Vereen makes the most of his chance

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Vereen makes the most of his chance

FOXBORO -- It's always practice, isn't it? The genesis of moments like these can so often be traced back to a field without lights or stands lining the sidelines. They are the kinds of moments for which the foundation is laid under the watchful eyes of teammates and coaches and few others.

Shane Vereen had his moment on Sunday in New England's 41-28 win over the Texans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The second-year back out of the University of California was thrown into an increased role after fellow running back Danny Woodhead injured his thumb on the Patriots' first offensive play of the game, and he responded.

Vereen scored three times, one rushing touchdown and two receiving, each more improbable than the last.

"Shane had a great game," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Really just a huge growing up moment for him, so very special."

Vereen has always had the physical tools to play a game like this. The speed, the quickness, the hands, they were always there. He showed enough of each in college to be selected in the second round by the Patriots, one round before his teammate and 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley. What hadn't always been there -- because of Woodhead's trusted hands and Ridley's ability to pound teams into submission -- was opportunity.

But as Vereen waited, he practiced. And he practiced well.

"He's done it in practice and he's the person that works hard and does his job," said Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. "When his number was called, he made a play and showed what type of player he is tonight."

Substitute the practice field behind Gillette Stadium for center stage inside it. Substitute grass for turf. New England's sun for bright lights. Barking coaches for roaring crowds. This was Vereen's night. Just like practice, only not at all.

Still, he was ready.

"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," Vereen said. "I come into the game ready to go and if my number is called, I do my best for the team."

Vereen didn't record a snap in last year's run to Super bowl XLVI, but he made his mark early in his first postseason game.

Lined up as a wide receiver in the first quarter, he caught a quick throw from Brady, shook Texans linebacker Bradie James and gained 25 yards. "Let's go!" he screamed as got up from the play and beat his chest.

Just before the ball was snapped, Houston didn't have a defender lined up on Vereen. James scooted to the outside, but Brady recognized the mismatch and took advantage.

"We used some different formations to try to move some people around," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "As Tom usually does, he finds the best matchups depending on the route and the coverage and so forth and getting the ball to the guys that have a good opportunity to win on those routes. A lot of credit goes to Tom for finding him but also to Shane for running good routes, catching the ball in tight coverage, running after the catch, all those things."

Of course, Vereen and the Patriots honed that one on the practice field.

"Obviously it's something we worked on during the week," Belichick said. "When Tom saw matchups he liked out there, he was able to take advantage of it."

When Vereen saw James scramble to line up across from on the outside, he admitted that a light went off. This was his chance.

"I knew that the matchup was in my favor," he said. "But at the same time, they are great defenders as well. So I have to do a great job of getting open."

It turned out to be the first of many. Two plays later, he ran for a 1-yard touchdown, his first score since a blowout win over the Jets on Thanksgiving.

His next touchdown was set up by a one-handed 47-yard catch by Patriots receiver Wes Welker in the second quarter. On the next play, Vereen found himself wide open for an eight-yard touchdown catch.

Vereen's third score showed just how different his skill set is compared to Woodhead and Ridley. Again, lined up as a wide receiver outside the numbers, he ran what looked like a slant-and-go pattern on Texans linebacker Barrett Ruud. Brady dropped a perfect pass into the front corner of the end zone and Vereen made a lunging catch for the score.

When he got to his feet, Vereen spread his arms wide and carried an expression that made him look as surprised as Texans coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips must have been.

Vereen finished with seven carries for 41 yards and five catches for 83 yards, and due in large part to his effort, the Patriots will play the Ravens in a rematch of the AFC Championship game at home next week.

"It is going to be a great matchup," Vereen said. "It's always is between us and the Ravens. We are going to have to go to work this week and get ready to play a great team."

That means going back to the practice field, away from the lights and the crowds, where a seldom used running back from California will grind it out in the hopes that he's ready for another big moment on an even bigger stage if and when the opportunity presents itself.

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.

Posey stays out of the fray during Strickland-Harper brawl

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Posey stays out of the fray during Strickland-Harper brawl

SAN FRANCISCO  — As an irate Bryce Harper charged toward the mound, Buster Posey just stood and watched from behind home plate.

And when the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants cleared their benches Monday and punches flew both ways, the All-Star catcher did his best to remain just outside the fray.

Not where some expected to find the Giants team leader with his pitcher, Hunter Strickland, exchanging head shots with Harper.

“Posey did NOTHING to stop Harper from getting to his pitcher,” former major league pitcher Dontrelle Willis wrote on Twitter. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”

Posey declined to enter the fracas, instead remaining around its edges and watching as the players scuffled in “a pretty good pile,” as Giants manager Bruce Bochy called it.

Posey dealt with a concussion in April after being struck in the head by a pitch, but did not say he held back because of concerns related to that. He did say he was wary about the risk of injury.

“There were some big guys tumbling around out there,” Posey said. “You see Mike Morse and Jeff Samardzija are about as big as they come and he was getting knocked around like a pinball. So it was a little dangerous to get in there.”

Still, social media was abuzz at the sight of Posey not sticking up for his teammate.

“Strickland must have told @BusterPosey he was hitting him and let him come cause he didn’t even give a soft jog,” Willis wrote.

“Says all you need to know that Buster Posey didn’t bother to hold back Harper,” tweeted Fox broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt . “Let him go get his pitcher.”

Also absent from the fight: hard-nosed Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. As his teammates flew over the dugout railing, Bumgarner stayed put, perhaps because the left-hander is still recovering after injuring his pitching shoulder and ribs in a dirt biking accident in April.