Patriots tout mental toughness


Patriots tout mental toughness

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is not your 2007 Patriots team.

Comparisons abound this week -- resist them. This has not been a season built to the sky on gaudy, easy wins. There has been failure, there have been dogfights, and there have been moments of tense doubt. But one thing these Patriots have that the 2007 team never seemed to need (until it was too late, perhaps) is resilience.

New England guard Brian Waters says they've depended on it.

"It's a key part of what we do," he said Sunday. "The mental toughness, execution, and the way we prepare -- and I think we've got some supremely talented players -- are the reason why we're here."

Waters is a 12-year NFL veteran. In 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he was part of a sub-.500 team six times. He never went beyond the Divisional playoff round.

He knows how easy it is to lose.

"There have been a lot of players that have been hurt over the course of our football season -- and we're no different than any other team -- but I can tell you there's times when you see players go down for four or five weeks that never recover. There's times when there's guys who are at the same position with a player and see that player do really well, and them not do as well sometimes that really affects their game. Here, it hasn't happened. Guys have been happy for one another. We prepare the same week-in and week-out. And guys take that team pride, and doing it for one another, very seriously."

Matthew Slater, special teams captain, didn't hesitate to agree.

"It's just the 'team first' concept," he said. "You think about mental toughness, you think about doing what's best for the team, even though it may not be convenient for you as an individual. We've had 53 guys, and our practice squad guys, and everybody involved with this team to really buy into that concept."

Slater is one of the most thoughtful men in the Patriots locker room; his words are always underscored by introspection. Sunday night Slater hunched over the NFL's media table where he was stationed, shrinking in his seat, seemingly weighted down by graciousness. He reflected on the season's battles. He considered the consecutive losses to the Steelers and Giants and the 10-game streak of victory that followed.

He knows how hard it's been to win.

"At times this year, like when we lost those back-to-back games, we really rallied around one another and believed and stayed mentally tough, and we were able to respond. I'm just really proud to be a part of this bunch. We've showed a lot of character throughout the season and hopefully that pays off for us."

Is resiliency something that separates good teams from great teams? Is it an armor that can not only deliver a team to a Super Bowl, but help that team win one?

"Definitely," Waters nodded. "You definitely have to be a mentally strong football team to have a chance to win here. You have to."

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1


STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl


Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

SAN FRANCISCO - An enraged Bryce Harper charged the mound, fired his helmet and traded punches to the head with San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland after getting hit by a fastball, setting off a wild brawl Monday during the Washington Nationals' 3-0 win over the Giants.

Drilled in the right hip by a 98 mph heater on Strickland's first pitch in the eighth inning with two outs, none on and Washington ahead 2-0, Harper didn't hesitate. The slugger pointed his bat at Strickland, yelled at him and took off.

No one got in Harper's way as he rushed the mound. His eyes were wide as he flung his helmet - it sailed way wide of Strickland, it might've slipped - and they started swinging away. The 6-foot-4 Strickland hit Harper in the face, then they broke apart for a moment before squaring off again. Harper punched Strickland in the head as the benches and bullpen emptied.

Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija collided hard as they tried to get between the two fighters. Three Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the pack all the way into the dugout, while a teammate held back Harper.

Harper and Strickland were both ejected. They have some history between them - in the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, and the All-Star outfielder glared at the reliever as he rounded the bases after the second shot in Game 4.