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Patriots hoping for return of two key players

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Patriots hoping for return of two key players

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) With six straight victories and their fourth consecutive AFC East title already wrapped up, the New England Patriots are playing perhaps their best football of the season.

And a large chunk of their recent run has come without two of their top players.

So, imagine the big boost the Patriots will receive from having one of their best players on each side of the ball return for what is being billed as the game of the year.

After practicing in a limited capacity all week, starting left guard Logan Mankins and standout rookie right defensive end Chandler Jones are both listed as questionable for Monday night's much-hyped matchup against the first-place Houston Texans (11-1), a game with major playoff ramifications for both teams.

``Just got out there a little bit this week and tried to move around. We'll see where it goes from today,'' said Mankins, who injured his ankle in the second half of New England's victory over Buffalo on Nov. 11 and has missed the last three games. ``We were just trying to do as much as we can. I can't do everything yet, so I guess we might find out Monday.''

Jones, the 21st overall selection in the draft and considered by many to still be a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with six sacks, skipped the last two games with an ankle injury suffered during the first quarter of the Patriots (9-3) win over Indianapolis on Nov. 18.

His status, he said, rests in the hands of coach Bill Belichick.

``Ready to play against the Texans,'' Jones said. ``We went out there and we won a championship and I wasn't out there. But I'm still thankful to be a part of this team.''

Mankins, a four-time Pro Bowl player, has missed five games this season with various ailments, the second-most of his eight-year career.

``It's been a couple games here and then miss a couple and then a couple here, miss a few. It's just one of those years I can't get on track yet,'' he said. ``Every game you want to be out there, you just got to wait until you're ready to get out there.''

The pair couldn't have picked a more perfect time to return, either.

Despite playing a pivotal part in the Patriots' top-ranked offense and valiantly protecting quarterback Tom Brady amid constant change due to injuries, the Patriots offensive line certainly will be bolstered with Mankins out there as they prepare to face their stiffest test of the season.

Houston defensive end J.J. Watt is wreaking havoc on just about every opposing offense he's faced thus far. The second-year standout ranks second in the league with 16 1/2 sacks and has knocked down 15 passes this year.

Watt's sensational season also has overshadowed the strong play of defensive end Antonio Smith, who has five sacks of his own, along with Watt forming one of the most feared pass rushes in the league.

``He's a guy that's getting overlooked down there,'' Mankins said. ``J.J. Watt's getting a lot of attention deservedly, but Antonio Smith's a very good player. He's a slippery guy inside that has good quickness, good power and he really understands how to work blockers, so he does a good job.

``They get ahead and teams have to start throwing it to catch back up, so that plays right into their strength. They're a great pass-rushing team.''

Houston boasts a strong offense, too. In fact, quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson have combined to lead the league's second-highest scoring attack - behind only New England - making Jones' return all the more important.

``They have a great offensive line, they have great wide receivers and they're quarterback's good,'' Jones said. ``Our job is just to bottle those guys up and eliminate the big play.''

Mankins' extended absence has been somewhat of a surprise, though.

Last season he played through a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, something he admitted during training camp this offseason, moments before acknowledging his extremely high pain threshold. So, playing in just more than half of New England's games this year may point more to the severity of the injury.

``There's some injuries you can play through, some restrict your ability to play,'' Mankins explained. ``When it restricts your ability, you can't play. You're just going to hurt the team if you just get beat all the time.

``It's been tough,'' he added. ``But it is what it is. You learn to deal with it. I've been pretty fortunate most of my career. I guess it happens to everyone sooner or later.''?

Of course, Mankins wants to suit up. However, he won't jeopardize the rest of the season to play in a game on Monday night, against one of the best teams in the league, with possible postseason seeding on the line.

``When I'm healthy, I'll come back,'' he said. ``Whether it's this week, next week, the following week, it's up to my body when I'm going to play again.''

Jones, on the other hand, seems ready to roll for his first career Monday night game, and the Patriots lone one this season.

``It's a primetime game. You know, Monday Night Football, you grew up watching Monday Night Football,'' he said. ``And for the Patriots to have the opportunity to go out there and showcase our talent on a Monday Night Football game, that's a great opportunity.''

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2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs opponent set: How Capitals fared vs. ex-coach Barry Trotz and Islanders

2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs opponent set: How Capitals fared vs. ex-coach Barry Trotz and Islanders

Nearly 10 months after the Washington Capitals began their 2019-20 season, we finally know their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round opponent.

After defeating the Boston Bruins 2-1 on Sunday afternoon, Washington has earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and will face the New York Islanders in the first round.

The Islanders are a familiar foe for the Capitals. New York coach Barry Trotz led Washington to a Stanley Cup title in 2018. The two sides have faced one another seven times in the postseason, with the Islanders emerging victorious in five of those series. They have been chock full of famous moments from the Eastern Epic in 1987 to Dale Hunter's infamous hit on Pierre Turgeon in 1993 to a classic seven-game series in 2015. 

The 2020 matchup will be the first time the two teams have met in the playoffs since that 2015 series, when Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a late goal in Game 7 at Capital One Arena to win it for Washington in Trotz's first year as head coach. The storylines in this one are endless as Trotz's former assistant, Todd Reirden, looks for his first playoff series win behind the bench.  

So, how have the Caps fared against the Islanders this season? Let's take a look...

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Capitals vs. Islanders: Season Series 2-2

Oct. 4, 2019: Capitals defeat Islanders, 2-1

Both T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana excelled for Washington, each notching a goal. Braden Holtby was stellar in net, too, allowing just one goal on the night as the Capitals held on to for a 2-1 road victory in the first matchup between the two sides this season.

Dec. 31, 2019: Islanders defeat Capitals, 4-3

The celebrations came a little early on New Year's Eve, as both the Caps and Isles each scored a pair of goals in the first period. However, New York would follow with another two-goal period, while the Caps would find the back of the net just once more on the day. Holtby struggled in net, allowing four goals and finishing with just 18 saves.

Jan. 18, 2020: Capitals defeat Islanders, 6-4

This game was arguably Washington's best victory of the entire 2020 season. Trailing 4-1 entering the third period, the Capitals answered with five (!!) goals in the final frame to knock off the Islanders, 6-4. Alex Ovechkin continued his incredible hot streak, finishing the game with another hat trick.

Feb. 10, 2020: Islanders defeat Capitals, 5-3

The final contest between these two teams was not a pretty one for netminder Ilya Samsonov. The rookie goaltender allowed five goals within the first two periods and was eventually replaced by Holtby after just a .750 save percentage. Bad news for New York, however, as Samsonov will miss the entire postseason due to injury.

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Caps claim round robin finale over Bruins to secure a first-round matchup with the Islanders

Caps claim round robin finale over Bruins to secure a first-round matchup with the Islanders

The Capitals are winless in the 2020 postseason no more. Washington defeated the Boston Bruins 2-0 on Sunday for their lone win in the round robin off of goals from T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson. The win secures third place for Washington and a first-round matchup with the New York Islanders.

Here is why the Caps won.

The penalty kill

The penalty kill was not tested nearly as much on Sunday as it was in Washington's game on Thursday, but it remained perfect as it killed off both of the Bruins' power plays on the day while allowing only one shot on goal.

In what has been largely a lackluster showing for Washington through the round robin, the penalty kill has been among the few bright spots and was a perfect 8 for 8 through three games.

Braden Holtby

Washington's best player through the round robin has been its netminder and that remained the case on Sunday. Holtby turned aside 30 of the 31 shots he faced for another strong performance in net. He was beaten only by Jake DeBrusk who caught Holtby by surprise by some fancy footwork to adjust to fire a quick shot on net.

Boston had a golden opportunity to tie the game at 1 in the second period as Charlie McAvoy cut through the middle for a 1-on-1 chance, but Holtby calmly stared him down and plucked the wrister out of the air with the glove.

RELATED: T.J. OSHIE'S REBOUND GOAL GETS THE CAPS ON THE BOARD VERSUS THE BRUINS

Team defense

Offensively, this was not a great game for the Caps. The team managed only two shots on goal through the first period. The offense was better as the game went along, finishing with 25 for the game, but there was not much to speak of early on. Still, it wasn't as if the Bruins were skating circles around them either.

Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers was a pretty bad one in terms of team defense. The Flyers scored one goal off a turnover and two more off of defensive breakdowns. Washington's team defense was much improved on Sunday in what was a very conservative game.

Now, obviously the team has to find more of a balance -- you can't fire only two shots on goal in a period and hope to win many of those games -- but with defense being one of the team's major weaknesses heading into the playoffs, Sunday's game was certainly a step in the right direction.

Oshie's redemption

Washington's performance in the first period was not encouraging. The team had only one shot on goal late in the period, but Oshie had a golden opportunity late with a nice steal from McAvoy. Oshie saw McAvoy pinch in the offensive zone so he charged, chipped away the puck and launched a 2-on-1 in the other direction. Oshie carried the puck and called his own number, but missed the shot badly. It looked like he was trying to hit the corner, but missed by a good foot.

Oshie redeemed himself later in the period, however, as he beat Zdeno Chara to the puck on the doorstep and shot it home to give Washington the 1-0 lead. It was the Caps' second shot on goal of the period and it came in the final minute.

Wilson justifies Pastrnak's tweet

On July 28, David Pastrnak sent out a bizarre tweet declaring that Wilson was the best scorer in the league. I don't know about the entire league, but he was the best goal-scorer on Sunday with his insurance tally in the third period.

As Ilya Kovalchuk cleared the puck out of the defensive zone, Wilson sprinted down the ice to beat two Bruins and he claimed the puck behind the defense. He pulled the puck backhand to forehand and fired a quick shot off the post and into the top shelf. Goalie Tuukka Rask probably wishes he came out of the net to collect that puck, but he didn't and Wilson took advantage with a really nice looking goal.

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