Spikes needs to keep the effort consistent

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Spikes needs to keep the effort consistent

There's no debating Brandon Spikes can be a hard-hitting impact player for the Patriots. The fumble he forced under the two-minute warning in New England's 52-28 win over Buffalo swung some badly-needed momentum back to his team, which was down 14-7 at that time.

Tom Brady lauded the linebacker during a Monday morning WEEI interview.

"That play that Spikes made to knock the ball out from C.J. Spiller . . . I love being on the team with Brandon Spikes. What he does for our defense, and creating fumbles, and really the hard-hitting presence that he is in the middle of the field. Brandon brings that physical element, and to knock the ball out of Spiller like that, that was really awesome."

And not unlike a play Spikes made in Week 2 against the Cardinals.

"That's what he did against Arizona, to knock the fumble off running back Ryan Williams, but that was one of the best plays that I've ever seen anyone make," Brady continued. "He has a nose for the ball, he has a nose for knocking the ball out, and that was a huge play in the game yesterday. For Vince Wilfork to be on the top of it and to recover it, that was a huge play in the game."

Spikes also had a fourth quarter forced fumble, which the Patriots converted into a touchdown. At that point New England was up 28-21 and just starting to gorge itself on scoring drives. But despite the comfortable cushion the team ended up with, Spikes' contributions were not lost on his teammates in the post game.

"He had a huge game," Wilfork said in the locker room. "He caused, what, two, three fumbles? One was on the goal line -- it was seven points. He's coming into his own. He's becoming a big player and, you know what, we need that from everybody."

The challenge is for Spikes to deliver that kind of effort week after week.

We can write odes to his electricity -- he's New England's thumper, a guy who admitted during the 2011 playoffs, "I can get a little crazy out there." But some of Spikes' energy feels like unmet potential, crackling yet unleashed under the surface.

During his first two years consistency was an issue partly because injuries and a suspension kept him off the field. This season he's started all four of New England's regular season games and there's no news of lingering pain holding him back.

So why does he sometimes go dark? Where was the Spikes Spark when New England allowed Ray Rice to average 5.1 yards on 20 carries last week?

When you have a guy who seems able to defibrillate the unit at will, consistency is expected instead of asked for.

Spikes' teammates, from the quarterback to defensive captain, believe he's capable. He just needs to keep proving it.

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

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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

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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.