Patriots

Haggerty: Deja vu for Bruins as they head to Washington

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Haggerty: Deja vu for Bruins as they head to Washington

WASHINGTON -- Pardon the Bruins if theyre feeling something akin to dj vu as they travel to the nations capital for a pair of road playoff games.

With their series against the Capitals tied 1-1, and facing two games in Washington D.C., the Bs find themselves in a remarkably similar situation to last years first round against the Montreal Canadiens. Granted, Boston was down 0-2 to the hated Habs a year ago and there will be no two-day retreat to Lake Placid like last spring. But many of the same phrases and ideas are being put forth by the Bruins now as a year ago.

Back then, the Bruins were lamenting the lack of quality scoring chances generated by their top forwards, were showing hints of frustration about their substandard offense, and were grudgingly paying homage to the opposing goaltender in that case it was Carey Price -- while knowing in their hearts they hadnt challenged him enough. Their third line was the heartbeat of the offense last year, and the more heralded front-end players were saying they had to start getting in gear.

Sound familiar?

I think it is similar. We let Carey Price see a lot of pucks last year and maybe thats our focus is to get in front of Caps goalie Braden Holtbys face a little bit more, said Rich Peverley, who has three points in 10 games since coming back from a sprained knee. But last year was last year, and maybe we can take from that experience. But nothing stays the same and we need to find a way this year.

I think we definitely need to create more Grade A scoring opportunities. Holtby's definitely played unbelievably, but I think we can challenge him a little bit more. I think we can hold onto the puck a little more and be a little more creative than weve been. Weve got the skill players.

Exchange Price and the Habs for Holtby and the Capitals, and it could be 2011. The Caps have blocked 42 shots and done a magnificent job of clogging up the slot area, which has helped hold the Bruins to two goals in the first two games.

Hal Gill and P.K. Subban are gone, and in their place have come John Carlson and Karl Azner blocking shots for Washington. (Perhaps its the influence of Roman Hamrlik, who was on both squads, but somehow we think not.)

Milan Lucic remembers struggling mightily during those first two games against the Habs last year, and once again hes scoreless after two playoff games this season.He said the reigning Cup champs need to gear it up and find a way to cut through Washingtons packed-in 1-4 neutral zone trap defense.

It feels a little bit like last season for myself, said Lucic. Looking back at that series, I wasnt really able to get anything going in the first two games and I feel like I havent really gotten anything going here in the first two games. Its not like I'm trying not to do anything, but in saying that youve got to put pressure on yourself to want to be better. I want to be better and Im going to do everything I can to help this team win.

While the Bruins are clearly perplexed by their inability to gain the offensive zone with speed or get bodies to the front of the net, theres one big difference between last year and this year.

The Bruins go to enemy territory with the best-of-seven series even, and only need one win to regain their home -ce advantage. Both games have been gone into overtime, so the Bruins know theyre not that far off the winning offensive formula.

They just need a little spark emotionally and offensively to get some of their big name forwards like Lucic, Peverley, Tyler Seguin and David Krejci back spinning in the right direction.

Take a look at the hate thats flowing in the PenguinsFlyers and SenatorsRangers series thus far, and its bringing the best out of three of those four teams (sorry Pittsburgh!). Its been a veritable game of croquet on grandmas front lawn for the Capitals and Bruins aside from Alex Ovechkin cross-checking Dennis Seidenberg in the face without any repercussions.

The Bruins need to be the aggressors and start making things nasty to loosen everything up, and the sooner they do it the better. Players like Lucic and Brad Marchand know thats when the Bruins are at their best, and they need to start finding the hate in their hearts.

There is no doubt I think our battle can be better," said coach Claude Julien. "When you look at this series, I think both teams are pretty even in determination thats why its tied at 1-1 and thats why both games have gone into overtime. Somewhere along the way youve got to find a way to get a little bit more of that edge than the other team.

Theyre probably hoping to do the same thing. But theres also some tactical things that I think we have to be better at and we can adjust to what were trying to do.

Clearly the Bruins could generate more speed coming into the offensive zone and execute more precise dump-and-chase entries against the Capitals' 1-4 trap defense.

But its about winning the one-on-one battles as much as anything else for the Bruins. Its about finding the air of intimidation that goes along with being the Stanley Cup champs, and finding a pathway through a Washington defense thats more playing-over-its-heads mirage than grinding reality.

As with any playoff series, those are the areas that will separate the winner from the loser no matter how eerily similar this series is to last seasons tilt with the Canadiens. The Bruins have been here before, and they know exactly what must be done if they want to prevail.

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

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After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

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No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

The Raiders gave Stephen Gostkowski plenty of time to think about the 62-yard kick he was about to line up when they called a timeout just before the end of the first half. Didn't matter. Gostkowski returned to his spot, watched a good snap turn into a good hold, which turned into a Patriots record.

It was the longest field goal in Patriots history, making it the longest in Stephen Gostkowski's career as he bested his previous record of 58 yards set earlier this season. It was also the perfect exclamation point to a perfect day for Gostkowski, who went four-for-four on field goals and three-for-three on extra points in his team's 33-8 win over the Raiders in Mexico City. 

When asked about the half-ending kick, Gostkowski credited his teammates for putting him in position to kick it. They got from their own seven-yard line with 33 seconds left to the Raiders 45-yard line with five seconds remaining. A 20-yard run by Dion Lewis and completions to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski did the trick. 

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"I think every time I kick a long kick, it's Gronk who makes the catch right beforehand," Gostkowski told reporters. "It's a nice little polish connection. It was cool. You can wait your whole career and not get a kick like that. It's a very opportunistic job. You're only as good as the opportunities you get. I got a good opportunity, and I'm glad I took advantage of it."

The longest kick Gostkowski tried in warmups was from 60 yards away but he had no concerns about trying to make something longer. Having kicked at altitude all week at the Air Force Academy, he knew his range would be better than it usually is. 

"I don't usually go past 60 in warmups," he said. "I hit one and I made it by a good bit. I knew that coming up short -- if I hit it good -- probably wasn't going to happen. Warm weather, altitude, the ball is going to fly. I just tried to concentrate on getting a good foot on it , making sure it stayed straight enough. Got the opportunity, took advantage of it. It's exciting for the whole team."

Gostkowski also used the extra oomph he had in Mexico City to boot six of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks, keeping the NFL's leading return man Cordarrelle Patterson (30.8 yards per return) from burning the Patriots in that phase.

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