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Sproles could return to resurgent Saints run game

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Sproles could return to resurgent Saints run game

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Darren Sproles is back at practice and close to rejoining a New Orleans running game that hardly resembles the anemic one he was part of before he went out with a broken left hand.

The Saints were last in the league in rushing, averaging only 72.6 yards, through their first seven games of this season.

During each of their last two games - victories over Philadelphia and previously unbeaten Atlanta - the Saints have gained at least 140 yards on the ground while clawing their way back to the fringes of the NFC wild card playoff race.

``We've been getting a great push up front, creating little seams for us to run through,'' said Mark Ingram, who has looked like a running back transformed the past two weeks. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. ``has been doing a great job of dialing up the right calls at the right moment and we've just been running hard. So we've definitely had some of our best runs this year the past two weeks.''

It is not clear whether Sproles will play at Oakland this Sunday as coaches and trainers monitor how he handles practices with a protective glove on his injured hand. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Wednesday's practice was non-contact and Sproles was officially listed as limited.

``He caught the ball well,'' Vitt said. ``He ran great. I was very encouraged with his work today.''

If Sproles does return, coaches will have to figure out the best way to work him back into the rotation with Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas.

``We're going to activate whoever gives us the best chance to win. That changes week to week on the opponent that we're playing, the fronts that we're seeing, the potential weather we're playing in,'' Vitt said. ``Those things help us make a decision on a week to week basis on who will play in the game.''

The speedy Sproles is often more of a threat in the passing game out of the backfield than on running plays, though he has been productive carrying the ball as well at times. This weekend, rain is expected in the San Francisco Bay area. Meanwhile, Oakland ranks 21st against the run. Those factors could sway the Saints toward a game plan similar to the hard-running approach, featuring Chris Ivory, that they used the past two weeks.

Ivory has burst back onto the scene in New Orleans after sitting out the first seven games with little explanation from coaches as to why. His performances in the past two games make it tough to keep him out of the lineup now.

Ivory has carried the ball 17 times for 120, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. That includes a 22-yard touchdown against the Eagles and a stirring 56-yard scoring run against the Falcons.

Asked whether he thought his last two outings would make coaches think twice before benching him again, Ivory said, ``Yeah, they would. But I think as long as I'm doing the right things and get a plus on the plays that I get, I think that just helps me out and allows them to give that much more trust in me.''

The improvement hasn't been all Ivory, though. Thomas has averaged nearly 5 yards per carry the past two games, though he has also seen regular work in the short passing game, particularly on screens. Ingram, meanwhile, has had two of his best games of the season.

In the first seven games, Ingram rushed 47 times for 134 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per carry. In the past two games, he has rushed 23 times for 111 yards, a 4.8-yard average.

Ingram scoffed at the notion that he was more motivated to produce after witnessing Ivory's emergence, but the former Heisman Trophy winner acknowledged that he naturally does not want to be outperformed by anyone at his position.

``Seeing him run hard is great and he's a great runner, but just because he runs hard doesn't mean he makes me run harder. I mean, I run hard anyway,'' Ingram said. ``You see him go out there and do well, you want to do well. It's not anything crazy, but definitely, as pros we're competitors and you definitely want to do a good job.''

Whatever the case, Oakland defenders have noticed that the Saints' ground game is rolling again, giving them something else to worry about as they also try to figure out how to slow down Drew Brees and New Orleans second-ranked passing game.

``That's been one of the keys to them turning their season around. They've been able to run the ball pretty well the last few games,'' Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell said. ``They've got Pierre Thomas, Ivory and Ingram. Those are pretty physical backs. We're going to have to do a good job on the edges. The corners are going to have to tackle. We have our hands full, but it's a challenge that we're looking forward to.''

NOTES: Three players missed practice: RT Zach Strief (groin), DE Junior Galette (left ankle) and CB Corey White (left knee). Although Vitt did not specify the severity of White's knee injury, he said it did not require surgery. ... WR-KR Courtney Roby returned to practice after missing the past two games with an injured left shoulder.

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AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Alameda, Calif., contributed to this report

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Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.

That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.  

Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.

“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”

Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them. 

Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.  

Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.     

At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map. 

“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."

Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.  

For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014). 

But Russia was 6-0 heading into the matchup with Sweden on Tuesday night and had outscored its opponents 29-3 in Group B despite just a goal and an assist from Ovechkin. 

There can be wild fluctuations in the competition level during the group stage at Worlds. The Russians beat Italy 10-0 last week. And the United States, Canada and Finland are all formidable opponents in Group A. 

Russia will likely play one of those teams in the quarterfinals on Thursday so nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they do win and then the gold-medal game - or the bronze-medal game - would be Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest and get ready for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals. 

“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.” 

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Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly sat down with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis about the head front-office opening on Friday.

On Monday, NBC Sports Washington confirmed that he decided to stick with his role as president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets

A day later, he spoke to the media at a press conference and answered questions about his meeting with Washington.

Clear in Connelly's comments were his respect for Leonsis, but commitment to continuity in Denver. 

"I had a really nice conversation with Mr. Leonsis and his staff. He's a fantastic owner, I think a real visionary. I was really impressed by who he was and his thoughts for the team. That team's going to be special quickly under his leadership. We just had a conversation and not much more than that."

As for the reason for the discussion with Leonsis, Connelly said it came down to his love for the franchise. 

"I spent 14 years there. Certainly it's where I'm from, it's where my wife's from, so I just wanted to have the conversation because I care about the organization," he said.

"I'd never had an audience with [Leonsis], so to have that conversation and exchange of ideas, you know, it's flattering." 

Ultimately, however, the Baltimore native emphasized that Washington couldn't entice him away from the franchise he'd spent the last six years building. 

"Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that's here in spades. Those things matter to me," he said. "I had a hard time envisioning myself elsewhere."

With Connelly out of the picture, the list of candidates for the Wizards front-office opening is narrowing. Currently, Tommy Sheppard, Danny Ferry and Troy Weaver remain in the conversation. 

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