How Rangers and Devils survived Game 7 thrillers

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How Rangers and Devils survived Game 7 thrillers

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW YORK (AP) -- With so little offense from their key playmakers, the New York Rangers dipped into a backup plan that no NHL team had used in more than 60 years. Goals were at a premium throughout the first-round playoff series between the top-seeded Rangers and the upstart Ottawa Senators, who were looking to advance out of the No. 8 hole. New York defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi staked the Rangers to a two-goal lead in the second period, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist bent but didn't break as the Rangers held on for a 2-1 win in Game 7 on Thursday night. Not since 1950 had an NHL team won a Game 7 without the benefit of a goal from a forward, according to a fact released by the Rangers, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau. "We found a way," relieved Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "We were fortunate. I'm very happy with the group, and they should be real proud of themselves -- for about an hour." The Rangers earned the right to play the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals, a seven-game upset winner over the No. 2 Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Game 1 is Saturday in New York. It wasn't easy for New York, and after a home loss in Game 5, it almost wasn't likely. But the Eastern Conference's top-seeded team gutted out a big road win and then made it count in Game 7. "You don't want to relax too much" said forward Derek Stepan, who had three points in the Rangers' Game 6 win and then helped set up the opening goal in the clincher. "We have a big round ahead of us and we have to make sure we stay focused and keep that emotion high." Staal and Girardi scored 4:18 apart in the second period, Lundqvist made 26 saves and the Rangers completed a rally from a 3-2 series hole. "We were talking about it in Ottawa that if we could bring it back here, the fans would be behind us," Girardi said. "The way we play all year got us ready for games like this. We came with a great effort (in Ottawa) and another one tonight." Staal broke the scoreless deadlock, and Girardi gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead with his first NHL playoff goal. Lundqvist allowed Daniel Alfredsson's power-play goal in the second but stood tall the rest of the way to send the Rangers to the second round. The Rangers hadn't hosted a Game 7 since their Stanley Cup victory over Vancouver in 1994, but they stayed perfect at home in deciding games -- winning their fourth. New York is 4-5 overall in Game 7s, and the Senators dropped to 0-5. "We knew they were going to come out strong," said Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who made 27 saves. "I just wanted to make sure that I gave my team an opportunity to win the hockey game -- make the next save for the guys. "They had their fans. They had lots of energy." Lundqvist withstood tons of pressure from the Senators, who spent most of the closing 5 minutes in the Rangers' end. The win wasn't secure until Sergei Gonchar tripped Carl Hagelin as he skated toward the empty net with 36.2 seconds remaining. "It's playoff hockey at its finest," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "They are making a last surge, trying to play for their season. We stood in there and blocked some shots. Hank came up with some key saves. It's how we have been playing all year, and we have to continue to do that." New York rallied from a 3-2 series deficit for just the second time, building off the momentum of its 3-2 victory in Ottawa on Monday night. "It was a hard series against a very good team," Tortorella said. "I thought both teams went toe to toe in all areas of the game. Sometimes the first round is the hardest round. That's all this is, one round." Just like in Game 6, when the Rangers scored three goals in the second period, New York used the middle frame to take over. While waiting for their big guns -- Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards -- to spark the offense, a pair of defensemen stepped up to get the Rangers going. "It was big for our team," Girardi said. "We were able to take care of our end first, but if we get goals it's nice, as well." Rookie Chris Kreider, whose first NHL goal was the winner Monday, forced a turnover and got the puck into the Ottawa end. Callahan nudged it ahead to Stepan, who sent a pass from the right circle to the left circle to Staal for his first goal of the series 4:46 into the second. Staal, limited to 46 regular-season games because of the lingering effects of a concussion sustained last season, thrust his hands up in delight when his shot beat Anderson. Staal had only two goals in the regular season. "I feel pretty good," Staal said. "The last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs I feel my confidence is back and I feel a lot better on the ice." It didn't take all that long for Madison Square Garden to erupt in cheers again for another blue-liner. Rangers forward Brandon Prust had the puck knocked off his stick, but teammate Brandon Dubinsky was there to get it and smack it into the slot to Girardi, who wound up for a hard slap shot just a few feet from the crease and slammed it past Anderson at 9:04. Like Staal, Girardi isn't known for great offensive prowess. He had five goals while playing in all 82 regular-season games, but had scored only once in the previous 44 -- including the first six of this series. Just when the nervous towel-waving fans began to relax and feel confident that the Rangers would survive and move on to the second round, Alfredsson gave the Senators a big boost and brought back the tension. Ottawa went on its second power play when Michael Del Zotto was called for cross-checking nemesis Chris Neil in front of the net. Alfredsson, who missed three games in the series after an elbow from Hagelin in Game 2 gave him a concussion, made New York pay. Alfredsson took a pass above the left circle from Chris Phillips and one-timed a shot past Lundqvist with 8:26 left in the second to bring the Senators back within a goal. Now the question remains if the 39-year-old Senators captain will retire after 16 NHL seasons -- all with Ottawa. "I'll take some time and see how I feel physically and mentally after time off, but this year has been unbelievable," said Alfredsson, who struggled this season with concussions. "I had a lot of fun, and it's been a great group of guys to be a part of. They've kept me upbeat and happy when I'm a grumpy old man at times." NOTES: Former Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy rejoined the Ottawa lineup after being scratched the previous three games. He replaced Matt Carkner, who was a healthy scratch in Game 1, played in the second game, was suspended for Game 3, and was in the lineup for the previous three. ... Staal has three career playoff goals. Alfredsson has 47. ... It is the first time since 1996 that no Canadian teams reached the second round.

Devils 3, Panthers 2 (2OT) SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -- Adam Henrique's first Game 7 was one he'll never forget. The rookie scored his second goal of the game at 3:47 of the second overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers early Friday. He skated out of the right circle and into the slot, getting goalie Jose Theodore to guess wrong. It sent New Jersey to Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference semifinal opener Sunday, and the resurgent Panthers home for the summer. "Got a pretty good bounce," Henrique said. "Found myself alone and tried to get it on net." Just like that, the Devils were winners of a postseason series for the first time since 2007. And with the game ending in the early hours of April 27, it marked the 20th anniversary of Martin Brodeur's first postseason appearance in goal for New Jersey. Henrique doesn't remember Brodeur's debut. After all, he was only 2. But this night, that'll be unforgettable. "Pretty cool, I guess," said Brodeur, who stopped 43 shots. Stephen Gionta also scored in regulation for New Jersey, which wasted a 2-0 lead in the third period. Stephen Weiss and Marcel Goc scored third-period goals for the Panthers, and Theodore made 33 saves. The Panthers made a surprising run to the Southeast Division title this season, earning their first postseason berth in 12 years. "This is not where the hockey people predicted us to be at the start of the year," Weiss said. "We did some good things. We're obviously disappointed not being able to move on. It's been a fun year. It's been a fun playoff in front of our fans." The Panthers thought they were on the board 1:50 into the third period when Mike Weaver's shot from the right point got past Brodeur. Shawn Matthias was whistled for goaltender interference, nullifying the goal -- and further firing up the already desperate Panthers. "Yeah, they probably missed one on that one," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "But what are you going to do?" Weiss cut the lead in half at 5:02 of the third, burying a one-timer from the right circle after a pass from Brian Campbell. The equalizer nearly came 3 minutes later, when Weiss had another shot blocked, Scottie Upshall nearly got his stick on the rebound -- the Devils' Andy Greene tied him up just enough to thwart that chance -- and Kris Versteeg's try was batted away. Didn't matter. The Panthers kept coming. And with Marek Zidlicky in the penalty box for a delay of game call, Florida got the franchise's biggest goal in 16 years. Shawn Bergenheim made a nifty move to get free for a shot that Brodeur stopped. The rebound rolled left, nearly on the goal line, and Goc knocked it home from an extremely tough angle to tie it at 2 with 3:28 left. And to overtime they went. "Exhausting," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "A fitting end to the series." The Devils and Panthers played 11 games this season. New Jersey won six, Florida won five, and the Devils outscored the Panthers 29-28. As close as could be, all the way to the end. "Just a bounce here or there," Versteeg said. "That's what happens." The first 2 minutes of regulation -- probably long forgotten by the time the game ended -- went about as badly as could be for Florida, which quickly found itself down both a goal and a center. Henrique opened the scoring when he tipped the puck past Theodore to get New Jersey on the board and silence an anxious crowd. Anton Volchenkov camped out at the left point, waited for a pass from behind the net to bounce off the boards and carom his way, then fired a one-timer that Henrique -- considered by many to be the league's best rookie -- directed into the net. A half-minute later, things got worse for Florida. Panthers center John Madden and winger Tomas Kopecky collided near center ice, and Madden took the brunt of the big hit. He writhed in agony for several seconds before trying to crawl to the Florida bench, the blood pouring from his face leaving a blotchy red trail along the ice. Two workers emerged to scrape up the mess. New Jersey dominated the opening minutes, taking eight of the first 10 shots. Eventually, the Panthers settled down -- getting 10 shots at Brodeur in the final 10-plus minutes of the first period, yet still heading into the first intermission trailing 1-0. "They got one lucky tip," Kopecky said in a televised interview between periods. "You know, we weren't in a lane and we were kind of cruising around in our zone and it ended up in our net." Lucky or not, it was enough to get the Devils going. And fittingly, Henrique not only got his team started, but then he finished the job. "I think I blacked out when I heard the thud of the back of the net," Henrique said. "It was a great feeling." Greater still for Brodeur, who still has a chance at his fourth Stanley Cup. Brodeur was no fan in this series of Florida's tradition of tossing toy rats on the ice to celebrate. He was the last Devils player to leave the ice, and the last thing he did before joining the dressing-room celebration was to scoop up one of the plastic critters with his stick and send it skyward. "Feels pretty good," Brodeur said. "For a day. And after that, we have to face the Flyers." NOTES: The Devils and Flyers split six meetings this season. It'll be the fifth time in the Brodeur era that the teams have met in the playoffs; Philadelphia won in 2004 and 2010, while New Jersey prevailed on their way to Cup titles in 1995 and 2000. ... Florida had as many broken sticks -- two -- as shots in the second period. ... Madden returned to the ice about 13 minutes after needing to leave following the collision with Kopecky.

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

WASHINGTON – Cubs president Theo Epstein watched the Washington Nationals run wild on his iPad on Tuesday while visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. As Epstein did some work in his hotel room later that night, he got a text message from general manager Jed Hoyer alerting him to Miguel Montero’s explosive comments.  

Epstein’s management style is to not overreact or worry about the next day’s headlines. He generally believes in second chances, tries to keep an open mind and looks at the problem from every angle, occasionally to the point of paralysis by analysis.

But Epstein said it took “probably 10 seconds” before he realized the Cubs needed to designate Montero for assignment after the veteran catcher pointed the finger at Jake Arrieta – a Cy Young Award-winning, All-Star pitcher – for Washington’s seven stolen bases.    

“It screamed out as something that we should do,” Epstein said.     

As Montero’s rant caught fire on Twitter, Epstein called Hoyer and spoke to Montero on the phone, but he wanted to sleep on it and consult with some players before making Wednesday’s final decision, which could cost approximately $7 million. Epstein could not envision this as a team-building moment after Montero’s mea culpa and clearing the air with Arrieta.

“That was not my read on it, knowing the dynamics, present and past,” Epstein said. “This was not something that we would benefit from – trying to pursue a path of putting it all back together again.”

The Cubs pursued Aroldis Chapman after the New York Yankees closer began last season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs cautiously didn’t judge or unconditionally support Addison Russell after a third-party abuse accusation on social media triggered an MLB investigation this month. The Cubs tolerated Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer, allowing him to chill out at home in New Jersey.

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But Montero doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball. Montero isn’t an All-Star shortstop. Montero isn’t being preserved for one hypothetical pinch-hit at-bat in the playoffs. The Cubs are hovering around .500 now – no longer the World Series favorite – and all those variables become part of the calculus.   

“I just came to the conclusion that now more than ever we really need to be a team,” Epstein said. “This was an example of someone being a bad teammate publicly, and that we’d be better off moving on and not standing for it, because we do hold our players to a higher standard than that.

“In our role as the front office, we can’t always be in the clubhouse and push the right buttons to help everyone come together as a team. But we certainly are in a position – when we see something that could fracture the group – to try to fix the situation and remove that issue.

“Miggy’s not to blame at all for the issues that we have as a team right now. He should not be a scapegoat for what’s going on. This was just an example of someone publicly not being a good teammate and making comments that weren’t accountable and weren’t supportive and weren’t in furtherance of the team concept. And we felt we had to act on it.”

There is a chicken-or-the-egg mystery to clubhouse cohesion. But Montero probably would have had a longer fuse – and the bosses would have had a longer leash – if the Cubs were 24 games above .500 the way they were at this time last year. Montero could also get away with a lot more when he was a two-time All-Star for the Arizona Diamondbacks and playing in a sleepy market. 

“Had we been in a spot where this group had already formed its identity and was clicking on all cylinders,” Epstein said, “and had already overcome adversity together and come together completely as a team and we’re rolling in those respects, maybe it could have been handled differently by the group without sort of action from above.

“But I think you have to factor in where the team is and what the team needs and how close we are to reaching our ideal and how close we are to living up to all the values that we have as an organization.”

The Cubs Way isn’t exactly making it up as they go along. But there are always double standards and rationalizations in a bottom-line business. It sounds like Epstein did his due diligence without giving it a second thought: Montero wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. 

“There aren’t that many opportunities for people out of uniform to positively impact the group or nudge it in the right direction,” Epstein said, “or underscore the importance of team or emphasize the values that we try to embody as a group.

“This was one that made sense, given the history, the group dynamics, all the factors involved.”

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

The Bears believe Leonard Floyd will make the leap from being a promising rookie to a breakout second-year player, the kind who can be a centerpiece of a defense as soon as this fall.  

The Bears in 2016 totaled 37 sacks —12th in the NFL — despite dealing with a rash of injuries and not having a standout player in terms of getting to the quarterback. Willie Young led the team with 7 1/2 sacks, which tied him for 31st in the league last year, while Floyd and Akiem Hicks each had seven. 

Sixteen players recorded double-digit sacks last year. That’s not the end-all benchmark for Floyd in 2017, but for a former top-10 pick with elite skills and, as his coaches and teammate said, the right mentality, it’s not out of the question. 

“With most players, you go from your freshman year to sophomore or rookie to second year, … it slows down, they understand it, they're not thinking, they're reacting,” coach John Fox said. “And so I'd expect that and I've seen that already even in the off-season.”

Floyd, earlier this month, talked about how much more comfortable he feels after a full year of practicing and playing at the NFL level. 

“Everything was just fast when I got here last year,” Floyd said. “This year’s it’s way slower and I feel like I’m doing pretty good this year.”

There are two issues with Floyd that won’t go away until he proves they’re not problems in the regular season, though: His weight and his concussions. 

The weight issue is one Floyd has heard for a while, joking with reporters during veteran minicamp that he was surprised it wasn’t the first thing he was asked during his session with the media. He said he “definitely gained some weight” without revealing how much he’s put on, only saying he feels like he’s in much better shape now than he was as a rookie.

“It’s like night and day compared to last year,” Floyd said. 

The concessions are a far more serious — and scary — issue given it took Floyd two months to fully recover from the second concussion he suffered in 2016. 

The Bears believe Floyd’s concussion issues are correctable, though, given they were the product of poor tackling form made worse by collisions with Hicks. The crown of Floyd’s helmet was too low, so he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio worked with tackling dummies and sled machines in an effort to fix that issue. 

The hope is that Floyd can stay healthy and marry his skills with a better knowledge of the game to put together a breakout year in 2017. His teammates sounded confident during the offseason program that everything was falling into place for the former ninth overall pick. 

“He’s a great competitor,” Hicks said. “Great energy, fast, athletic, he’s everything you want in an outside linebacker, right? Nonstop motor — I can give you all the cliche terms, but I just feel like as far as the defensive line or an outside linebacker, another year under his belt is only going to make him better.”

Added linebacker Jerrell Freeman: “That guy is going to be good for a while.”