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49ers have late momentum after win at New England

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49ers have late momentum after win at New England

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers hung tough late in the game to stun Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the road and in the rain to clinch a playoff berth when few expected them to win at Foxborough.

Now, after a long trip home following their 41-34 victory, the Niners (10-3-1) must play a second straight game on the Sunday night prime-time stage when they visit Seattle trying to wrap up a second consecutive NFC West crown.

``This is a huge win for us,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ``With Seattle winning, we had to win this game. It felt like a playoff game.''

The Seahawks (9-5) have scored 108 points in their last two games - a 50-17 win at Buffalo on Sunday after a 58-0 rout of Arizona a week earlier - so everybody knows it will be another important test for San Francisco's stingy defense.

The 49ers certainly have some momentum coming down the stretch in late December as they gear up for another postseason run, one they hope goes one step further than their overtime loss to the eventual champion Giants in last January's NFC title game.

Beating Brady and Co. didn't hurt as San Francisco prepares for the games that matter most.

``It is real big and it says a lot about this team to travel across the country and play a late game, and in their environment with cold and rain,'' said cornerback Carlos Rogers, who intercepted a pass by Brady midway through the first quarter and ran it back 53 yards to the Patriots 5. ``I am pretty sure everybody picked us to lose. It just seems every time we get on Thursday night, Sunday night, or Monday night, we show up and that is what we did. We stuck with our plan and we knew it was going to be tough coming in. We just had to stay poised, stay fighting and play physical. ... Offense put up the points and we got the win.''

Several of the 49ers said Sunday's game felt like a preview of the playoffs - with Brady and the high-flying Patriots' offense against San Francisco's opportunistic defense.

And this week should be no different when the Niners play in what is largely considered the loudest road venue in the NFL - against a team fighting to secure a playoff spot. Harbaugh is all for his team being tested late in the season.

``I think that could be a positive,'' the coach said Monday. ``I think the thing that the players were feeling and probably anybody that was watching it was feeling was that they're two teams that - two very good teams, two hard-hitting teams - have a lot of pride in how they play, really came out to see who's better, and wanted to be better and wanted to win that game. And it showed. This game will be the same, I really believe that. We need to prepare.''

San Francisco turns its focus to slowing down a surging Seattle team led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson while also keeping hold of the NFC's No. 2 seed in an effort to secure a first-round playoff bye. Atlanta holds the top spot at 12-2, while Green Bay is right behind the Niners at 10-4.

Running back Frank Gore considered the game at New England a must-win, and will treat this week the same way.

``Yeah, we had to, we had to,'' Gore said. ``We put ourselves in a situation where we had to win out and we knew that it was going to be tough coming down here and getting a win against a great team, especially a team that had a great game last week.''

Harbaugh was quick to credit his coaching staff Monday for using the cross-country flight home not to sleep or watch a movie but rather study game film, from Sunday night and also some preliminary work on the Seahawks. San Francisco beat Seattle 13-6 in the 49ers' division opener on Oct. 18.

Harbaugh watched Sunday's game again, noting that the Niners had chances to get off the field during the Patriots' stretch scoring 28 unanswered points.

``Watched the entire game, offense, defense and special teams and work on Seattle,'' Harbaugh said. ``It's a pretty impressive thing. I've never been associated with a team like this, where the coaching staff is - it's like a work station in the back part of the plane. The computers are on, nobody is watching movies and not a lot of sleeping going on. Really impressed with our guys the way they do that. And the players too, they had laptops and were watching the game in groups and then eventually fell off to sleep.''

Defensive tackle Justin Smith underwent an MRI exam on his injured arm, which forced him to miss the fourth quarter Sunday night.

``It's really going to be how he is today, tomorrow, Wednesday, before we know anything,'' Harbaugh said.

Smith has started 185 straight games dating to his rookie season in 2001. The streak ranks third among NFL players, behind Ronde Barber (213) and London Fletcher (197).

``I'm going to do everything I can to play,'' Smith said after the game.

Notes: The 49ers re-signed WR Chad Hall to the practice squad. ... Harbaugh said San Francisco would fill the final spot on the 53-man roster this week. When asked about struggling kicker David Akers, Harbaugh insisted he will remain the guy - for now, at least. Any possible changes ahead? ``No, not at this time,'' he said. Akers missed wide left on a 39-yard attempt Sunday.

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Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Tom Wilson stayed on brand in his return from a long suspension.

The Capitals’ big man scored a goal and took a penalty on the same play in his first game of the season, a 5-2 win against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday night. 

Wilson won’t get the 16 games back he missed for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. But he tried to make up for it in his debut. 

Wilson scored Washington’s second goal at 19:32 of the first period when he drove the net hard and deflected a pass from teammate Dmitry Orlov past Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk. But this being Wilson, nothing is totally uncontroversial.  

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was moving fast. There was no stopping him. Wilson, with some help from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, collided with Dubnyk. The puck was already in the net, but the referee decided Wilson needed to go think about what he’d done after Dubnyk got clocked in the head. It was a two-minute goalie interference call. 

That’s an odd play rarely called. Either the goal counts or it doesn’t, but maybe because Wilson had already scored before running into Dubnyk both calls could stand. 

“It was a first for me to score and get a penalty on the same play,” Wilson told reporters in St. Paul. “I was just going hard to the net and Snarls [Orlov] put it right on my tape. It was a great pass at full speed. I was trying to do everything I could to get out of the way. I’ll take the goal and the kill went out there and got it done. It was good to see.”

It was far from Wilson’s only contribution in his first game back. He also fought Marcus Foligno at 11:58 of the second period on the faceoff after Minnesota cut a Washington lead to 3-1. He didn’t back down when asked to go by Foligno. 

“He’s a key player for our team, brings so much energy both on the ice and off the ice,” forward Andre Burakovsky said. “Huge lift for the team to get him back earlier. Didn’t expect that and I think he had a really strong game today. Obviously, he got the goal in his first game back and then some dirty works. Obviously, I think he’s a huge guy for us in PK and it showed today.”

Wilson didn’t get the assist on the goal that put the game away. Alex Ovechkin found Orlov for a one-timer on a pass from the left faceoff circle to the right. But it was Wilson driving hard toward the goal that kept a Wild defenseman with him and allowed Orlov the space to finish Ovechkin’s pass. Those little things have been missed in the 16 games Wilson was suspended. He was relentless. 

One big issue for the Capitals: The penalty kill. Wilson has been a big part of that group in recent years and without him – and, to be fair the departed Jay Beagle and the injured Brooks Orpik – Washington entered the game 29thin the NHL in penalty kill percentage (71.7 percent). Wilson wasn’t eased into anything. He played 5:23 on the penalty kill and the Capitals killed five of six Wild power plays. 

[Wilson] does a lot not just on the ice, but in our room. Adds a ton of energy. Well respected player for how he trains,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden. “Going through a tough time and obviously kind of a surprise for us to get him back today. We were hoping to at any point here and we were able to take advantage of a fortunate bounce for our team before even the game started. But I didn’t expect him to have as strong a game as he did." 

"Obviously able to convert on a great play on a line rush, but just the other things he did. Our penalty kill, the opposition scores a goal and, you talk about shifts after goals, not giving the team any more momentum than they’ve already gotten and he gets in a fight there. There’s a lot to like about Tom Wilson and I thought he had a strong game. It was great to have him back.”

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Wild

4 reasons the Caps beat the Wild

Think the Caps missed Tom Wilson? It sure looked like it.

Washington looked like a completely different team with Wilson back in the lineup Tuesday in a dominant 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Here are four reasons the Caps won:

Tom Wilson

Wilson made his season debut Tuesday after his suspension was reduced by a neutral arbitrator earlier in the day. Wilson’s addition to the lineup had two effects. One, it made the lineup a lot deeper. Without Wilson, Todd Reirden was having trouble putting together the right lineup. Several players cycled on the top line and every line behind the top had to shuffle. Wilson came back onto the top line and immediately the rest of the lineup fell into place.

The top line looked better, the second line looked better and the third line looked better with their regular lineups back intact.

Wilson’s return also brought a lot of energy to the team and that was evident from the very start of the game. The Caps outshot Minnesota 12-6 and took the 2-0 lead in the first period of the game. Compare that to the rather lethargic game we saw on Sunday, clearly, Wilson brought a spark.

Oh, yeah, Wilson has also had a pretty darn good game too. He scored in the first period of the game in a typical Wilson play. He completely blew past Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter and tipped in a pass from Dmitry Orlov as he crashed the net on goalie Devan Dubnyk.

Somehow Wilson was also given a goalie interference penalty… but the goal still counted? Regardless of what was an obvious reputation penalty, it was a good return for Wilson, who also had a fight with Marcus Foligno and helped set up Orlov’s second goal by crashing again and drawing the defense over to him.

Dmitry Orlov

Orlov broke a 19-game goal drought with a goal just 7:23 into the game.

Lars Eller had the puck and cut to the blue line in the offensive zone turning to the middle. Minnesota got caught puck watching as the defense shifted with Eller, leaving Orlov open on the left. Eller found him and Orlov took advantage of the extra space to score his first goal of the season.

Orlov would add an assist on Wilson’s goal and a second goal in the third period off a beautiful pass from Alex Ovechkin.

The typically reliable defensive pairing of Orlov and Matt Niskanen struggled at the start of the season prompting Todd Reirden to switch up the pairs and place Orlov with John Carlson. Clearly, the move had the desired effect in Tuesday’s game.

The schedule

Tuesday’s game was the Wild’s first at home since Oct. 27. Minnesota was coming off a seven-game road swing and they looked a bit weary at the start of the game. As mentioned above, the Wild were outshot 12-6 in the first period and then 15-8 in the second.

Really, this game was a perfect storm. Not only were the Wild tired from a lengthy road trip, but they also were dealing with a Caps team that was pumped up by the return of Wilson.

Part of what made Sunday’s loss to Arizona so disappointing was the fact that the Coyotes were on the second leg of a back-to-back with their starting goalie on IR. The Caps were not able to take advantage, but they certainly took it to a vulnerable, road-weary team on Tuesday.

The penalty kill

Washington’s porous penalty kill was the reason the Caps lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday and a major reason they fell to Arizona. The PK finally stood tall on Tuesday as the Caps were able to kill off four out of five penalties on the night. The lone power play goal the team gave up came in the third period when the Caps were already up 5-1 and the game was no longer in doubt.

You can add the penalty kill to the long list of things that Wilson instantly improved in his return. Wilson logged 16:47 of total ice time on Tuesday and 5:23 of that came on the penalty kill.

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