In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet

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In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet

FOXBORO -- Most NFL players will admit that postseason stakes add pressure.

"It's a one-game season," they say. "You lose, you go home."

And the thing about pressure is, it doesn't discriminate. You'll hear plenty this week, in advance of the AFC Championship, about how Patriots quarterback Tom Brady masters the madness. You'll have 30 stories to choose from that detail the way Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis embraces playoff chaos.

The kickers? They're under pressure, too. You just might not think about it unless a game is decided on his foot.

"You're remembered for the kicks people pay the most attention to, which is probably the end of the game in close games," New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski said Wednesday. "You want to be remembered for being someone who can come through for the team when it needs you the most, but you approach the game trying to make every kick.

"The game and the job is mental. You just have to try to find a way to try to do it the same way every time. It's not always going to go down the way you want it to. You've just got to be able to bounce back when it goes bad."

When kicks are good, a guy can fly contentedly under the radar. When kicks are bad, well, that guy might find himself job hunting.

Was anyone shocked when the Ravens cut Billy Cundiff?

The lack of raised hands may paint a cruel picture, but that's the business.

Cundiff, Baltimore's former kicker, immediately felt the white-hot branding of GOAT as his 32-yard chance to force overtime in last year's AFC Championship sailed wide, wide left. His miss was not the only reason New England earned a trip to Super Bowl XLVI, it's just the most memorable.

The Ravens released the Pro Bowler, in favor of a rookie, before 2012's regular season started.

Cundiff did receiver some sympathy . . . from Gostkowski, the victor, in particular. He understood Cundiff's anguish because he knows exactly how complicated the situation can be. Armchair quarterbacks, turned armchair kickers for the briefest of moments, believe it's so simple. "Just kick the damn ball!" they scream from their Lay-Z boys.

"There are so many factors and variables that go into it that it's hard to look at one kick and say this is why something happened," Gostkowski explained.

"Distance of the field goal, the weather, the ball, the wind, the field. There's a lot of stuff that can factor in -- the snap, the hold -- to why a kick can be good or not good. You just have to practice as much as you can to try to do the same thing every time so you get the most successful results by doing it one way."

But how can that be? These are professional kickers we're talking about. It's supposed to be easy for them, right?

"It's really easy to have something go wrong. It's a lot harder for it to go good every time."

He reiterated the mental aspect of the task.

"There could be a game where I can't miss in pregame warmups, but you don't try any field goals in the game," he said. "Or there could be a game where you feel like crap, in warmups you're hitting the ball all over the place, but you have to try five field goals. You just have to find a way to, when your name's called, to do it. Whether I've made all my kicks in practice all week, you still have to go out and perform for that one kick, and once that kick's done I move on and go to the next one."

Gostkowski knows a kick is good just coming off his foot about 95 percent of the time.

"There's been a couple kicks in my career that I swore I made it, but I looked up and it didn't. Most of the time you can feel it when you don't make it. When you make it, you don't even feel it; it's like hitting a home run or something like that. You do it so many times I've kicked the ball millions of times before. The hardest thing is just focus and concentration."

That means locking in when the lights are brightest and the fans are rowdiest. Gostkowski takes the Patriots mantra 'Ignore the Noise' and turns it on its head on game day. It's actually weirder if there is no crowd noise because he's so used to hearing it. He contends that when he's 100 percent focused, nothing bothers him as he takes the field.

"I play dumb, I really do. During the game, I try to watch like anybody else," he said. "When it comes to my job, I try not to get caught up in the ups and downs of the game because I'm not going to expend all my mental energy being a cheerleader on the sidelines. I need to be ready for when I have to go out there."

He will have to be as ready as Brady, as ready as Lewis, on Sunday's AFC Championship stage. But don't worry about Gostkowski; kickers are confident.

"We couldn't be in this position if we weren't strong enough."

Sweeney on chasing Stamkos, Lucic: 'We will make all the calls'

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Sweeney on chasing Stamkos, Lucic: 'We will make all the calls'

BUFFALO – While it certainly doesn’t feel like there’s any chance of it realistically happening, the Bruins plan to reach out to some of the bigger fish on the free agent market with roughly $21 million in cap space to work with.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney lost out on a defenseman trade target in Dmitry Kulikov on Saturday when he was dealt by the Panthers to the Buffalo Sabres and appears far away from acquiring top D-man target Kevin Shattenkirk.

So, the Bruins will turn their attention to the free agent market opening on July 1, and with that in mind Sweeney didn’t rule out the Bruins making a run at Stephen Stamkos, or potentially welcoming back power forward Milan Lucic.

“The interview period has already begun, and we were on the phone today with players that we had targeted. It was our first opportunity to speak with them, and see if things line up. It will play out over the next few days and we will be aggressive about it because we want to improve,” said Sweeney, who was adamant that the Bruins would make all the necessary exploratory phone calls when specifically asked about both Stamkos and Lucic. “We will take the temperature of whoever will help our hockey club, and it if lines up then that’s what we’d like to do.

“There are a lot of coveted ones on the market, and we will make all of the calls. It’s everybody. The city would embrace it, and the organization has great respect for [Lucic]. So there’s no question that we would explore all players.”

There may be some sentimental interest from Lucic's camp in returning to Boston, but there's also a sense the left wing has become comfortable back on his native West Coast. The Canucks in his home city of Vancouver and the Edmonton Oilers are expected to push hard for his punishing, board-rattling services. Wooing Stamkos would be particularly difficult given that the Bruins seem years away from truly competing for a Stanley Cup and have two frontline centers in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

While either one would certainly help a Black and Gold team likely to be losing Loui Eriksson in free agency, much of their existing cap space is going to be eaten up by a contract extension for RFA Torey Krug, a deal for whatever replacement they have in mind for Eriksson should he sign with a different team and the top-four defenseman that Boston has needed since trading Dougie Hamilton at last June’s draft weekend in Florida. 

Bruins wrap up draft by picking Koppanen, Clarke, Steen

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Bruins wrap up draft by picking Koppanen, Clarke, Steen

BUFFALO – The Bruins continued their drafting of big centers, defenseman and potential bottom-six forwards on Day 2 of the NHL draft with their final three selections,  including a pair of European prospects.

With back-to-back picks in the fifth round, the Bruins took 6-foot-5 Finnish center Joona Koppanen with the 135th pick, then tapped 20-year-old late-blooming defenseman Cameron Clarke with the next pick. The big-bodied, defense-minded Koppanen sounded quite a bit like fellow countrymen and ex-Bruin Joonas Kemppainen as an overall player, but clearly the Bruins are hoping he can develop more of his offensive game over the next few years.

A 5-foot-9, 187-pound Swedish forward Oskar Steen was the pick in the sixth round. The Bruins then traded their 2016 seventh-round pick to the Florida Panthers for a seventh-round pick in 2017.

Add those three players to the first three players selected in the first two rounds (Charlie McAvoy, Trent Frederic and Ryan Lindgren), and the Bruins clearly pursued big, bottom-six centers and defensemen as their main target areas.

“I think we addressed the defensive part of our game, and we addressed our centermen. We got some speed and some compete, and those are things [we liked] from all of us,” said Bruins head of scouting Keith Gretzky. “Charlie likes to get up and give the big hits, and makes big plays with the puck. He was a young kid that played in an older league, and you’ve got to have the ability to do that. His game just got better as the year went along.

“With [Frederic] we wanted a center with some size and heaviness, and we really believe he’s going to a good program. His teammates all talked highly of him, and character is a very big thing. You want guys that will pay the price, and when you look at him and Lindgren [those are the type of guys]. Lindgren isn’t the most skilled guy like McAvoy, but he brought an element that we really liked as an organization. We believe he’s a leader, and you win with those guys.”

All six of the players will be in Boston for development camp a couple of weeks from now, along with the rest of the Black and Gold prospect group. 
 

OFFSEASON

If not this year for Durant-to-Celtics, then next?

If not this year for Durant-to-Celtics, then next?

BOSTON – The Celtics are considered long shots at landing Kevin Durant during free agency, which begins next week.

Still, if they come up short this summer, league sources tell CSNNE.com that the Celtics will be on a “watch list” of sorts by Durant’s camp when the former league MVP is expected to hit the free agent market once again in the summer of 2017.
 
The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Durant will have teams meet with him in New York beginning next week. In addition to the Celtics, his current team Oklahoma City will sit down with him, as well as Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
 
Durant can re-sign with the Thunder for as many as five years with the total value of his contract worth slightly more than $150 million.
 
However, by signing a one-year deal or a two-year pact with a player option for the second season, Durant would make a projected $25.9 million for the 2016-2017 season and can then hit the free agent market again in 2017 when the salary cap is expected to cross the nine-figure threshold.
 
And at that time, if he decides to stay with the Thunder, he can ink a five-year deal that, when combined with his salary in 2016-2017, would be more than $230 million over six years – that’s about $80 million more than he would get by re-signing a long-term deal with the Thunder now, and would more than double what he would make by signing a maximum-salaried four-year deal with another team.
 
That’s why it makes a lot of sense for him to sign a short-term deal now and better position himself for a bigger payday the following summer when his starting salary will likely be on the north side of $35 million.
 
For the Celtics, Durant going through free agency back-to-back years affords coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics one more opportunity to continue their ascension up the Eastern Conference standings while still being a team that’s clearly in need of adding at least one additional All-Star talent to play with Isaiah Thomas.

In his three seasons as the Celtics coach, Stevens has improved the team’s win total each season.
 
However, they have failed to win a playoff series after having been knocked out in the first round each of the past two seasons.
 
While Durant is the team’s No. 1 priority on the free agent market, the Celtics will quickly pivot their attentions to other highly-regarded players as well with Atlanta’s Al Horford being among their targets.

Depending on how quickly Durant’s free agency gets taken care of, the Celtics might be able to turn their attention towards potentially re-signing Evan Turner, who was sixth in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year voting last season.