bottom four of the East.

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Providence continues to fight

The second half of the AHL season is well underway and the Providence Bruins continue to fight for their playoff lives. There is still over two months remaining, but if the season ended today the P-Bruins would be home watching the postseason. With a record of 23-19-5-1, Providence holds the 10 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their 52 points, however, are only three points shy of the eight seed as well as the six seed, as five teams are competing for the final playoff berths.

Providence continues to be paced by Alexander Khokhlachev in scoring, as the young center has 33 points (11g, 22a) to lead the club. While David Pastrnak is likely in Boston for the rest of the year, Seth Griffith has filled in for him admirably. Griffith, who spent plenty of time in Boston himself this season, has 14 points (7g, 7a) in just 13 AHL games with a +7 rating. He isn’t as exciting as Pastrnak nor does he have the NHL potential he does, but Griffith definitely can make things happen offensively.

Providence will need him with several contributors sidelined with injuries. Khokhlachev did not play yesterday due to a lower body injury and his status is uncertain. Matt Lindblad, Bobby Robins and Joe Morrow also remain out with injury, and Morrow will likely know the status of his injury in the upcoming days. Morrow took a gruesome hit to the knee during Friday’s 4-2 win over Manchester, hitting the ice in agony upon impact. This is not the first injury to his knees and the result of his MRI, scheduled for yesterday, is not yet known.

In net, top prospect Malcolm Subban has been recalled to Boston and is enjoying his first NHL stint. Boston backup goalie Niklas Svedberg is on a conditioning stint with Providence, and once that it is complete he will likely take Subban’s place with Boston. Svedberg has played three games with the P-Bruins, going 2-1 with a save percentage of 90%. Goaltender play has been strong all season for the club, as Jeremy Smith and Subban have played at extremely high levels each. Subban, though only 9-10-2 has a solid save percentage of 92.1% and a GAA of just 2.47. Smith has been their best goalie, as he is top five in the league with a save percentage of 92.7% and a 2.22 GAA.

Providence, which has split their games so far this weekend, will look to get two points in a tight playoff race today at home as they face the Springfield Falcons, currently the four seed in the Eastern Conference.

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Super Bowl Match-Ups to Watch

After a convincing 45-7 victory over the Colts in the AFC Championship, the New England Patriots are once again Super Bowl bound. This will be the sixth time in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era that the team will compete for the Lombardi Trophy, and if they hope to win their fourth title together they will have to beat last year’s champions in the Seattle Seahawks.

This game features many compelling story lines and match-ups. The greatest coach and quarterback combination looking to firmly cement their place in history versus a team looking to become a dynasty. The first meeting of these two teams since the Patriots lost in Seattle back in 2012, which was the first time anyone heard the outspoken Richard Sherman trash talk his opponent after a game. A great Patriots offense versus a great Seahawks defense. The top two corners in football playing against each other in Sherman and Darrelle Revis. How can the Patriots stop “Beast Mode?” How will the Seahawks try to contain Rob Gronkowski? There are so many to get into, but there are a few that stand out above the rest.

For starters, any comparison to this year’s Patriots team and last year’s Bronco team that got annihilated in Super Bowl is unjustified. Despite having the top offense in the NFL, the team’s mental and physical toughness was nowhere near Seattle’s. Denver had never really had any adversity or doubt on their way to the Super Bowl, and right away when it hit they folded big time. This Patriots team is much tougher mentally and physically on both sides of the ball and won’t be intimidated by Seahawks. They have dealt with adversity right from week one, including many questioning whether or not the team could be contenders. They also had a tough six game stretch in which they played several teams atop their respected divisions. To think that what happened to the Broncos last year will happen this year to the Patriots is completely unfounded.

Offensively, Brady and the Patriots will have their hands full with “The Legion of Boom.” This is no doubt the toughest defense the team has played all season, though there were some takeaways from the NFC Championship game that could bode well for the offense. The Patriot offense loves to throw the ball short and quick over the middle of the field and near the sideline. The Seahawks allowed those throws to be successfully completed against the Packers. When targeting their second cornerback Byron Maxwell, Green Bay was able to get four plays of at least 12 yards and five total first downs on such throws. This number could be even higher if the team hadn’t been conservative and tried to run the clock out. The Packers also had success on quick throws over the middle to TE Richard Rodgers, who had three catches for 30 yards on these throws. Replace Rodgers with Gronkowski and this could be a significant advantage for New England.

Many of the yards gained on these plays did not come after catch, so it will be interesting to see if the shifty Patriot receivers can get yards after the catch. Seattle’s defense is tremendous at swarming to the ball and making tackles, so the Patriots will have to adjust to this. One thing to try is challenging Sherman and Earl Thomas. Sherman is dealing with an elbow injury that left him in a lot of pain Sunday and Thomas is coming off a dislocated shoulder. Both will play in the Super Bowl, but if they have trouble tackling or are a step slower because of their injuries, the Patriots can and will take advantage. The Patriots will also need to take advantage of something Green Bay did not, third down and short situations. Several times at key points in the game, the Packers had third down and less than three yards to go on the stingy Seahawk defense and could not convert. Most notably the Packers could not convert these situations in the red zone, settling for field goals inside the Seahawks one yard line. That cannot happen against a team like Seattle.

Moving to the Patriots defense, this unit can be highly effective come Super Sunday if they can contain Marshawn Lynch. With no elite receiver to rely on, the Seattle offense relies heavily on running the ball and using that to set up their passing game. Belichick is known for taking a team’s best player away and in this case that is Lynch. With such depth at cornerback like Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan, the Patriots can trust these players with one-on-one match-ups and focus on stopping the ground game. Despite their epic comeback in the NFC Title game, Seattle really isn’t built to comeback. They are a clock management, ground and pound, mistake free offense. As mentioned the team doesn’t have a true number one receiver, so if they are forced into passing situations, the Patriots would consider that a win.

Of course there are the obvious things a team must do to win, such as overall third down conversions, limit penalties, pressure the quarterback and protect yours. That goes without saying. However, if the Patriots are to come away with their fourth Super Bowl Championship, many of these match-ups could give them an edge.

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Providence Persevering

It is no secret that the Boston Bruins have struggled in the first half of this season, mostly due to injuries. As a result, the team has relied on players from Providence being sent up and down to fill the voids. Now add in plenty of injuries of their own and winning games for the P-Bruins has become quite the challenge. Among some of the players out with injury are Ryan Spooner, Joe Morrow, and Bobby Robins, not to mention the fact that rookie star David Pastrnak had been away in the World Junior Championships and in Boston. Tuesday saw the team play shorthanded with only 17 skaters active for the game, one short of a full lineup.

Despite all this going against them, they have persevered through it all to remain in the playoff hunt. This includes the game they played shorthanded, as with five seconds left in regulation Ethan Werek netted a game winning goal to give the Bruins a gutsy 3-2 road victory. Even with that win, playing shorthanded seemed to have really taken a toll on the team over the weekend. After a 4-2 win over the Sound Tigers, the team looked gassed both offensively and defensively. Providence went over 100 minutes without scoring a goal and played very sloppy defense as well.

Currently the team sits in eighth place in the East with 38 pts, though they are only two points out of fifth. They are getting tremendous play in goal from both goaltenders, but Jeremy Smith has gone above and beyond the call. He is off to one of the best starts of his career and is on pace to set career bests in goals allowed average and save percentage. When Providence signed Smith it was expected he would give young Malcolm Subban a solid AHL backup as he continues to grow. While Subban has been very good in net as well, Smith is challenging the youngster for more playing time. The team has been good about getting both an even amount of time, though it was previously thought that Subban would get more time than Smith.

As previously stated, injuries and call-ups have created problems for the P-Bruins depth, however the line of Alexander Khokhlachev and Pastrnak has been able to create chances. Pastrnak especially has shown that he is slick with the puck and can make offensive plays out of seemingly nothing. The only question is how long he remains with Providence as that kind of spark is something Boston could use right now. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him called up within the next week or two.

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