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Rangers, five other NHL teams have chance at history after fast starts




Rangers, five other NHL teams have chance at history after fast starts

After the first game of his career, Auston Matthews was on pace to score 328 goals in 2016-17, so that kind of extrapolation can be wildly misleading. But as the NHL takes its holiday recess, if you take a gander at the standings you will see something that is unprecedented over the course of any of the previous 103 seasons in the books.

And that is six teams playing at a .690 percentage or better. Not to mention that all six — Carolina, Tampa Bay, Toronto, the Rangers, Washington and Florida — are in the East.

Is the upheaval to League Parity a function of the unequal impact the pandemic has had around the NHL? Very possibly so, given that last year’s unique season yielded a record four teams — Colorado, Vegas, Carolina and Florida — playing at that level after no NHL season before it had ever generated more than three clubs at .690 or better.

As a matter of fact, there hadn’t been a season with three teams playing .690 hockey since 1975-76. In the interim, there were 15 seasons with no .690 team, 19 seasons with one and seven seasons with two. Before 1975-76, there’d been two seasons with three teams reaching that standard, in 1971-72 and 1973-74.

A fast start to a season is always critical and even more so in this era of three-point games in which proximity in the standings is often an optical illusion. There are exceptions, of course, but losers’ points make it more difficult for teams to make up ground late in the season.

But with so much uncertainty looming, never has there been a better season in which to be at .690 through Christmas. Not even tomorrow is guaranteed. Multiple players might go down, teams might have to work with unwieldy schedules, all kinds of obstacles might emerge, but points that have already been banked are never going away.

You might say that teams whose records have boosted them to the top of the NHL have been vaccinated against the pandemic’s most disruptive effects.

Which brings us to the Rangers, whose 19-7-4 record translates to a .700 percentage that is tied for third overall with the Maple Leafs, and who have a nine-point cushion with a game in hand over the ninth-place (by percentages) Red Wings for a playoff spot. The Blueshirts not only have the points, but have only three postponements to be rescheduled, two at the Garden. These will represent advantages if an outbreak should sweep through the team.

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad
NHLI via Getty Images

“It’s huge for us and it’s going to be important going forward because we don’t know what the rest of the season is going to look like,” Mika Zibanejad said before the NHL wiped out this coming Monday’s 14-game slate. “We don’t know if this is the end after Christmas in terms of postponing games and how we go about things. We have to be prepared for everything.

“But definitely this is a good spot to be in, or a better spot than chasing and having to make up a lot of games and playing important games in a very short amount of time because of postponements. It’s definitely a better spot.”

If taxi squads are reintroduced, the league and PA must come to an agreement that would prohibit teams from sending players on two-way contracts to the auxiliary list on off-days in order to save cap space by getting their guys on AHL pay.

Of course, taking away a handful of each AHL team’s best players would have a significant impact on that league, but that has to be secondary. The NHL has an obligation to its paying customers to present the best product possible under these conditions.

I believe the tale because it was reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, but it never made any sense that of all the teams involved with games that had the potential of being postponed, only the Avalanche were given the option of voting whether to play when it came to their Dec. 16 match in Nashville against the Predators.

Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz (#39) during the team’s loss to the Predators on Dec. 16.
NHLI via Getty Images

The game went on, Colorado losing 5-2 while playing with a 17-man roster that included five defensemen and one NHL-level goaltender, but we have been told by a source with knowledge of NHL/NHLPA protocols that even if a vote indeed had taken place, it would have had no impact on the game’s fate.

We were told that the panel of NHL and NHLPA physicians and infectious disease experts has the sole authority to determine whether any given game would proceed on schedule or be postponed.

The Canadiens have had only one game postponed at home, so if the league wishes to defer rescheduling it until later in the year when fans might be allowed to return in Quebec province, not much of an issue unless it unduly burdens the visiting Bruins, who have four makeups to play.

Capacity restriction of 50 percent in Ontario should have little impact on rescheduling the Senators’ five postponed home games given the fact the team is just over 60 percent for the season, anyway, at an average of 11,545.

So it is Christmas and Blake Wheeler, Ryan Getzlaf, Jakub Voracek and Jakob Silfverberg have combined for the grand total of zero goals at five-on-five.

Taylor Hall, meanwhile, has chipped in with one goal at five-on-five, which reminds me to pose the question whether he (Devils, 2018), Jose Theodore (Montreal, 2002), Al Rollins (Chicago, 1954) or Tommy Anderson (Americans, 1942) is the biggest Hart Trophy outlier in NHL history?

Finally, IIHF U-20 Men playing, IIHF U-18 Women not (for the second straight year). Who is surprised by hockey’s governing body’s priorities?


Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death




Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence




Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers




Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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