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Blake Wheeler knows Jets must ‘lean on’ each other through playoff grind – Sportsnet.ca

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The emotional farewell is still a couple weeks away, but Sam Wheeler has already shared a heartfelt suggestion with her hockey-playing husband.

“When we’ve talked about it, basically what we came down to is she says, ‘Don’t just leave and play just three games. That would be a waste of time,’” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said during a video conference with reporters after completing Day 1 of training camp on Monday. “At least give me something to entertain me.’ So, that’s kind of where we’ve left it for now and hopefully we can go on a little bit of a run and give everyone back home something to cheer about.”

Wheeler is the father of three young children and the prospect of being away from his family for an extended period of time in the middle of what would otherwise be the offseason isn’t considered to be an optimal circumstance.

But in the midst of a pandemic, sacrifices are being made by every player in the NHL that is about to participate in the 24-team tournament in the chase for the Stanley Cup.

So as the Jets returned to the ice on Monday, there was Wheeler holding court on a zoom call, discussing what it was like to be back on the ice with his teammates for the first time as the real preparations for a best-of-five series with the Calgary Flames began in earnest.

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Wheeler is a devoted family man, but he’s also passionate about the pursuit of the Stanley Cup — and that’s why he’s done everything in his power to stay ready for what could be one of the wildest rides of his 12-year NHL career.

Prior to the pause in March, this season had already been a roller-coaster of emotions for Wheeler and company.

Never mind the bitter taste of being bounced in the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, when the Jets entered the post-season with high expectations after reaching the Western Conference final the previous spring.

On the eve of training camp, Dustin Byfuglien asked for and received a personal leave of absence from Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, citing a lack of desire to play hockey.

Byfuglien never returned and his contract was mutually terminated in April, meaning the Jets had to replace their entire right side of the blue line and five regulars total on the back end.

Injuries are a fact of life for all teams, but the Jets lost 324 man games this season.

Veteran centre Bryan Little suffered a concussion in the final exhibition game, then suffered a perforated ear drum (and another suspected concussion) when he was hit by a slapshot in a game against the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 5.

Little didn’t come back to play either, and while there was some thought he might be healthy enough to return in July, he’s not part of the Jets return-to-play roster — and can’t be added.

“We’ve been through a lot this year already, (with) the amount of injuries we had, the amount of adversity we’ve gone through,” Wheeler said. “Buff retiring. Losing Bryan Little to a serious injury earlier this season. These are all things you can’t account for before a season.

“Our group has been really tight-knit through all that all year. We’ve had to kind of fight as a team to make it to this point, to even be playing in a playoff position. But I think we’re going to have to lean on each other, certainly. Everyone’s going to be homesick, everyone’s going to miss their families. We’re really only going to have each other to have that face-to-face and quality time.”

Wheeler has been a teammate of Little’s since he was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers by the Boston Bruins in February 2011 and tried to put Little’s absence into words.

“Of course it’s hard not to have Bryan around. He’s been here from Day 1 and one of our best players and the guy everyone looks forward to seeing every day, and one of our hardest workers,” Wheeler said. “Everything you’d want in a pro hockey player, that’s what Bryan Little’s been here for nine years. We’ve missed him all year, we miss him now. More importantly we’re just hoping for the best for him. That’s really all that matters, that he’s taking care of himself and his health first.”

The long-term health of Little remains the priority and the questions surrounding his future will linger until next season’s training camp — and possibly beyond, though optimism remains the additional time off will allow him to resume his career eventually.

Like all of the 24 teams participating in the tournament, the ultimate goal for the Jets is easy to identify, even if sizing up the competition after a four-month break makes things a bit more difficult to predict.

“Every team has a chance,” Jets left winger Mathieu Perreault said. “And we’re healthy right now, so we like our chances. We’re strong in every aspect of the game, so we see this challenge as a good chance for us to win a Stanley Cup. This is how I see it.”

It will take 19 wins for that dream to become a reality for the Jets.

Despite all the challenges the Jets have endured this season, for them to reach the pinnacle, they’ll surely have to overcome a number of additional obstacles.

“It’s a good idea because I’m a hockey fan and I’m going nuts,” said Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, when asked why it’s a good idea for hockey to return in the middle of a pandemic. “It’s in the middle of July and we get to see the playoffs. I want to see it. I think it’s a good idea because we have a responsibility also first to our health, I get that, but also we’re entertainers, right? So this is prime time. People want to watch hockey. They want to see it. That’s our job and we have a responsibility to do our job.

“There’s so many things you don’t know. If you can go in with a positive frame of mind, if you can go in and look at this as a challenge that’s exciting, have a little fun with this, get a little wired up for it, it could be a great thing. I don’t even know what those hardships are yet, to be honest with you. I know they’re coming, but I haven’t seen it yet. All of the difficulties that you’re going to have to win the Stanley Cup this year will be the best part of the memories.”

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NFL Week 11 Takeaways: Canada’s Claypool joins elite company with 10th TD – Sportsnet.ca

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are perfect, and Chase Claypool is, too.

Pittsburgh walloped the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars, 27-3, on Sunday to move to 10-0 on the year. The Steelers are just the eighth team in the past 25 years to start with 10-straight wins — and it’s the first time they’ve done it in their 88-season history.

Claypool, meanwhile, snagged the 10th touchdown reception of his stellar rookie season, streaking past single coverage for a 31-yard score.

That put Canada’s favourite receiver in a very select group: he’s one of just four players in NFL history to have 10-plus touchdowns in his first 10 career games. The others, all from the pre-Super Bowl era, are Houston’s Bill Groman (1960), Chicago’s Harlon Hill (1954) and Green Bay’s Billy Howton (1952).

In the past 10 years, only one wide receiver has won the Rookie of the Year award (Odell Beckham Jr., 2014). Claypool is doing all he can to change that narrative.

After Burrow injury, Bengals brace for the worst

It is not hyperbolic to say that Joe Burrow is the Cincinnati Bengals’ offence. Or at least that he was.

Burrow entered the week averaging 41 pass attempts per game, the most in the NFL, with five games of 300-plus passing yards (one shy of the rookie record). But now 2020’s top pick will miss the rest of the season, following an awkward injury to his left knee.

During Sunday’s game against Washington, a pair of linemen fell on Burrow’s left leg — his plant leg — as he heaved a pass downfield. Burrow appeared to be in considerable pain and required a cart to leave the field.

Several NFLers, including Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Burrow’s college teammate at LSU), quickly showed their support on Twitter. That was an immediate indicator for how severe the injury was.

The Bengals were already far from a complete team. But without Burrow for the rest of the year — and with starting running back Joe Mixon on injured reserve — we’re about to see how ugly things can get.

Herbert continues playing beyond his years

As one rookie quarterback falls, another one continues to rise.

For the seventh consecutive game, Justin Herbert threw multiple touchdown passes for the Los Angeles Chargers, en route to a 34-28 win over the New York Jets. Oh, and he torched the Jets for 366 passing yards, too.

That sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen for someone who was playing against amateurs and attending general science lectures this time last year. And yet here we are.

It’s strange to think that the Herbert Era in Hollywood only began because a Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung back in September, forcing L.A. to go to its rookie sooner than intended.

Taylor’s injury might have been a fluke, but Herbert’s ascendance hasn’t been. And it’s encouraging to know that his powers aren’t Samson-like, because he still balled out this week despite getting a pretty brutal haircut.

Valdes-Scantling fumbles game away for Packers

Ah, the highs and lows of professional sports.

After blowing a 14-point lead against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half, the Green Bay Packers needed someone to make a big play in their final drive of regulation — and receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling did just that.

Valdes-Scantling, Green Bay’s speediest offensive weapon, hauled in a 47-yard bomb in triple coverage to help set up Mason Crosby’s game-tying field goal with three seconds left. After catching just one ball all day prior to that moment, it looked like Valdes-Scantling might have put Green Bay in position to win.

And then overtime started. On the second play, Valdes-Scantling caught a screen pass, planted his foot to make a cut, and had the ball punched loose. Fumble, recovered by the Colts.

Indianapolis connected on a field goal in its ensuing possession to win the game, a game in which the Packers had a 90.6 per cent win probability at halftime, according to ESPN.

The Colts’ victory allows them to keep pace with the Tennessee Titans atop the AFC South, at 7-3. The Packers dropped to 7-3, but they still hold a two-game cushion on the laggards of the NFC North.

Hill, Saints keep marching

If you’re being honest with yourself, you didn’t expect Taysom Hill to start at quarterback in place of the injured Drew Brees this week.

If you’re being really honest with yourself, you didn’t expect it to go nearly as well as it did.

Hill (41 career pass attempts) got the nod over Jameis Winston (2,559 career pass attempts) and helped the New Orleans Saints to a seventh-straight victory, which propels them to the top of the NFC South standings.

When Brees is healthy, Hill is largely a gadget player — taking design runs and read options from shotgun, running routes from the slot, etc. So it’s no surprise that Hill did most of his damage with the ball in his hands on Sunday, rushing for 51 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries (while also completing 18-of-23 passes for 233 yards).

In the fantasy football realm, Hill was available as a tight end and/or wide receiver in some formats. For those of you who took advantage, bravo.

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Don’t assume Raptors have taken step back despite disappointing free agency – Sportsnet.ca

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The Toronto Raptors have traditionally weathered the absence of elite talent quite well.

For example: During the season of Kawhi, those paying attention might have been tweaked to exactly how serious a championship threat the Raptors were by how well they did when Leonard wasn’t playing.

With Leonard nicked up or simply being load-managed for more than a quarter of the season, the rest of the Raptors simply kept rolling, putting up a 17-5 mark — a better winning percentage than they had with Leonard in the lineup — and provided a preview of how good a team that relied on the likes of Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet or Norm Powell might be.

Last season, with Leonard gone to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors got better. Even in a year when Marc Gasol missed 28 of 72 games, Serge Ibaka 17 and six of the top seven players in the Raptors’ rotation — excluding OG Anunoby — missed 18 games on average.

It didn’t seem to matter who dressed at times as the Raptors ended up playing at what would have been a 60-win pace in a regular year and finished with the second-best record in the NBA, sans Kawhi and while lurching from game to game with a different lineup due to injury.

Having bought into a ball-sharing, ball-hounding philosophy espoused by head coach Nick Nurse, the plug-n-play Raptors kept chugging along, picking up Ws and belatedly getting credit for it.

That characteristic — the ability to adapt and compete with a revolving door of sometimes unlikely personnel — is best to be kept in mind as the dust settles on what seems like a disappointing weekend of free agency.

The high point — clearly — was retaining VanVleet, the homegrown point guard who proved he was ready for primetime in his first year as a starter a season ago. Inking VanVleet was the Raptors’ stated first priority and they got it done quickly and efficiently and at a number — $85 million for four years — that works for both sides.

But losing the centre tandem of Ibaka — who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on late Saturday night — and Gasol — who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday — in a matter of 18 hours was a blow.

It’s hard to spin it any other way. It’s not necessarily a fatal blow to the Raptors’ chances of being a competitive factor in the East, but are they still realistic contenders?

The Raptors may adapt and adjust and find a way to compete and surprise the NBA again, but it seems like a less-than-ideal approach to getting the most out of Kyle Lowry’s final year under contract.

They have now lost four of their top six rotation pieces from their championship team in 18 months.

Eventually, it would seem, something has to give.

Ibaka was a positive locker room presence who put up 20 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 39 per cent from three on a high volume and contributing meaningfully on defence as well.

Gasol’s boxscore line wasn’t impressive — 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds to go along with 3.3 assists — and his offence slid further down the cliff after the hiatus. But his positional defence and rapid-fire ball movement meant the Raptors starters were plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, even when he considered his own scoring an afterthought.

Replacing 23 years of combined experience and a combined 338 playoff games doesn’t happen with a finger snap.

Still, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is the last person to show his cards at moments like this. He’s not prone to puddling when things get difficult.

“We’ll be OK,” he said via text message after Ibaka signed for two years and $19 million, trumping the Raptors’ reported offer of one year for $12 million.

“It’s how these things work,” was his message after Gasol signed a two-year deal for the veteran’s minimum — the Raptors wouldn’t offer a second year — to chase a ring with the defending champion Lakers just after dinner hour Sunday.

By then the market for free-agent centres had dried up considerably.

Still, the Raptors recovered nicely by signing Phoenix Suns centre Aron Baynes to a two-year deal (the second year a team option) for a reported $14.7 million and then giving Chris Boucher a two-year deal (again, with a team option for 2021-22) for $13.5 million, a nice payday for the rail-thin Montrealer whose slog to NBA security has been long and uphill.

So, the Raptors have a centre tandem, but the question is if they’re any better than they were on Friday?

The only proper answer is “we’ll see,” but at the very least that’s a lot of name recognition to replace.

Baynes is a nice pick-up. He’s a bruising but surprisingly quick-footed New Zealander who looks like he’s played his share of rugby in his time. The six-foot-10, 260-pounder will be 34 when the season starts, but has extended his career by adding a three-point shot to his game over the past two seasons. He shot a respectable 35 per cent from deep for the Suns last season on four attempts a game and will be appreciated for his screen setting.

The Raptors were hoping to have Baynes complement Ibaka or Gasol, I’m guessing, but not so much that they were willing to offer a second year of term to either.

Instead, the Raptors will be providing a significant opportunity to Boucher who has shown he can be wildly productive in small samples — he averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes last season — and will now get the chance to show he can do it over longer stretches.

And if Baynes or Boucher seem to be well-compensated given their profile, chances are they got a premium for being willing to accept deals where they don’t have a second-year guaranteed. As well, if the opportunity for a significant trade arises, the reality is you need some beefy contracts for salary-matching purposes.

And even with the signings (plus the addition of former Atlanta Hawks bench piece DeAndre’ Bembry) the Raptors remain about $5 million under the luxury-tax threshold, so nothing is lost there.

The Raptors’ focus in all of their business has included keeping flexibility for the summer of 2021 — right now it looks like they’ll be able to carve out enough room under the salary cap to either sign or trade for a max salary player — and clearly telegraphs what their priorities were in this off-season.

How that translates into this coming season is the more pressing question.

The temptation is to look at a team that has lost two key pieces of a championship roster and a 60-win team and assume they’ve taken a step back.

They might have. But the Raptors have in the past proven they can find a way to be competitive and to silence doubters.

Who is to say that if Anunoby takes another big step forward, Siakam grows a little more comfortable as a primary option and Powell remains as productive as he was for long stretches when healthy last season, the Raptors don’t continue steaming along?

Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have earned that level of trust.

But they’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room too, with short-term deals and escape hatches all around if things don’t quite pan out.

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Mahomes leads late winning drive as Chiefs hold off Raiders – TSN

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LAS VEGAS — Even after Jason Witten‘s touchdown put the Las Vegas Raiders ahead with 1:43 to play, the mood on the Kansas City Chiefs’ sideline was calm and cool.

Not much can stop the Super Bowl champs lately. Not when they have the quarterback who makes everything go.

“We’ve got Patrick Mahomes,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said. “I’m not worried about anything.”

Mahomes threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce with 28 seconds to play, and the Chiefs avenged their only loss in the last 12 months with a 35-31 victory over the Raiders on Sunday night.

Mahomes passed for 348 yards and led two go-ahead scoring drives in the frantic fourth quarter for the Chiefs (9-1), who split their season series with Las Vegas (6-4) in dramatic fashion. Kansas City also took firm control of the race for its fifth straight AFC West title with an assertive comeback in its closest rivals’ home building.

“I’d take him over everybody,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Mahomes. “And I’m lucky to have him, as we are as a football team, as we are as a city. When you’re behind, he can make things happen.”

The Chiefs’ supreme confidence in their Super Bowl MVP wasn’t shaken when they lost 40-32 at home to Las Vegas last month, prompting the Raiders to take a celebratory victory lap around Arrowhead Stadium in their buses.

Kansas City also didn’t worry when Mahomes threw only his second interception of the season late in the first half of the rematch.

And when Derek Carr found Witten for the Raiders’ go-ahead score, Mahomes said he knew what would happen next.

“We’re going to score,” Mahomes said. “I just didn’t know if it was going to be overtime, or we were going to win it.”

The Chiefs didn’t need a tying field goal: They only needed 75 seconds to march 75 yards, with Mahomes going 6 of 7 on the drive.

Kelce, who caught eight passes for 127 yards, slipped free of Las Vegas’ safeties for the easy winning catch and then went back to the sideline to give a joking shoulder massage to Reid. The Chiefs can laugh at fourth-quarter tension, thanks to the man behind centre.

“He turns it up when it matters the most, and he was out there showing out tonight,” Kelce said about Mahomes.

Carr passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns, but the Raiders couldn’t match their offensive excellence in Kansas City last month. The Chiefs have won five straight since that defeat, and the Raiders made just enough minor mistakes to prevent them from getting out of reach of Mahomes’ comeback ability.

“It’s as good as you can play,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Carr. “He had four or five balls that were magnificent throws that we could have caught that we didn’t make the play on. He played tremendous tonight. He played almost flawless.”

The Raiders led 24-21 on Darren Waller’s TD catch on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Mahomes led a 91-yard scoring drive midway through the period capped by Le’Veon Bell‘s first TD for Kansas City on a 6-yard pitch.

Carr and the Raiders replied with a crisp drive ending on Witten’s 1-yard catch just inside the goal line for his second TD with the Raiders and the 74th of his career.

“You’re really excited,” Carr said. “(But) they’re a real good offence, too. They go down the field, they score. The wave, the range of emotion — you try your best to stay even-keeled. You try your best not to get frustrated.”

That’s not easy when your counterpart is Mahomes.

Daniel Sorensen picked off a heave to midfield by Carr with 19 seconds left, and the Chiefs kneeled out their 18th win in the last 19 games since Nov. 10, 2019.

Nelson Agholor caught a TD pass and Josh Jacobs rushed for a score for the Raiders, who dropped to 2-3 at Allegiant Stadium in their new hometown.

Tyreek Hill caught an early touchdown pass for the Chiefs, and Edwards-Helaire rushed for 69 yards and two TDs in a fierce rivalry game. These teams’ mutual distaste was obvious, with plenty of confrontations and yapping after whistles. Kelce and Johnathan Abram had particularly active mouths.

“The rivalry between the Raiders and the Chiefs, I think, is a great thing for football,” said Reid, who improved to 19-3 after his bye week. “It’s great to be a part of it. I look forward to more future challenges like the ones they presented against us.”

The teams traded touchdown drives on the opening four possessions. Agholor made an exceptional toe-tap 17-yard TD catch to end the first quarter, but Edwards-Helaire’s first TD evened it at 14.

RARE PICK

Mahomes drove the Chiefs deep into Raiders territory right before halftime, but Trayvon Mullen snared a pass intended for Demarcus Robinson at the Raiders 3 to preserve Vegas’ 17-14 lead. Mahomes had matched Drew Brees’ NFL record by throwing 26 touchdown passes this season before his second interception.

SHORT-HANDED

Las Vegas’ defence hung in against the high-powered Chiefs despite having nine players on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week, essentially preventing the defence from practicing for its toughest opponent. Six of those players returned for the game, but the Raiders still played without starters Cory Littleton and Clelin Ferrell.

INJURIES

Chiefs: WR Byron Pringle hurt his ankle, but returned to the game.

Raiders: RT Sam Young missed the game with a knee injury, forcing Vegas to use its seventh offensive line combination in 10 games. … DL David Irving injured his knee.

UP NEXT

Chiefs: Visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.

Raiders: Visit the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday.

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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