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Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

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Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

FOXBORO -- Ryan Wendell is an offensive lineman straight out of central casting. He's six-foot-two and 300 pounds with a beard like Paul Bunyan's and a voice that stirs in his barrel chest and oozes bass.

He's the Patriots center, the anchor in the middle of the line that has helped produce the NFL's most prolific offense. Despite his prototypical look, it was a long time before he finally won a starting job in New England.

"I'm really happy to have a role," Wendell said, thinking back to earlier in his career, "and to have that role be something that I get to go out there every week and play on the field, and do what I can to help the team."

It was a slow climb for the guy his teammates call "Wendy." The Patriots brought him to New England as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State in 2008. In his first two seasons, he was released and signed back onto New England's practice squad three separate times. In 2010, he played in 15 games, mostly on special teams. Last season, he started three games as a backup to a banged-up offensive line.

For four years, he worked as he waited for his chance to be a regular contributor.

"I don't think you ever have too much time to look back, especially when you're preparing for a team like the Bills," Wendell said. "But every guy on this team has a role. And everybody wants that role to be expanded. Everybody wants to do as much as they can to help this team win. I've been happy about what my role has been here, but I've always wanted it to expand. So the fact that it has, has been great. I've really enjoyed it. I hope that whatever my role is each week, I do my best to help the team win."

After a strong training camp this summer, Wendell was given the difficult task of replacing 10-year veteran Dan Koppen, who was released in August. It was clear that Wendell had the better showing, but he was still a relative unknown outside the walls of Gillette Stadium. Koppen, on the other hand, had started in three Super Bowls.

Given the reins to the position, it didn't get much easier for Wendell. The offensive line was shaky in New England's preseason games, and though he appeared to acquit himself well enough, Wendell was one of a handful under the microscope as the offensive line generated buzz for all the wrong reasons.

Tom Brady was consistently pressured behind a new-look group of lineman. Matt Light had retired. Logan Mankins was hurting, as was Sebastian Vollmer. Questions lingered as to whether or not the new group would be up to snuff.

But the Patriots coaching staff was confident things would change. They knew that they had talent on the line. And they knew that Wendell could handle things in the middle.

Now they're reaping the benefits of keeping him there.

"I think clearly the obvious is that Wendell replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said recently. "Thats as tough a decision as weve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when weve asked him to play. Hes done a very good job through the first eight games of the season. Hes all the things we thought he would be.

"Hes very tough, hes very smart, hes a really competitive guy on every down, through every down. Hes a great finisher. Thats why hes here and thats why we kept him as a rookie and kept him around here and thats why this kid is on our roster and thats why hes starting for us, for all those reasons. Its not a comparison, thats just what he is. So yeah, were pleased with the way things have gone there."

So are his teammates. Wendell has always been intelligent -- a Southern California boy, he earned the California Governor's Scholar Share Award in high school -- and his know-how has brought stability to an offensive line that has continuously dealt with moving parts because of injuries. He is the only interior lineman to start each of New England's first eight games.

"When he stepped in this year, he didn't miss a beat," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "He's able to communicate out there and he knows what he's talking about, and he gets everyone directed. I think that's what a good center can do, and I think that's what he's been doing so far this year."

Thomas knows how hard it can be to try to fill the shoes of a Patriots mainstay. With Mankins nursing injuries throughout the course of this season, Thomas has started four games. Like Wendell, he was also somewhat of an NFL long shot. The Patriots interior line is full of them, in fact.

Starting right guard Dan Connolly, like Wendell, was undrafted. He was released once by the Jaguars and once by the Patriots before becoming a regular starter last season. Thomas was a Dolphins sixth-round pick in 2008 who has been released three times in his career by three different teams.

The three of them have never taken the time to sit together and reflect on their roads to NFL relevance, but they know their experiences have allowed them to prove what kind of players they are. They are the kind that Bill Belichick loves, the kind that love football.

"You know you just never forget where you came from," Thomas said, relating Wendell's journey to his own. "You realize why you're in the situation that you are and you just have to embrace it every single time you get a chance to go out there and play because you weren't just given it right off the bat. You had to work for it."

Wendell's work has turned him into a reliable center for an improving offensive line that has only allowed two sacks in the last three games and helped produce the AFC's third leading rusher in Stevan Ridley.

The positive buzz surrounding the group now probably isn't enough to balance out the negative it heard during the preseason, but for Wendell, that's fine.

Even in his attitude, he is a prototypical trench-dweller, cast perfectly for the role he's loved since he first put on pads as a freshman at Diamond Bar High School 12 years ago.

"I'm an offensive lineman," he said, smiling. "What we like the best is when people aren't talking about us. That's our goal. When we do our job right, people shouldn't be talking about us."

Even in their struggles, Bruins have reason(s) to be thankful

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Even in their struggles, Bruins have reason(s) to be thankful

Thanksgiving in the United States has become an important holiday in NHL circles because it provides a regular-season marker that allows teams to gauge their playoff viability. Roughly 75 percent of teams in a playoff spot at Turkey Day end up qualifying for the postseason, and teams within a handful of points of a playoff spot retain a pretty decent chance of pushing their way in. 

But Thanksgiving is also a great time for teams like the Bruins to also give thanks, just like everybody else, while they’re passing the turkey, the stuffing and the mashed potatoes.

Given that it’s the time of being thankful ahead of the holiday season, here is this humble hockey writer’s annual list of things that each member of the Bruins has to be thankful for as they sit down to enjoy a tryptophan-induced nap:
 
David Pastrnak – The 21-year-old is still thankful for the big bucks he signed for this fall . . . $40 million, to be exact. That should keep him in $8 sushi meals at the mall food court for as long as he wants them.
 
Brad Marchand –Marchand is thankful he finally got bumped up to the top power-play unit over the last couple of seasons, after Claude Julien really dragged his feet putting him there. Eleven power-play goals and 29 power-play points in his last 94 games certainly tell the story.
 
Patrice Bergeron – Bergeron is happy and thankful that he’s regained his health after missing the start this season, and that he’s been able to adequately handle the 21:01 of ice time he’s averaging per game.
 
Torey Krug – Krug is thankful he can again eat a nice steak dinner after being forced to have his food come out of a blender for months after fracturing his jaw during the preseason. Of course, that goes for a nice turkey dinner on Thanksgiving as well.
 
Danton Heinen – The 22-year-old is thankful for second chances after he whiffed during an eight-game audition last season in his first year of pro hockey. He’s making up for it by cementing a role with the Bruins this season now that he’s stronger, faster and a little more confident with the puck.
 
Charlie McAvoy – The 19-year-old defenseman is thankful he decided to leave BU after his sophomore season, making the very correct deduction that he was way more than ready for the NHL. If he plays his cards right, he may be thankful at the end of the season for a Calder Trophy.
 
Anders Bjork – The rookie is thankful that the B’s will be playing the Chicago Blackhawks in the Winter Classic at his alma mater, Notre Dame, next season. He may get to live out a lifelong dream of playing a hockey game on that iconic football field.
 
Jake DeBrusk – The rookie left winger is thankful that he got to score his first NHL goal in front of his family and his teary-eyed dad, Louie, during a pretty cool opening-night win over the Nashville Predators.
 
Tim Schaller – The New Hampshire native is thankful to be playing for his hometown hockey team, of course, but he’s more than just a local boy made good. Tim Schaller has been a positive factor for the bottom-6 with his size, speed and intermittent offense.
 
Zdeno Chara – The captain is thankful that both he and his employer agree that the 40-year-old D-man should continue playing for the Bruins beyond this season. Now it’s just a matter of agreeing on a contract at some point.
 
David Krejci – The playmaking center is thankful his cranky back has loosened up enough for him to get back in the lineup. Now the Bruins and their fans would be thankful if the points would start to follow now that he’s healthy enough to play.
 
Riley Nash – The forward is thankful that the B's thought enough of him to protect him in the expansion draft last summer, a show of commitment to a versatile, smart player who does a lot of little things well.
 
Sean Kuraly – The young center is thankful that he hasn’t yet hurt himself taking the jumping, flying and leaping goal celebrations that he’s quickly becoming known for.
 
Kevan Miller – The defenseman is thankful he’s back playing his natural right side for the most part after being pushed into left-side duty for much of the first couple of months this season.
 
Brandon Carlo – The second-year defenseman is thankful to still be on the Bruins, and not used as possible trade collateral in a possible Matt Duchene deal that was discussed quite a bit last year and through the summer.
 
Jordan Szwarz – The 26-year-old forward is thankful for another NHL opportunity in Boston after he’d gone a couple of years without a sniff during his time in the Arizona Coyotes organization after some early games with them.
 
Frank Vatrano – The Bruins forward and East Longmeadow native should frankly be happy that he’s still in the NHL given the training camp and early season he had with the Bruins. He’s scored a couple of goals and played well lately, so he has to hope that he’s pushed through the bad times.
 
Noel Acciari – The Providence College alum is happy to be healthy again after missing a month with a broken finger, and he’s proven that by going right back to the heavy hitting, shot-blocking tough kid that he’s always been.
 
Ryan Spooner – The speedy playmaker is thankful to be over his torn groin. He needs a strong season in order to once, and for all, show exactly what he could be to the Bruins, or some other team, at the NHL level.
 
Adam McQuaid – The veteran defenseman is thankful that he wasn’t selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft last summer, and instead continues to be a strong, robust presence in the D-zone when healthy.
 
David Backes – The 33-year-old forward is thankful to be back skating again after a couple of painful  bouts with diverticulitis that left him in surgery with 10 inches of his colon being removed. I'm still amazed that he returned to practice as quickly as he did, but he is a hockey player after all.
 
Paul Postma – The  D-man is thankful to be getting a second chance with another organization after spending his entire career with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.
 
Matt Beleskey – The winger is thankful that he’s getting a chance to bounce back from last year’s down season, but so far the zero points and minus-7 rating in 13 games leave lots of room for improvement.
 
Tuukka Rask – The No. 1 goaltender is thankful for all the rest he’s getting in the first half of the season, which should presumably make him healthy, fresh and strong down the stretch this season. That is, if he can actually get back in touch with a game that sees him with a turkey-like .897 save percentage right now.  
 
Anton Khudobin – The backup netminder is thankful he’s been given a chance to run with things this season as he’s already twice had a chance to start three games in a row after struggling to gain regular playing time last season.
 
Bruce Cassidy – The coach is thankful for another shot behind an NHL bench 13 years after the first one, and he’s making the most of it with a rag-tag group beset by injuries and youth right now.
 
Don Sweeney – The general manager is thankful the team is still within a handful of points of a playoff spot after everything that went wrong in the first couple of months.
 
Cam Neely – The tean president is thankful for the overwhelming talent within their youth movement and the strong, loyal fan base that backs this team no matter what. But it could be a bit of a rough ride ahead, as the B's rank fourth among the big four Boston sports teams, given how good, deep and close to championship-caliber the others are right now. 

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Celtics' cup has runneth over so far this season

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Celtics' cup has runneth over so far this season

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics are no different than the rest of us. They have a lot to be thankful for.
 
There’s the usual good health, family and friends. But they have a few more things to be thankful for, as well.
 
So as you take a brief time-out today from the turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, here’s a look at five things the Celtics are thankful for this season.


 
KYRIE IRVING
 
The Celtics have had some solid players in recent years, but the addition of Kyrie Irving was a game-changer. He provides Boston with an unmistakable superstar who has a proven track record of success on all levels -- he's won an NBA championship and an Olympic Gold medal, and is also a four-time All-Star. Did I mention he’s just 25 years old?


 
AL HORFORD
 
His numbers will never adequately measure the impact Horford has had on the Celtics. The big plus with Horford was him simply agreeing to be a Celtic. For years this franchise has been built on the success of developing draft picks or trading for talented players. But rarely have they had the financial flexibility or, to be frank, the kind of appeal to free agents to go out and acquire a proven All-Star like Al Horford. His arrival has enhanced an already-established winning culture, one that has become a player on the free agency market ever since.


 
DANNY AINGE
 
Other than Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, it’s hard to imagine another front office executive having as good an offseason as Ainge. He rolled the dice to go down two spots in last June’s NBA draft, and wound up with arguably the most NBA-ready player (Jayson Tatum) among those selected in last June’s NBA draft. (Remember, the likely rookie-of-the-year Ben Simmons did not play last year after Philadelphia drafted him with the top overall pick in 2016.) The free-agent pickups of Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin have all had moments where they carried the team to victory. Even second-round picks like Semi Ojeleye and two-way players like Jabari Bird have contributed to wins this season. Fans may not like some of Ainge’s decisions in the moment but he deserves a lot of credit for the team we see today, one that has played at a level few envisioned they'd reach this quickly.


 
BRAD STEVENS
 
And to think, the Big Three (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford) Boston was planning to build around this season has played less than five minutes together. Stevens has been pushing all the right buttons, putting guys in unexpected positions to succeed with a cast that’s long on talent and well, well short on experience. Boston’s first win of the season came at Philadelphia, a game in which the Celtics played six different rookies. It’s not unusual for teams to use first-year players frequently, but for a team that was built to contend for a championship? That’s highly unusual. The biggest thing is despite the lack of experience on the floor, Stevens hasn’t allowed them to use that as a reason to fail. Instead, Stevens has had them lean heavily on film study and the wisdom of veterans, as well as empowered them to have a “next-man-up” mindset with one goal regardless of what they are tasked with doing: Get it done. No excuses.


 
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
 
Boston has spent most of this season atop the NBA standings, fueled in large part by a 15-game winning streak -- the longest of the Brad Stevens era and the fifth-longest ever by a Celtics team. But within that winning streak, there have been some noticeable areas of concern (i.e., bench scoring) that have made games more challenging. And that's what makes these Celtics so scary to the rest of the league. If they’re beating teams consistently now, how much better will they be when the offense catches up or, at a minimum, gains some ground on what has been an impressive stretch of play defensively? That’s why as good as this first full month of the season has been, there's reason to believe they’ll only get better. The Celtiheircs have seen  share of adversity. They've played without their All-Stars. They have fought back from double-digit deficits to emerge victorious. This is a young squad, but battle-tested already. Because of all that, they have a certain level of confidence that regardless of the situation, regardless of the score, they feel they will find a pathway to success. And that, Celtics Nation, is something to be thankful for.

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