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Senators put in valiant effort with COVID-weakened lineup in loss to Kings

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OTTAWA — A “new normal” is welcomed, but life is anything but normal for the Ottawa Senators, who continue to be bodyslammed by a COVID-19 outbreak.

And yet, they are forced to play games as usual.

After a COVID-weakened lineup battled to a 3-2 loss in Boston Tuesday, the Senators were back on home ice Thursday to face the Los Angeles Kings and lost their sixth straight, 2-0, albeit valiantly. The Kings, behind goals by Anze Kopitar and Andreas Athanasiou, extended their winning streak to seven games.

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The shutout loss ended a run of 77 consecutive games for the Senators without being blanked. They were not shut out all of last season.

Of course, the game was merely the backstory for the Senators on this day.

When winger Alex Formenton and starting goaltender Matt Murray were placed on the COVID protocols list Thursday morning, the number had grown to eight Sens players plus assistant coach Jack Capuano, who had experienced positive COVID tests over the past week. The number swelled to nine players just prior to the warmup as defenceman Nikita Zaitsev was added to the list. He was replaced by rookie prospect Lassi Thomson.

Meet the makeshift roster: Three of Ottawa’s six starting defencemen had seen next-to-no NHL action this season. Thomson was making his NHL debut, Dillon Heatherington was in his first NHL game since the five he played with Dallas in 2018-19, and Erik Brannstrom was appearing in his second game of the season.

If that blueline wasn’t thin enough, rock-solid D-man Artem Zub left the game in the first period with an upper-body injury. Remarkably, all of the subs held their own and Thomson made a tremendous impression in his first NHL game as a smart, effective defenceman. He played 22:25 in a graceful debut.

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A total of 14 Ottawa players are now out either with injury or illness.

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Senators head coach D.J. Smith could not have been prouder for the way his team fought to the final second, crediting Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick for stealing the win.

“There’s not a guy I can say didn’t give everything he had,” Smith said. “Lassi Thomson was phenomenal. He looked like he’d played in the league a long time. He made plays, he defended without hesitating. And he hasn’t played or practised with us.”

While the Senators have had performance issues this season, on this night they will be remembered for their heart. And for defending better with a throw-together D-corps than on some nights with a full complement of players.

Thomson said he was so excited just to be called up the night before the game, after playing in Laval with the B-Sens, he couldn’t sleep. And that was without knowing he was actually going to play in Ottawa. Instead, he found out minutes before game time.

“I think that’s the best way,” Thomson said. “I’m the kind of guy who’s going to be so nervous.”

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He said he was encouraged by his teammates to have fun and enjoy the game. The entire team did, except for the end result.

“It stings to lose,” said defenceman Thomas Chabot. “But the way we played is something good.”

Putting a roster together is the least of the worries around a team that has been battling COVID-19 issues home and away.

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Hotel stays, at home

Even while in Ottawa, some Senators players and staff with families are staying at a hotel to protect their loved ones. Head coach Smith, the father of three, including two young kids at home, is in that category. So is goalie coach Zac Bierk, who has young twins at home.

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“Whether it’s a hotel or staying at another coach’s house, there’s probably a handful or so (in that situation),” Smith said. “I think the biggest thing is — people with kids. If I’m at home, while my kids are there it’s tough for me not to see them. Same as Zac Bierk.”

Hockey families are trying to ensure their children can stay healthy and continue to attend school or daycare after a year in which that was not possible.

“In Zac Bierk’s case, he had twins that were born premature and their immune systems are weak,” Smith said. “You can put them in real danger.”

Smith said there are probably another handful of players or staff still at home but sleeping on a couch or isolating in a basement to keep away from their family as best as possible.

Two Ottawa players who tested positive on the road, defencemen Josh Brown and Victor Mete, had to drive home from Boston in an effort to prevent spread. It’s all part of a chaotic past week for the Senators.

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“It’s not the ideal situation, but there’s a lot worse things in the world,” said Smith, on a Remembrance Day when it was easy to imagine worse. “We’ll get through this.”

Forward Nick Paul said the team is making the best of a difficult stretch in which the team has been losing games and losing players.

“This is just another challenge, it brings the group closer together,” Paul says. “Those that can be in the same room, that is.

“The group needs to stick together, have each other’s backs and prepare for the game.”

Paul described the mood in the room as “pretty positive,” using a word that has come to be associated with dread in our COVID-shaped world. As Sylvain St-Laurent of LeDroit noted on Twitter: The Senators new slogan could be — more positive thoughts, fewer positive tests.

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“We’re going to lean on each other, support each other and when it comes to game time we’re going to play for each other,” Paul said.

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Despite the outbreak, the Senators have been taking every precaution, including wearing masks, social distancing and having food served inside team hotels.

“It’s a very contagious virus,” Paul said. “Things happen where people are still getting it, but we’re taking the right steps. All we can do is hope that it stops here.”

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Paul said the players are used to the protocols at this point having been in a bubble for all of last season.

Those who have tested positive and are away from the group face physical and mental challenges through this ordeal, Smith said.

“Some guys have had a few more symptoms than others, but it’s probably more mentally — you’re an NHL player and you want to play the games,” Smith said. “Your team is struggling and you want to help and you can’t. That’s the hardest part, is not being able to be out there with your buddies and competing.”

According to Smith, none of the stricken players is asymptomatic. They are all dealing with something, either congestion or other cold-like symptoms despite the fact that everyone is double-vaccinated.

The remaining healthy players and staff met as a group Thursday morning, as team leaders tried to keep spirits strong through the day-to-day testing and worry.

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“There’s a lot of stress being put on a lot of people,” Smith said.

The Senators COVID-19 list: Austin Watson, Connor Brown, Dylan Gambrell, Alex Formenton, Nick Holden, Victor Mete, Josh Brown, Matt Murray, Nikita Zaitsev and assistant coach Jack Capuano. Four of the eight are defencemen — Zaitsev, Holden, Mete and J. Brown.

While fans in Ottawa questioned why the show must go on, with a condensed schedule due to the 2022 Olympic hockey tournament in February, the NHL is reluctant to cancel games due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The San Jose Sharks had seven players and head coach Bob Boughner test positive before things improved at the start of the month.

To which the Sens responded: Seven plus one? Hold my beer.

Filip Gustavsson, who has been Ottawa’s most consistent goaltender, was nevertheless in the American Hockey League this past week until he was also recalled and got the start against L.A.

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With starter Murray out and backup Anton Forsberg battling a non-COVID virus, Gustavsson was the obvious choice. Forsberg was well enough to dress for the game and sit on the bench.

While stopping 34 of 36 shots, Gustavsson played well enough to keep the Senators in a game in which the roster was a shell of its “normal” self.



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Bowl projections: Clemson jumps into College Football Playoff as Kansas State upsets Oklahoma

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Despite a season that has already been filled with upsets, change finally comes to the College Football Playoff projection for the first time following Week 4 action. Falling 41-34 to Kansas State on Saturday night, Oklahoma has been bounced from the field of four and replaced by Clemson.

While the Sooners’ loss to the Wildcats for the third time in four seasons does not put them out of the running for the Big 12 championship, the Tigers are now far more likely to end their regular season as an undefeated conference champion out of the ACC. Clemson beat Wake Forest 51-45 Saturday afternoon and looks to only have one ranked opponent remaining on its schedule, which it gets at home (NC State next week).

Michigan beat Maryland 34-27 this week and was the first team out of the last projection; however, it still has top-15 programs Penn State at home and Ohio State on the road over the second half of the season.

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The other top-four teams held serve Saturday. Georgia was not as impressive as usual despite a 39-22 win over Kent State, Ohio State blasted Wisconsin 52-21, and Alabama routed Vanderbilt 55-3.

Check back Sunday for Jerry Palm’s complete bowl projections after Week 4.

College Football Playoff

Jan. 9

National Championship
Inglewood, Calif.

Title game Semifinal winners

Dec. 31

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Peach Bowl
Atlanta

Semifinal

(1) Georgia vs. (4) Clemson

Dec. 31

Fiesta Bowl
Glendale, Ariz.

Semifinal

(2) Ohio State vs. (3) Alabama

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Stampeders beat Lions, both teams lock up playoff spots

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VANCOUVER — The Calgary Stampeders avoided a season sweep at the hands of the B.C. Lions with a defensively impressive 25-11 win at B.C. Place on Saturday.

The win ensures the Stampeders will go to the playoffs for the 17th year in a row.

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A spectacular 54-yard catch by rookie Jalen Philpot of Delta, B.C., set up the only major score of the first half, landing the Stampeders (9-5) on B.C.’s three-yard-line for a touchdown conversion by Ka’Deem Carey.

Calgary failed on its two-point convert attempt. Peyton Logan added a 19-yard touchdown run with 1:57 left in the fourth quarter, and Dominique Rhymes caught B.C.’s lone touchdown pass from Antonio Pipkin with 29 seconds remaining. Pipkin carried the ball across the one-yard-line for a successful two-point convert.

Calgary’s field-goal kicker Rene Paredes was good on four-of-five attempts, from 39, 33, 31 and 33 yards. He added a convert for 13 total points.

For the Lions (9-4), Sean Whyte extended his CFL field-goal streak to 13 with a 34-yard kick to get his club on the scoreboard with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.

Paredes kicked wide to the right on his first field-goal attempt of the game. That came just 2:08 into the contest — the Stampeders had marched down to the B.C. 41-yard line after opening the first quarter by recovering Paredes’ 11-yard onside kick.

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One week after grabbing a 31-29 overtime win over the Stampeders at McMahon Stadium, the Lions could not find a spark to ignite their offence.

In his first home start at B.C. Place after being acquired in a trade with the Montreal Alouettes on Aug. 19, quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. was 12-for-24 in the air for 151 yards. He added 11 yards on the ground. Anthony Pipkin stepped in under centre late in the fourth quarter, going 4-for-6 for 66 yards and one touchdown throw.

Kicker Stefan Flintoft had a busy night for the Lions, punting for 417 yards.

The Lions also came out on the wrong side of the penalty tally. After last week’s thriller at McMahon Stadium included 215 yards in total penalties, B.C. was whistled for six penalties for 65 yards on Saturday. That included a critical major foul on Jordan Williams which gave Calgary good position near centre field before Philpot’s monster catch shortly before halftime.

A major foul for roughing the passer also negated an interception by T.J. Lee with just over three minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.

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As Calgary’s defence kept the Lions pinned in their own half of the field for most of the game, quarterback Jake Maier had a strong outing. He completed 27 of 33 pass attempts for 294 yards and added 14 rushing yards. The Stampeders finished with five penalties for 36 yards.

With the win, combined with losses this week by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa Redblacks, Calgary clinched its 17th-consecutive CFL post-season berth on the night Dave Dickenson coached his 100th career game with the Stampeders, improving his record to 70-28-2.

After the Lions won both matchups at McMahon Stadium for the first time since 2010, the Stampeders extended a winning record at B.C. Place that stretches back to 2016.

Despite the loss, B.C. also clinched its first playoff spot since 2018.

FOOT NOTES: Stampeders’ veteran offensive lineman Derek Dennis was taken off the field on a cart late in the first quarter after suffering a leg injury …Injured B.C. wide receiver Josh Pearson led the crowd in the singing of `O Canada’ before the game … The B.C. Football Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2022 before Saturday’s game … The Lions also held their Salute to Amateur Football … Next week, the Lions will host the Ottawa Redblacks on Friday, while the Stampeders will be back at McMahon Stadium to take on the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday.

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College football Week 4 winners, losers, overreactions: Kicking blunders plague SEC teams, Oklahoma in trouble

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There’s one phrase that makes blood run cold from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Provo, Utah: College kickers. On Saturday, the fortunes of four SEC programs were changed in an instant by two college kickers missing critical kicks in painful fashion. 

Arkansas had a manageable 42-yarder to beat Texas A&M for a second straight season. The Razorbacks out-gained the Aggies by more than 80 yards and needed just one swing of the leg to remain ranked in the top 10. Unfortunately, Cam Little’s kick improbably bounced off the top of the upright — a doink unlike any in recent college football memory. 

All Missouri needed was for All-American kicker Harrison Mevis to make a 26-yard field goal. Easy enough, right? Mevis nailed 20 of 22 field goals last season, including three from more than 50 yards. A 26-yarder is child’s play … except not against Auburn on the Plains as Mevis shanked the kick to the right and the matchup went to overtime. The game swung again after Nathaniel Peat fumbled an open touchdown at the goal line, and that was that. The Tigers are still searching for their first Power Five win. 

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Here are more winners, losers and overreactions that highlighted the Week 4 action around the country. 

Winners

Kansas QB Jalon Daniels: Start the Jalon Daniels Heisman campaign. He’s been that ridiculously good through the Jayhawks’ 4-0 start. Daniels completed 83% of his passes for 324 yards, 83 yards rushing and accounted for five touchdowns in an emphatic 35-27 win over previously undefeated Duke. The junior from Lawndale, California, has been the catalyst for a Kansas program that had not won four games in a season in 13 years. He deserves the lion’s share of the on-field credit.

Tennessee: The Vols let things get a little hairy in the last five minutes thanks to some quick Florida touchdowns, but the performance was more dominant than the 38-33 final score. This was a coming-out party for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who threw for 349 yards, rushed for 112 yards and had three touchdowns in a win over Florida. This was just the second Tennessee win over Florida since 2004, and gives the Volunteers a great chance to enter the AP top 10 when the polls come out on Sunday. 

Losers

Miami coach Mario Cristobal: The Hurricanes earned some early credit for beating up cupcakes, but the last two weeks have been a disaster. Miami had 27 first downs against Texas A&M, the most ever in a game without scoring a touchdown. On Saturday, a 45-31 embarrassment against Middle Tennessee sent any Miami hype train off the rails. Once-promising quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was benched after two interceptions, but rushing for fewer than 2 yards per carry and surrendering 500 yards to Middle Tennessee is nothing short of a disaster. Cristobal can’t blame talent in that kind of loss — this is coaching. 

Houston: The Cougars needed to score 10 unanswered points in the final five minutes to survive a challenge from 2-2 Rice. The Owls led for much of the game as the Coogs committed 10 penalties and turned the ball over to give Rice a chance. After the game, Houston coach Dana Holgorsen expressed frustration to the Houston Chronicle. 

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“I’m tired of yelling at them. Tired of motivating them. Tired of all that crap,” Holgorsen said. 

For a team that was thought at one point to be a serious contender for the New Year’s Six, narrowly avoiding a 1-3 start isn’t bringing many warm feelings.

Week 4 Overreactions

Oklahoma isn’t winning the Big 12: The Sooners flew up the polls after dominating an easy schedule featuring Nebraska, Kent State and UTEP. However, Kansas State to open Big 12 play was a rude awakening. The Wildcats scored more points (41) than the Sooners surrendered all season (30) thanks to a five-touchdown performance by Nebraska transfer QB Adrian Martinez. Suddenly, Brent Venables’ task in Norman feels far less turnkey than it did after eviscerating the rival Cornhuskers. Considering the depth the Big 12 showed in nonconference play, there are no easy games remaining. 

Kansas State has a tiebreaker over Oklahoma. Road trips to TCU, Iowa State and Texas Tech could be hairy. Battles with Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State remain. There’s too many speed bumps for the Sooners to make it to Arlington if this is the Oklahoma we’re getting in 2022.  

Wisconsin isn’t Wisconsin anymore: Between 2004 and 2017, Wisconsin was close to the most consistent program in college football. The Badgers went 141-45 and finished ranked in 13 of the 16 seasons, including five top-five finishes. Losing to No. 3 Ohio State was expected, but a noncompetitive 52-21 decision to fall to 2-2 suddenly brings up some existential questions. 

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The Badgers have finished ranked just once in the last five years under Paul Chryst. After the loss today, the Badgers have no ranked teams left on their schedule. It’s unlikely they can show enough to fight back into the polls. Additionally, Wisconsin has just one Rose Bowl since 2012. At one point, this was a program that could measure success by trips to Pasadena. 

Chryst went 34-7 in his first three seasons. Since 2017, he is 33-18 — a fine record but not one that satisfies the Wisconsin standard. Complicating things is the fact that Wisconsin likely has one of the most attractive coaching candidates in the nation on its staff in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. 



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