Capitals

Patriots offensive line finds success amid change

Patriots offensive line finds success amid change

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) From the onset of training camp, the New England Patriots offensive line has been a work in progress, a mix of experience and youth that led to a handful of questions.

There's still uncertainty surrounding who's playing which position each week, of course, but there's little doubt remaining about the level of protection provided to the quarterback.

After surrendering 12 sacks through the first five games, the Patriots' patchwork front five has allowed opposing defenses to sack Tom Brady just three times in the last six games, and only once in the past three.

``You try and do that as best as you can,'' guard Donald Thomas said. ``So, it's always a bonus when you can try to keep him as clean as possible. Nothing's ever going to be perfect. You try to do your job and that's what our job is.''

They've done it well. The Patriots (8-3), after all, are in first place in the AFC East and have won five in a row heading into their meeting with Dolphins (5-6) in Miami on Sunday.

But it wasn't always easy for this line, especially when you look back at the summer.

The first blow came when Brady's decade-long security blanket - three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light - retired. The second arrived in the form of six-time Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters failing to show up for training camp. Left guard Logan Mankins was coming off surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Longtime center Dan Koppen was released. Nothing was secure.

``Training camp was a little mixture of guys,'' Thomas said.

Then the season started.

Right guard Dan Connolly missed the game against Indianapolis two weeks ago. Mankins has been sidelined for four games so far, including the last three with hip and calf ailments. And guard Sebastian Vollmer also was inactive against the New York Jets last Thursday.

But the New England way is to make it work ... somehow. Move people around. Change things up. Do whatever's needed.

So, the Patriots did.

Thomas, in his fifth season, and second-year linemen Nick McDonald and Marcus Cannon all have stepped in at various times - and various places - to valiantly plug the voids. And so far, so good.

``You never know what's gonna happen during the course of a season,'' Thomas said. ``Fortunately, guys that were asked to step up were guys that were playing a lot during preseason and able to play with all the guys and we were all comfortable with each other.''

And of course, no one wants to let anyone else down.

``I think we take pride in it. I also think it's something that's necessary,'' said center Ryan Wendell, who has started every game this season. ``There's only so many guys that can dress for every game and be out there. So, guys have to be able to play more than one position and also guys have to be ready to fill in there because it's football and guys are going to be hurt.''

The line has a tough test Sunday. The Dolphins are tied for ninth in the league with 29 sacks, 9 1/2 recorded by linebacker Cameron Wake.

``Regardless of anything else that people say, I think they're pretty good,'' Thomas said. ``Probably one of the best fronts we'll face this year.''

Vollmer and Connolly returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's session, but Mankins sat out practice all week and was ruled out Friday for the game.

``It's what we prepare for,'' McDonald said. ``Everybody counts on each other and we're all pretty comfortable with each other.''

So, it should come as no surprise that the offense hasn't skipped a beat.

Leading the highest scoring attack in the league, Brady is enjoying one of his most explosive seasons since 2007 and has been sacked just 15 times, tied for the second-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts.

The running game has surprisingly flourished, too. Second-year back Stevan Ridley is seventh in the league in rushing, on pace for the most yards for a New England back since 2004.

``They've all done well. They're all young guys in the relatively early part of their careers that have come in here in a variety of circumstances,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Thomas, McDonald and Cannon. ``I think that the offseason program and their ability to go from last year to the offseason program to OTAs to training camp, that those players, all three of them, have improved significantly from where they were this time or even going back to September of 2011.''

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels credited longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for once again placing a formidable product on the field.

``I think when you talk about those players and the roles that they play on our team and the contributions that they've made, I don't think you can talk about them without mentioning Dante because he does an incredible job of preparing all of them as if they're all going to start and play for four quarters,'' McDaniels said. ``He makes sure that they have reps. He makes sure that they understand all the communication and I have an incredible appreciation and respect for him as their coach.''

The work ethic of the offensive line apparently mimics that of the coach.

``He's usually the first guy in the building,'' McDaniels said of Scarnecchia. ``I think the way he works, the way he approaches his job, it kind of demands respect because all he does and all he cares about - when he's here - is making sure his guys are prepared to do what we're asking them to do in the game plan, and he really goes to every length to make sure that happens.

``I think the way they see him work, they immediately appreciate what they have in him as a teacher.''

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)

WHEN IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES?

Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.

WHAT TV CHANNEL IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES ON?

The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime

WHERE CAN I STREAM CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1?

Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.

CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1 OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.