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NFC West leading 49ers on a roll as November nears

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NFC West leading 49ers on a roll as November nears

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley claims he caught quarterback and seatmate Alex Smith checking out his trending Twitter self while on the team plane awaiting takeoff Monday night from Arizona.

Ha, says Smith, who insists he has no idea how to tweet.

``I don't even have a Twitter,'' Smith quipped with a grin Tuesday during a quick walk through the empty locker room. ``I don't know what Twitter is.''

They can argue that one all they want, yet nobody will deny that Smith and the 49ers (6-2) have been downright dominant of late, including a 24-3 Monday Night Football rout of the Cardinals in a hostile road stadium. In a near-perfect night, Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating: 157.1.

Smith's stellar outing sparked coach Jim Harbaugh's now heard-everywhere ``gobble gobble'' remarks when asked about the confidence of his quarterback.

``Just gobble, gobble, gobble turkey. That paints a pretty good picture. He's a very confident guy,'' the coach said.

Following that up Tuesday, regarding the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick, Harbaugh said the reference was a quick way to sum up all the skepticism about Smith's abilities under center.

``I think anybody that watched a lot of TV shows in the `70s could relate to it, could understand it,'' he said. ``Sometimes, you get people talking and there's a lot of low content-to-word ratio. Got to call that out, I guess.''

Staley, for one, hadn't heard Harbaugh use the ``gobble gobble'' one before, but Harbaugh is always pulling out new catchphrases. Smith has long been criticized, even booed by fans at Candlestick Park before leading the 49ers back to the postseason last year.

``Just a lot of talk, gobble gobble,'' Staley said. ``I don't think that's ever been an issue in the locker room, just people talking. He's won 19 games in the last two years and there's still questions if he's a leader of this football team. There are no questions in this locker room. He's our quarterback.''

Suddenly, this season is looking an awful lot like that special 2011 run. Harbaugh's team is in command of the NFC West again as November nears, heading into the bye week on a roll.

And not to forget the stingy, top-ranked defense, which hasn't allowed a touchdown in four of the past five games.

``They're accomplishing some great things,'' Harbaugh said. ``That's really impressive, really hard to do in this league.''

And Smith is doing so much right on the other side of the ball.

He went 14 of 15 for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, connecting with Michael Crabtree on both TD tosses as the 49ers built a 17-0 halftime lead. Randy Moss caught a 47-yard TD pass, and Smith hit nine receivers in all.

Not that anybody was tracking Smith's spot-on accuracy as he piled up the completions.

``I was not conscious of what his statistics were,'' Harbaugh said. ``Yeah, that registered, that he was on a hot streak.''

Crabtree wound up with five receptions for 72 yards.

``Guys made terrific plays after the catch, Crabtree especially,'' Staley said.

Now, they all get to rest.

A few weeks back, Harbaugh struck a deal with his players that for each win before the break he would give them an additional day off on top of the NFL's four-day mandate. San Francisco lost to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Oct. 14, then beat the Seahawks and Cardinals in a pair of divisional prime-time performances.

So, they are not due back in the building until next Tuesday - though many planned to stay around and work out at team headquarters.

``That was a deal we made - from the TV show `Let's Make a Deal,' with Monty Hall,'' Harbaugh said. ``Not a lot of them knew who Monty Hall was or what the show was. Just wind back three weeks ago, we said for every win they get before the bye they would get one more day off than the four that you get under rule. They were good for it, we were good for it.''

Next up is a third straight divisional game - and another chance to create space in the West standings - against St. Louis on Nov. 11 at home.

The 49ers are pretty certain Smith will bring his best again to face the Rams.

``I believe it's possible Alex Smith was trending on Twitter, yes,'' joked long snapper Brian Jennings, who will enjoy some time this week with his wife and two sons, saying, ``They're all breaks for me. I'm a long snapper.''

Notes: Staley will stick around this week and continue to work to regain strength - and get back over 300 pounds - after being limited in practice ahead of the Arizona game because of illness. He played against the Cardinals, but got out of breath, used an inhaler for the first time, and had oxygen on the sidelines. ``I was getting pretty tired as far as out of breath. It was harder for me to catch my wind,'' Staley said. ... TE Vernon Davis also plans to stay put in the Bay Area rather than try to get home to Washington, D.C., and deal with the problems from Superstorm Sandy.

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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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