Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh will play for position in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division race when they clash Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. It is pretty much an elimination game for the Panthers and close to that for the Hokies. A win would keep the 25th-ranked Hokies (5-2, 3-1 ACC) on the road to the conference title game Dec. 3 in Orlando. They hold the tiebreaker over present division leader North Carolina (6-2, 4-1), which is off this weekend. The unranked Panthers (5-2, 2-1) need a win to keep the pressure on the division-leading Tar Heels, who hold the tiebreaker over Pitt. A loss wouldn't eliminate the Hokies from the title race but would leave them needing the Tar Heels to lose at least one of their remaining conference games against Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina State to regain the advantage in the tiebreaker. A Panthers defeat would leave Pitt them on the outside and hoping for some sort of multiple-team deadlock at the end of the regular season that doesn't include both North Carolina and Virginia Tech, which both would hold tiebreakers over the Panthers. Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi acknowledges the Thursday contest is pretty much a "must-win" game." Yeah, I would say so," Narduzzi said. "I would say so. Based on how things look and I think every ACC game is a must win as we go on, as far as what you want to do. You're a 5-2 football team, and each one of these games is important." The Hokies are 1-2 away from Blacksburg's Lane Stadium, and the trip to Pittsburgh represents their biggest road test of the season. Virginia Tech is headed for a place where it hasn't experienced much success. The Hokies' last road win over the Panthers was in 1999 in the old Pitt Stadium, when both teams labored in the Big East Conference. The Panthers have won all four meetings played at Heinz Field and have won six of the past seven meetings overall." It's not something we've addressed," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuentes said of the Hokies' recent struggles vs. the Panthers. "I know that Pitt has been very good and we haven't, for whatever reason, whether it was there or here, haven't had much success in recent history. But it's not something we dwell on." Hokies running back Travon McMillian said, "This is a totally different team than we've had in the past." Narduzzi sees the Panthers' recent success as a non-factor." If we need the past to help with our confidence, then we probably got issues, 'Hey, we got a chance to win because this is what happened in the past,'" he said. "It doesn't matter." This is a new football team. They're coming in here, they have never come in here in October 2016 to play us. So they get a chance to come here, and it's a new show, in my opinion." What concerns Narduzzi more is a Hokies' offense led by versatile quarterback Jerod Evans (229 yards a game passing and 60 rushing) and McMillian, who is coming off a 131-yard rushing performance in Tech's 37-16 thumping of Miami last week. The Tech defense that held Miami to just 42 yards rushing and recorded eight sacks. It is, Narduzzi acknowledges, the best defense his team has faced so far." Based on the stats, without a question," he said. The Hokies have yielded only nine touchdown passes this year while also recording nine interceptions. Pitt itself is no slouch defensively, holding opponents to less than 97 yards a game rushing and sacking opposing quarterbacks 25 times, which is tied for fourth-best total in the country. Defensive end Ejuan Price has a national-best nine sacks. The Panthers also are one of the top rushing teams. Behind junior James Conner (76 yards a game) and a stable of backups, the Panthers rank 20th in the country with their average of 239 rushing yards per game." You can tell the makeup of their team starts with running the football and stopping the run," Fuentes said. "And they've been successful at that, and that is why they're winning ballgames." Pitt is coming of a bye week, but Narduzzi isn't convinced that will be an advantage." You can go either way," he said. "You would like to keep the momentum. You would like to keep playing and stay in that same rhythm. However, it did give us a chance to get fresh and get healthy. I don't think it will play a big part either way. That won't be an excuse or a benefit."
Time: 07:00 P.M. EST Venue: PPG Paints Arena PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins regained their Stanley Cup-winning captain, and he made an immediate impact. Next up: The return of their Stanley Cup-winning goalie. Perhaps as early as Thursday night, when the Penguins -- already 4-0-1 at PPG Paints Arena this season, and 4-2-1 overall -- take on the New York Islanders. Matt Murray, who missed the first seven Penguins games as he healed from a broken right hand sustained during the World Cup, is practicing again and served as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup for the first time this season Tuesday night. Sidney Crosby, who missed the first six games with a concussion, returned Tuesday to score the Penguins' first goal of a comeback in which they flipped a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers. Coach Mike Sullivan isn't saying whether Murray will be ready to go against the Islanders, but Fleury started the first seven games, and no doubt the Penguins want to give him a night off soon. If only to see how Murray has recovered from his injury -- and whether he can sustain his level of play during the playoffs, when he became the most inexperienced goalie to win the Stanley Cup since Ken Dryden of Montreal in 1971." I think he's getting close," Sullivan said following practice Wednesday. "Having the ability to back up and seeing the game up close (Tuesday) with the speed (of the game), even though he's on the bench, will help with his timing and inch (him) that much closer to being ready to play." The Islanders will play the second half of a back-to-back after losing 3-2 to the unbeaten-in-regulation Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. They lost three of four to the Penguins last season. Dennis Seidenberg scored the tying goal for the Islanders in the third period -- one of their 15 shots in the period -- but Shea Weber's power-play goal with 2:57 remaining won it for Montreal." The first half of the game we didn't manage the puck properly," Isles coach Jack Capuano said. "I think if you watch that third period, we had plenty of opportunities. Came down to their power play." The Islanders (3-4) will go from playing a Canadiens team that's off to a 6-0-1 start to one that won the Stanley Cup last season. Asked if the Islanders learned anything from playing the Canadiens, center John Tavares said, "I think just to realize what's going to bring us success, especially against good hockey teams and teams (that) play a similar style of game to us. They play quick and they transition off the ice." The Islanders have faced Murray only once -- a 5-0 loss on April 2 that was Murray's first shutout in the NHL. Whenever he returns, Murray likely will wear a cast on his broken thumb for the time being." The bone doesn't fully heal for a long time, but it's healed enough where I can do everything normally and not worry about it. I'll wear the cast while I play," Murray said. He couldn't have played much better last spring when, after appearing in only 12 regular-season games (going 9-2-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average), he carried the Penguins to the Cup with the steady glove hand of a much more experienced goalie. He went 15-6 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.08 GAA in the postseason. Fleury is his usual reliable self so far this season, with a 4-2-1 record and a .904 save percentage. But the Penguins likely signaled their course for the future last week when they signed Murray to a three-year, $11.25 million contract that begins next season -- even though Fleury is only in the second year of a four-year deal. The Penguins can only hope Murray is as impactful from the start -- even if he doesn't return Thursday -- as Crosby was. After a get-up-to-speed first period, Crosby looked himself after that, and Sullivan thinks he's good to go despite his prior concussion history." There's no reason (not to think that)," Sullivan said. "I think Sid's going to be fine." Sullivan made one adjustment during the game, breaking up the HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel by shifting Kessel to Evgeni Malkin's line and installing Rust as the right wing on the Bonino line. It's likely that will carry over to Thursday." He (Rust) brings speed, he brings energy, he creates a lot of turnovers with his speed," Sullivan said of Rust, who scored both goals in the Game 7 Eastern Conference-clinching 2-1 win over Tampa Bay.
Time: 07:00 P.M. EST Venue: Wells Fargo Center PHILADELPHIA -- After pulling out an improbable shootout win over the injury-depleted Buffalo Sabres with a third-period goal-scoring spree Tuesday night, the Philadelphia Flyers (3-3-1) will look to string together their first back-to-back wins of the season Thursday night against the struggling Arizona Coyotes (1-5-0). The Coyotes' only win this season came in their season opener against the Flyers on Oct. 15. Since then they've dropped consecutive road games against the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. No team in the NHL has fewer points (2) than the Coyotes, who return home to face the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday. Goaltending has been a major issue for Arizona head coach Dave Tippett, who will be without starter Mike Smith for at least another week with a lower body injury. Louis Domingue (0-4-0, 5.03 goals-against average, .851 save percentage) has struggled in Smith's absence and third-stringer Justin Peters fared no better Tuesday night in his first NHL start since he was a member of the Capitals in 2014-15. Peters allowed four goals on 34 shots against the Devils." We need more saves," Tippett said. "We need more saves to stabilize our group, and we need sustained ability to stay with the game for longer periods of time. If we do that, we'll be fine." The Coyotes stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the score on back-to-back, third-period goals by defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, only to see Travis Zajac win it for the Devils with a power-play goal with 2:01 remaining in regulation." That's a save I have to come up with," Peters said. "Crucial time of the game, obviously. There's such a fine line between winning and losing." The Flyers learned just as much Tuesday night. Playing on consecutive nights, they trailed 3-0 after two periods. Third-period goals from rookie forward Travis Konecny, center Brayden Schenn and defenseman Mark Streit forced overtime before Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek won it with a pair of shootout goals." It's important, of course," Voracek said of returning with some energy Thursday night. "Five games in seven nights, if I'm not mistaken. It's going to be tough, but everybody's got to go through that stretch. I like it better when you play the games instead of sitting out for a week. It's tough. But, I think we're skating pretty well." The Flyers were given Wednesday off and expect Steve Mason to return to the net. Mason replaced Michael Neuvirth in the second period and stopped all 10 shots he faced, including two in the shootout. Before Thursday night's game, the Flyers will honor some of the most beloved players in their history, including Hockey Hall of Famers Bill Barber, Bernie Parent, Bob Clarke, Mark Howe and Eric Lindros. The game could feature former Flyer and current Coyote Ryan White facing his old team. White played parts of two seasons in Philadelphia before signing with the Coyotes.
Time: 07:00 P.M. EST Venue: KeyBank Center BUFFALO, N. Y. -- The Minnesota Wild are basking in the glow of their most dominant and complete victory of the young NHL season, while the Buffalo Sabres are left wondering about the one that got away. The teams meet at 7 p.m. in Buffalo on Thursday night. On Tuesday, Devan Dubnyk made 27 saves in a 5-0 victory over the Boston Bruins. The Wild (4-2-1) took full advantage of a depleted Bruins roster that was missing its top two goalies." It was really good," Boudreau said of Dubnyk, according to the Wild's team website. "He was sharp, he had great movement, followed the puck well, and that's what good goaltending's all about." Dubnyk is off to a solid start to the year, posting a 3-1-1 record along with a save percentage of .929. Five different players scored for the Wild in the blowout victory, which is looking for more balanced efforts on the score sheet moving forward." It's great balance, which you need ... if you can have balanced scoring in this league, then every line becomes a dangerous line," Boudreau said. "And that's what we're striving for." Defenseman Ryan Suter leads the Wild in points with seven (two goals, five assists) through seven games. The Sabres jumped out to a 3-0 lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday only to see that lead slip away due to penalties and poor play. Buffalo eventually lost 4-3 in a shootout." If we want to be a good team, if we want to be a winning team, this is a game where we have to learn a lesson from with how we played, have to learn a lesson with how we're going to play going forward and one we should never let happen again," Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma said." I remember blowing a lot of two, three-goal leads on the island three, four years ago," said Sabres newcomer Kyle Okposo, according to the Sabres' team website. Okposo joined the Sabres this season from the New York Islanders. "It's not fun to do that. At the same time, once you kind of figure out everything you need to do to keep those leads it just becomes of habit and you kind of do it automatically. I think we're gonna learn from this and hopefully come out better on the other side." It remains to be seen if the Sabres will get starting goaltender Robin Lehner back in time to face the Wild. Lehner did not make the trip to Philadelphia due to an illness." This is our fourth guy that's gotten ill and it's all kind of been about the same amount of time, about a two-day window," Bylsma said, according to the Sabres' team website. "Robin's just a shade over those two days now. Hopefully he'll start feeling better here today. We'll see going forward in terms of him coming back to the ice." If Lehner can't go, Anders Nilsson will likely receive his second consecutive start.
Time: 07:30 P.M. EST Venue: Air Canada Centre TORONTO - James Reimer said he will have good memories of his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs would like to play a game worth remembering Thursday night when they host the Florida Panthers. Reimer will not start for the Panthers but this will be his first appearance in Toronto as a visiting player. He was traded to the San Jose Sharks after appearing in 207 games with the Maple Leafs in parts of six seasons." Just some memories flooding back about coming back after games and what not," Reimer said of returning to Toronto. "Just a whole wash of different emotions, I guess, just remembering the good times. It was good. It's fun. It's cool." Not cool for the Leafs have been some of their recent performances, including Tuesday's 7-3 home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Toronto has lost four straight (0-2-2) and allowed 20 goals in those games." When you play right and you do good things in life, good things happen," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. "There's no sense going home and feeling sorry for yourself, that's a waste of time. (The fans) paid good money to watch our team play and we didn't do a good enough job." An area where Toronto has not done a good enough job has been in the nets. Frederik Andersen, signed in the offseason to a five-year, $25 million contract, has struggled early. The 27-year-old is amongst the league's worst in major statistical areas with a .851 save percentage and a 4.29 goals-against average in five starts"Everyone's had tough times, you just got to keep working at it," Andersen told reporters on Wednesday following practice. "All that matters is what you do next and gotta work hard towards stopping the next puck and playing well the next game." One of the lone bright spots for Toronto (1-2-3) six games into the season has been the play of its young star. Auston Matthews, the 2016 first overall pick has six goals and 10 points." It's frustrating for sure, but it's a long season," Matthews said. "You've got to take it day-by-day, stay positive in this room. Guys in this room have gone through this before. There's no doubt in our minds we're going to get out of it." He will look to increase those totals against Roberto Luongo, who is 3-1 with a .922 save percentage, and a 1.99 GAA. Florida (3-2-1) limps into Toronto with one win in its last four games. The Panthers followed up a 5-2 win against Colorado with Tuesday's 3-2 loss in Pittburgh during Sidney Crosby's season debut." They had odd-man rushes, and when you have good players and you give them opportunities, and they're bound to score," Florida defenseman Keith Yandle said. Jonathan Marchessault, signed as a free agent in the offseason, leads the Panthers in scoring with three goals and eight points in six games. The Panthers have won four straight in Toronto and nine of their last 12 meetings with the Maple Leafs." This is a different Toronto Maple Leafs team," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant told the Miami Herald. "They're a much different team and we know this is going to be a big challenge."
Time: 07:30 P.M. EST Venue: Bell Centre MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens are riding high but their early season success will be put to the test against one of their toughest opponents to date. Winners of five straight after dispatching the New York Islanders 3-2 on Wednesday night, Montreal (6-0-1) returns home to host a rested Tampa Bay Lightning squad on Thursday night at the Bell Centre. Defenseman Shea Weber scored the game-winner on a late third period power play to go with an assist, and now leads the Canadiens with nine points. Three of those have been goals and two of those tallies have stood as the decisive markers." It's a good team effort," he said of their early season success. "Everybody's doing the right things consistently throughout the lineup, up and down." The Canadiens have now won six of their first seven games for the third straight season, a feat realized only three previous times in franchise history. But while the team is enjoying another remarkable start, the players know how quickly it can evaporate after last season's epic collapse." We've always known we had a good group in here," Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher said after the game. "It's just about learning from last year and understanding that whatever it is--last year it was nine games, I think we're seven games in now--it doesn't mean anything unless you can finish it off." So for us, just continue to build, not get too far ahead of ourselves. Day after day, just go about our business, try and take care of what we can control." The Atlantic Division rivals occupy the top two spots in the division, with Montreal holding a three-point edge over Tampa (5-1-0). The two clubs also sit in the upper echelons in NHL scoring, with the Lightning averaging 3.83 goals-per-game through six games to the Canadiens' 3.71 through seven. But while both teams can put the puck in the net, it's taken some time for them to do so. The Habs and Lightning have each scored just three times in the first period, and for Tampa, all three of their first period goals came in Tuesday's rout of the Toronto Maple Leafs." It was something we talked about before was getting out to a good start, especially on the road, it's always important," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said following the game. "It definitely set the tone for the game and put us up." After ceding the crease to Al Montoya for Wednesday's tilt, goaltender Carey Price will get the nod at home against Tampa. He'll face them for the first time since May 12, 2015, when the two teams squared off in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ben Bishop is expected to get the start for the Lightning after turning in one of his best efforts against Toronto. While he allowed three goals for a fourth start, he came up big when his team needed him as the Lightning were outshot 43-24." It was the best I've felt for sure," Bishop told the Tampa Bay Times. "It's been kind of a work in progress. The previous games we watched, I was doing everything right, staying with the process. And I kind of got some unfortunate bounces. The stats aren't where you'd like them. But the wins are there, and that's the important thing." Bishop is 10-3-3 lifetime against Montreal, with a 1.80 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 17 games.
Time: 07:30 P.M. EST Venue: Philips Arena ATLANTA -- The Washington Wizards will try to ensure the Atlanta Hawks' Dwight Howard Era gets off to a rocky start when they meet in the season opener on Thursday. Howard was the biggest offseason acquisition for the Hawks, who hope to return to the Eastern Conference finals and beyond. Atlanta signed the 6-foot-11 center to a three-year, $70 million deal in the offseason after incumbent center Al Horford took less money to sign with the Boston Celtics. Atlanta went 48-34 last season, finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and was swept by Cleveland in the conference semifinals. Washington went 41-41 to finish 10th in the East and missed the playoffs. The Hawks are hopeful that the 30-year-old Howard, a native of Atlanta, can revive his career. He averaged 17.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks over his 12-year career, but slipped to 13.7 points for the Rockets last season." Playing at home, where people have great expectations for what is supposed to happen here, sometimes it can get a little nerve-racking," Howard said. "For me, I just try not to think about it. I just try to approach it as though it's any other game. But I know this city. They have their hopes real high on us and on me." It's a new start for Washington, too. The Wizards fired coach Randy Wittman and hired Scott Brooks, who spent six seasons at Oklahoma City and took the Thunder to the NBA finals in 2011-12. The Wizards are led by guard John Wall, who averaged 19.9 points and 10.2 assists last season, and Bradley Beal, who averaged 17.4 points while dealing with hip and leg issues that limited him to 55 games. Beal showed he was fully recovered in the preseason, when he effectively distributed the ball and had very few turnovers." Us as players are coming in with a mindset of whatever we have to do, getting it done," Wall said. "It's an all-new beginning for all of us, so we want to get off to a good start with a new coaching staff and new group of players we have on the team." Washington is also expected to start Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat. The Wizards are hopeful that Morris can become the 3-point shooting threat the team has been missing. The Wizards also expect to see second-year player Kelly Oubre Jr. take big strides forward and be a key player off the bench. He should play more than he did a year ago, when he averaged 11 minutes. The Hawks had their starting five on the court at the same time in their final two preseason games. Atlanta will start Howard, forwards Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver and guards Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore. Schroder will be the starter at point guard after veteran Jeff Teague was traded to Indiana. Malcolm Delaney will be the backup at point. The Wizards play their first two games on the road, going to Memphis on Sunday, before playing at home on Wednesday against Toronto. The Hawks travel to Philadelphia for a game on Saturday afternoon.
Time: 08:00 P.M. EST Venue: Scottrade Center ST. LOUIS - Coach Ken Hitchcock criticized the St. Louis Blues' effort and focus in a 4-1 loss to Calgary on Tuesday night. If they don't improve both of those areas in a hurry, the results in Thursday night's home game against the Detroit Red Wings might not be much better. The Red Wings are coming into the game as one of the hottest teams in the NHL, having won five consecutive contests after losing their first two to start the season. Detroit's most recent win came on Tuesday night at home, a 4-2 victory over Carolina that included the first two goals of the season from center Dylan Larkin." We have to keep going and we can't take the foot of the gas," Larkin told the Detroit News. "We have a big test on the road in St. Louis, a good team, especially at home. We have to do the right things that have made us successful in the last five games." Hitchcock also will be looking for his team to do the right things, the parts of the game they didn't do well in the loss to the Flames." We didn't manage it (the puck) very well," Hitchcock said. "We played sideways when we should have played with speed and gone north, and we played light on the boards when we could have really won some puck battles and played with a higher level of determination." St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo, said it will be up to the players to correct those mistakes if they want to a different outcome against the Red Wings." The games when you don't seem to have it mentally, you have to find a way to win," he said. The Blues could get Jori Lehtera back in the lineup for Thursday's game, but instead of playing center, Hitchcock said there was a chance he could move to left wing and play on a line with Jaden Schwartz at center and Vladimir Tarasenko on right wing. Lehtera has missed the last four games while being treated for an apparent concussion. Left winger Justin Abdelkader could return for the Red Wings after missing the last two games because of a lower-body injury. Returning to St. Louis as a new member of the Red Wings will be center Steve Ott, who spent the last three years with the Blues before signing as a free agent in Detroit. One of the keys to the Red Wings' recent success has been the ability to close out games, something they had trouble doing last season." That's the biggest difference," coach Jeff Blashill told NHL.com. "We've done that so far this season. We've done a good job of being able to score that extra goal if we've needed it. As I've talked about, we were actually good defensively in the third period last year but we still gave up lots of leads because you're constantly playing with just a one-goal lead so it's a big difference."
Time: 08:00 P.M. EST Venue: MTS Centre WINNIPEG -- Expect a little bit of bad blood when the Dallas Stars meet the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre on Thursday night. It's not that there's any particular score to be settled but when teams play back-to-back games, the hits tend to a little harder, the whacks a little louder and the back checking a little more rigorous. The Stars drew first the first cut Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center with a 3-2 victory, despite playing without a half-dozen regulars." I like the back-to-back," Stars coach Lindy Ruff told the Winnipeg Free Press. "It builds a little bit of emotion inside games. There's usually something that will carry over from game to game. I think in this league sometimes you only play one team in January for the first time." Jets coach Paul Maurice agreed." I like (back-to-back games) an awful lot. I think you get a little more room to work on adjustments that you'd make instead of bouncing around a lot. You can work on themes with the team and I think the rivalries get built a little stronger as well," he said to the Free Press. The Jets are spending a fair amount of time working on their power play, which sits at an anemic 10 percent -- two goals in 20 chances -- which is 25th in the league. As incredulous as it may sound, that's actually a relative improvement as the Jets were last in the league last year with the man advantage. The penalty-killing is even worse, sitting at 29th with a success ratio of 68.8 per cent. If they can find something -- anything -- that works, the Jets just might be able to avoid pulling the goalie, something they have done in all six of their games this year. (They have managed to score three goals with the net empty, ultimately pulling off a pair of wins.) The Jets sit at 2-4-0 for four points and are last in the Central Division. Dallas sits in third in the same division with a record of 3-2-1 and seven points. The Jets will play a whopping 15 games over the next 27 days, including nine on the road. The Stars, meanwhile, are starting a three-game road trip. The Stars come to Winnipeg with a number of their highest-profile players in sick bay, including forwards Jason Spezza (lower body), Jiri Hudler (illness) and Patrick Sharp (concussion). Captain Jamie Benn didn't skate Wednesday as he's dealing with soreness related to abdominal surgery in the summer. The Jets haven't been immune from the injury bug either as forwards Bryan Little (lower body) and Drew Stafford (upper body) are out indefinitely. There are precious few connections between the two teams but one player, defenseman Johnny Oduya, enjoys coming back to Winnipeg. He played most of the team's first season after relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011-12 before being dealt to Chicago at the trade deadline.
Time: 08:00 P.M. EST Venue: United Center The Chicago Bulls will have, perhaps, the most fitting opponent of any team in the NBA for a season-opening game Thursday night at the United Center. Chicago will debut its retooled roster against the Boston Celtics, with the Bulls' "Three Alphas" -- otherwise known as guards Jimmy Butler, Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo -- leading the way. It is a familiar structural concept to Rondo, the veteran point guard who signed with the Bulls in the offseason. In the early stages of his career, Rondo was a member of the Celtics when the "Big Three," of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce led Boston to the 2008 NBA title. Rondo and Wade are both aging, but feel they can help Butler bring the Bulls back to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference -- if not achieve loftier goals. Outside of the Bulls and their "Three Alphas," expectations are low. Butler, however, said he isn't paying attention to prognostications." I don't think (criticism) motivates us to do anything," Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times. "They're going to say and do whatever they're going to say and do whatever they want to do and say anyways. So ... motivation? Nah. Motivation is we get to go out and compete and put on for this organization every day." Wade and Rondo weren't the lone additions to the Bulls' roster, however. After trading former point guard Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks, the Bulls blew up last season's roster with a significant overhaul for coach Fred Hoiberg's second season. They will start out with 14 players, one short of the NBA maximum, and will have eight faces making their Bulls regular-season debut. Along with Rondo and Wade, Chicago will unveil center Robin Lopez, recently acquired backup guard Michael Carter-Williams, rookie guard Denzel Valentine, guard Jerian Grant, guard Isaiah Canaan and German rookie forward Paul Zipser. Wade, Rondo and Butler will start, along with Lopez and power forward Taj Gibson -- who earned a starting role over Nikola Mirotic. That starting five is geared more for slugging it out in the paint than spreading the floor and draining 3-pointers." We feel like (Gibson) has played excellent basketball throughout the preseason," Hoiberg said this week. "He's been good in practices. We've talked to our guys about that. Niko has had a couple good practices in a row now. You try to get him in a good rhythm coming out of the gate, but that's the way we're going to start." The Celtics will be a good test for Chicago, after opening their season Wednesday night with a 122-117 win over against the Brooklyn Nets -- to whom they traded Garnett and Pierce in a deal that is paying dividends for Boston in a bevy of draft picks that were acquired. Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 25 points and nine assists against Brooklyn, and Jae Crowder added 21 points. The Celtics are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, and they added four-time NBA All-Star Al Horford, who signed a four-year free agent contract worth $113 million. Horford's veteran experience up front is expected to mesh nicely with Boston's young core group. He contributed 11 points, six assists and five rebounds Wednesday as Boston held on to top the Nets. Brooklyn trailed by 21 with 5 1/2 minutes left yet had two chances to tie in the late going." That's the NBA for you," Horford said. "I think it will humble you sometimes. We had a comfortable lead and we thought it was fine, but this is a good learning experience for our group." Role players Marcus Smart (ankle) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) are injured to start the season, but the Celtics are confident their replacements can grant enough rest to the starters. In the opener, the Celtics chalked up 36 assists on 48 baskets -- the most assists by a team in an NBA opener since 2001. They also committed 19 turnovers." We could have even had more assists if we knocked down our open shots," Thomas said.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Quarterback Blake Bortles said Tuesday that he's not a fan of the mustard-colored uniforms that the Jacksonville Jaguars will don for their Thursday night road game against the Tennessee Titans." I think they could have done a better job, and I think they should choose a different color," he said. Truth is, whatever color uniform Jacksonville has modeled the last few years, the players haven't looked good in them. And if it can't muster up a better response for this game than it did in a lackluster 33-16 loss to the Oakland Raiders Sunday, it could lead to the kind of midseason changes no team wants to make. Some felt the Jaguars could be a surprise team this year, citing the offseason additions they made to a leaky defense. Instead, they have permitted nearly 27 points per game, putting pressure on an offense that hasn't been able to keep pace. Bortles has had trouble throwing the ball to his teammates, tossing nine interceptions in the first six games and only making marginal improvements in his accuracy. The running game remains a non-entity most weeks, forcing Bortles to throw nearly 40 times a game and making the offense too one-dimensional. With a 2-4 record, coach Gus Bradley is squarely on a scalding seat. This is his fourth year in charge, and the one-time Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator is just 14-40. Another poor performance in this one could lead to a firing that owner Shad Khan, who truly likes Bradley, wouldn't want to preside over but might have no choice. Yet Jacksonville still isn't out of the picture in the AFC South, a claim that can also be made by their opponent. Tennessee (3-4) missed on a great chance to tie Houston for first when it coughed up a lead in the last two minutes Sunday against Indianapolis, losing 34-26. So this game, despite the lack of pizzazz that comes with putting the Jaguars and Titans in prime time, will have meaning. And from Tennessee's perspective, it could have even more meaning if it was able to make a play or two at the end of last week's game, or in earlier defeats against Oakland and Houston." These have all been close games," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "We've just got to find a way -- especially like this week, that last drive, we felt like if we could hold them to a field goal, we could win that game." Instead, Tennessee couldn't keep tight end Jack Doyle from beating linebacker Avery Williamson in coverage for the 7-yard touchdown pass that gave the Colts a 27-23 lead. Then quarterback Marcus Mariota was strip-sacked on the first play following the ensuing kickoff, and Robert Mathis returned the fumble 14 yards for the game-clinching score. The loss dropped Mariota to 2-8 at home. Two of this year's three defeats were marked by late miscues from the second-year pro, who followed up two efficient performances with one that was a little sloppier." He doesn't want to let anybody down, so he doesn't want to make mistakes for his teammates, for this team, for this organization," Mularkey said. "If it's gray to him, he doesn't want to take the risk. I want him to be aggressive but smart. We definitely have the confidence in him." Tennessee will have to play without guard Quinton Spain (knee), who figures to be out for at least the next two games after being injured in the second quarter Sunday. That could make it a bit easier for Jacksonville to neutralize DeMarco Murray, the NFL's third-leading rusher with 633 yards. But the Jaguars have injury concerns of their own. Nose tackle Roy Miller is out for the year after tearing his right Achilles tendon against Oakland and will be replaced by backup Abry Jones. And if Jacksonville can't up its standard of play Thursday night, it may have far greater worries than the loss of its nose guard.--There's talk that if Bortles can't turn things around, the coaching staff could bench him for backup Chad Henne. That would be an admission that Bortles isn't the long-term answer. He hasn't helped his cause by tossing nine interceptions in the first six games, and needs to improve his completion percentage as well.
Time: 10:30 P.M. EST Venue: SAP Center at San Jose After being one of the NHL's also-rans for much of their existence, the Columbus Blue Jackets feel that it may be time to emulate the things successful teams do. The Blue Jackets seek their third consecutive win in San Jose on Thursday night when they meet the Sharks for the second and final time in the regular season. Since entering the league in 2000, Columbus has made the playoffs just twice. But there is optimism this season behind budding stars up front in Alexander Wennberg and on the blueline in Zach Werenski along with a veteran core that includes forwards Nick Foligno and Cam Atkinson, defenseman Seth Jones and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Following a loss to the Sharks on Oct. 15, Columbus defeated perennial powerhouses Chicago and Dallas before dropping a 3-2 decision in overtime on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Brandon Saad tallied his first goal of the season and Atkinson added a power-play marker. Bobrovsky stopped 27 shots. Foligno, who is tied with Wennberg and Werenski for the team lead with five points, is in his 10th NHL season and fifth with the Blue Jackets. He likes the direction the club is taking after finishing last in the Eastern Conference in 2015-16." We can take a lot of lessons from that game (against Los Angeles) of what type of team we need to be, and how we can be successful doing it. ... Now we got to get ready and, the things we talked about, don't get too high, don't get too low, and we've got a big game against San Jose," Foligno said. One facet in which Columbus has excelled this season is on special teams -- the Blue Jackets have killed off 16 of 17 short-handed situations. San Jose provided the only blemish by scoring in the final minute of a 3-2 win on Oct. 15 in Columbus. Though they've failed to make the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, the Blue Jackets won in both of their visits to San Jose, totaling 10 goals. After losing three games during an early five-game road trip, the Sharks (4-3-0) opened a three-game homestand with a 2-1 overtime win against Anaheim on Tuesday. Joe Pavelski scored a power-play goal less than 8 minutes into the game, and assisted on Marc-Edouard Vlasic's game-winner." It was one of those game where we needed everybody, and everyone showed up and played hard," Pavelski told the Mercury News. Pavelski leads the Sharks with nine points on three goals and six assists, but failed to register a point in San Jose's win in Columbus a couple of weeks ago. Given his recent history, that could change. Pavelski has recorded two-goal games in each of his last two home meetings against Columbus. The Sharks' Brent Burns is tied with Pavelski for the team lead with nine points -- also on three goals and six assists -- but the defenseman had failed to make the scoresheet in each of his last two contests. He had a season-high eight shots and drew a pair of assists in Columbus a couple of weeks back. While with San Jose, Burns has one assist in six career home games against the Blue Jackets. Joe Thornton, who has five assists but is still looking for his first goal in 2016-17, has failed to light the lamp when facing Columbus in San Jose in four straight games since Jan. 31, 2012.
Time: 10:30 P.M. EST Venue: Moda Center PORTLAND, Ore. -- Most pundits put the Los Angeles Clippers on a short list of contenders to make it to the NBA's Western Conference finals this season. That's just fine with Doc Rivers, the president of basketball operations and head coach of the Clippers." It's not a burden," said Rivers, who begins his fourth season at the Clipper helm against the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday night at the Moda Center. "Why should people expecting you to win ever be a burden I've never figured that one out." "You should be excited and happy any time you're in the NBA and you're on a team that people think is good. That's a pleasure." The Clippers are good. The presence of All-Stars such as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan plus veterans J. J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, the coach's son guarantee that. Now the team has added depth with free-agent signings of forwards Marreese Speights and Brandon Bass and guards Alan Anderson and Raymond Felton to minimum deals. It's ironic that the Clippers open the 2016-17 campaign against the team that knocked them out of the first round of the playoffs a year ago. Injuries to Paul and Griffin during the series play a large role in that, but it adds a bit of intrigue to the Clippers' debut game this season." We're excited," said Austin Rivers, who signed a three-year, $35-million contract in the offseason. "It's going to be a fun environment considering that's the team that knocked us out last year. We have our whole team back. So do they. It's going to be a fun game. The Trail Blazers got a two-day jump on the season over the Clippers, coming from behind to defeat the Utah Jazz 113-104 Tuesday night in their home opener. Damian Lillard launched an unofficial MVP campaign by scoring 39 points, 16 in the decisive fourth quarter." The best way to show that I mean that is by going out and playing like it," the Blazers' two-time All-Star point guard said. "Tonight was a good start." Portland had an outstanding offensive game, making 39 of 75 shots from the field (.520), 13 of 19 shots from the 3-point line (.684) and all 22 attempts from the foul line. The Blazers made their first seven 3-point tries and were 7 for 8 in the first half. But Portland's defense -- a focus coming into this season -- was spotty at best, especially in yielding a 37-point third quarter to the Jazz." Sometimes we get into an offensive mode, because we have so many guys who can score," reserve forward Ed Davis said. "We can outscore 85 percent of the teams in the league. To be able to win night in and night out, though, you have to get stops. That's what we did in the fourth. We've got to have more quarters like the fourth and less like the third." You give up 37 in a quarter, no way you can win a game. Giving up 30 in a quarter is a lot." The Blazers are special because of their camaraderie, Utah coach Quin Snyder said." They fit together really well," Snyder said. "Everybody embraces who they are. That's what makes them such a good team. They know their strengths. They complement each other. They're clearly an unselfish group, and that makes them hard to defend."
Time: 10:30 P.M. EST Venue: Golden 1 Center SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento Kings waited a long time to kick off a new era of basketball, especially considering the franchise's recent fortunes. Symbolically, they will step into the future Thursday when they open their shiny new arena. The San Antonio Spurs may find that to be the perfect backdrop as the continue into their new era of basketball, one that kicked off in a way reminiscent of the old one. Sacramento's new pad, the $557 million, 17,500-seat Golden 1 Center in the city's downtown area, will become the franchise's ninth home. It will be the Kings' third arena since moving to Sacramento in 1985. The Kings simply hope they can win there. Sacramento finished 18-23 in its final season at Sleep Train Arena and hasn't been above .500 at home in a season since the 2007-08 campaign. A win against San Antonio would add to the good feelings the Kings stirred up in a 113-94, opening-night win at Phoenix on Tuesday. Center DeMarcus Cousins scored 24 points, and forward Rudy Gay scored 22 with four blocked shots as a Kings team that allowed an NBA-worst 109.1 points per game a season ago held the Suns to only 38 in the first half. A victory for Sacramento on Thursday also would be the punctuation to a night of celebration that is supposed to mark a new path after 10 seasons of turmoil without a playoff appearance." The first thing we've got to do is learn how to compete, and the second thing then is to learn how to win," Sacramento coach Dave Joerger told the Sacramento Bee. "We're not a young group, so if we can get through stage one quickly, then we can get to stage two." The Spurs should feel right at home against a rowdy crowd. San Antonio laid a 129-100 beating upon the two-time Western Conference champion Warriors on Tuesday in Oakland, Calif., spoiling forward Kevin Durant's debut with Golden State and taking the air out of an arena overflowing with enthusiasm. San Antonio also showed that life without Tim Duncan might be just as full of winning as it was with him. The Spurs are playing without Duncan as a regular part of their lineup for the first time since the end of the 1996-97 season. The Hall of Fame-bound center retired in June after a 19-season career during which San Antonio won five championships and never won fewer than 50 games in a full regular season. With Duncan, the Spurs won 13 times in their past 14 visits to Sacramento. Without Duncan, San Antonio hardly missed a beat in its opener. The Spurs didn't need him on the glass, outrebounding Golden State 55-35. They also seemed to have no issues finding replacements, running up a 54-16 advantage with their reserves. Guard Jonathon Simmons turned in a 20-point effort. Guard Kawhi Leonard supplied the scoring with a 35-point night that included 15-for-15 shooting from the free-throw line. Only Duncan (twice), guard George Gervin and center David Robinson ever scored that many on a perfect night at the line for the Spurs, according to the San Antonio Express-News." If there was an outcome I wasn't expecting, it was this one," San Antonio's Manu Ginobili said after the game. "A 29-point lead against a team like them? I truly didn't expect it." Optimism from a new arena aside, the Kings aren't sure what to expect during the season's early days. They jumped to a 19-point halftime lead against the Suns and looked dynamic at times. However, the contest was the first of 11 in the season's first 17 days, eight of which they will play with only one true point guard (Ty Lawson) wile fellow point guard Darren Collison serves an eight-game suspension after pleading guilty to domestic abuse. Lawson played 36 minutes against Phoenix and finished with nine points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Time: 10:30 P.M. EST Venue: Staples Center The Los Angeles Kings have made a habit of collecting wins after regulation recently. The Nashville Predators know all too well what it's like to be on the losing end of such a contest when facing the Kings. Seeking their fourth straight win, the Kings welcome the struggling Predators to Staples Center on Thursday night. After opening the season with three consecutive losses, the Kings (3-3-0) have bounced back to win three in a row -- all after the score was knotted at the end of regulation. They began their run by winning 4-3 at Dallas in overtime on Thursday, then returned home to top Vancouver by the same score in a shootout on Saturday. Los Angeles continued its winning ways after regulation Tuesday. Alec Martinez scored 74 seconds in overtime to lift the Kings to a 3-2 victory over Columbus. The Kings went 2-1-0 vs. the Predators in 2015-16 with both wins secured in overtime. Jeff Carter scored with 18 seconds to play in the extra session in a 4-3 victory at Staples Center on Oct. 31. Tanner Pearson lit the lamp 1:18 into OT to give the Kings a 2-1 on Feb. 20 in Nashville. Pearson, a left wing, leads the Kings this season with four goals and six points, with all of his points recorded during a career-best four-game points streak. His lone goal and assist vs. the Predators have come in the last two matchups. A completely unexpected key to Los Angeles' resurgence has been veteran goaltender Peter Budaj, who was again expected to see the bulk of his playing time this season in the American Hockey League. But Jonathan Quick, the team's all-time wins leader, suffered a lower-body injury in the season opener and is expected to miss up to three months. Backup Jeff Zatkoff strained a groin hours before the win over the Canucks, opening the door for the Budaj, who's surrendered eight goals on 75 shots over the last three contests." Winning is fun," the 34-year-old Budaj told the Kings' official website after practice on Wednesday. "When you win the games, you're very excited, very happy. Everything comes easier. You work hard easier because your mind is a little looser because you're winning, but you cannot focus on what happened yesterday ... Yesterday was yesterday." Budaj is 7-5-0 with 2.31 goals-against average and one shutout in 12 career games against Nashville. However, he's not faced the Predators since Montreal posted a 2-1 win -- in overtime -- on Nov. 12, 2011. The Kings signed former Predators goaltender Anders Lindback on Wednesday and assigned him to Ontario of the AHL. Lindback has also played for Tampa Bay, Dallas, Buffalo and Arizona, posting a 45-58-8 record with a 2.87 GAA. Nashville dropped to 0-3-0 on the road after being drubbed 6-1 by Anaheim on Wednesday night in the opener of a five-game road trip. Colin Wilson's goal with just over 12 minutes left was the Predators' NHL-high 10th of the season. Lack of any offensive punch from their top two threats last season has a hand in why Nashville is tied with Winnipeg for last in the Central Division. Filip Forsberg, a team-best 33-goal scorer last season, has yet to tally one in 2016-17. James Neal, who was second on the club with 31 goals, also has yet to score. The Predators' top two defensemen, P. K. Subban (two goals, team high-tying five points) and Roman Josi (three assists and four points) have been trying to fill the offensive gap, but Nashville's goaltenders were shaky while surrendering five special-teams goals -- two of them short-handed -- against the Ducks. Pekka Rinne, playing in his first game after missing one due to food poisoning, was lifted late in the second period after stopping only 13 of 17 shots. Marek Mazanec, appearing in just his third NHL game going back to January 2015, turned aside seven of nine shots." We've got to do a better job of just being harder to play against, defending our goaltender better and defending our end better," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. However, Rinne is 2-0-1 in his last three appearances in Los Angeles despite posting a 3.57 GAA in that span. Mazanec defeated the Kings in his only start against them in December 2013 in Nashville. The Predators are 3-0-1 in their last four games at Staples Center, all one-goal decisions.
No. 22 Navy can edge closer to a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game with a win against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Friday. The Midshipmen (5-1, 4-0) are the only remaining undefeated team in AAC play and sit atop the West Division with four league games remaining. South Florida suffered its first league setback last week against Temple and dropped to second place behind the Owls in the East Division. Navy has been dominant with its triple-option attack, led by senior quarterback Will Worth. However, Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo is wary of the Bulls, who are scoring a league-best 42.4 points per game." It's another highly explosive offense, another tough challenge for our defense," Niumatalolo said. "They spread you out with a lot of different formations and stretch you vertically and horizontally." South Florida (6-2, 3-1) is looking to bounce back from the disappointing 46-30 loss to Temple. The setback not only knocked the Bulls from first-place, it also ended a nine-game winning streak against their AAC division opponents. Navy and its high-powered offense could pose an even bigger challenge." We really didn't do much of anything right. In every aspect, we did something wrong," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said about the loss to Temple. "You just can't play that way against a good team on the road and expect to win." The Bulls do have enough talent on offense to get into a shootout with Navy. South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers has been one of the most dominant players in the AAC and has completed 117 of his 200 pass attempts for 1,722 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He is also the team's leading rusher with 745 yards and eight touchdowns on 108 carries. Navy has spent time at practice this week preparing for the multi-faceted Flowers." Flowers is a bigger kid and maybe a more powerful runner, but they are very similar," Niumatalolo said. "Whenever the quarterback is able to carry the football it presents some problems. He has great running ability and a strong arm. He throws a really good deep ball." South Florida wide receiver Rodney Adams is one of Flowers' favorite targets and he has 34 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns. Adams also has had some success against Navy, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the Bulls' 29-17 loss in Annapolis last year. Flowers also likes to throw to D'Ernest Johnson, who has 18 catches for 171 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for 321 yards and four touchdowns on 59 carries. Marlon Mack is the primary running back for the Bulls with 659 yards rushing on 97 carries with 10 touchdowns. The Bulls will face a stern challenge from the Navy defense, which has forced at least one turnover in 24 of the last 26 games, including in five of six games this year. The Midshipmen are 5-0 when the defense creates a turnover. On offense, Navy will look to run the ball against the Bulls, who have given up huge chunks of yards in their two losses. In the loss to Temple, South Florida allowed 319 rushing yards. Florida State ran for 478 yards in its 55-35 victory over the Bulls on Sept. 24." In both losses we didn't stop the run and couldn't get off the field," Taggart said. "We have a ranked Navy team coming in here that is going to run the ball so we have another tough challenge ahead of us." Navy averages 293.2 rushing yards per game. Last week in a 42-28 victory over Memphis, the Midshipmen had 447 rushing yards. Worth ran for a career-high 201 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. He also completed three of his four pass attempts for 85 yards with two touchdowns and was named the AAC Offensive Player of the Week. Worth has now scored a touchdown in every game this year and leads the Midshipmen with nine rushing scores on the season. Not bad for a quarterback who is only starting because of a season-ending knee injury to Tago Smith." I thought Will could run our offense, but he's playing a lot better than I thought he would," Niumatalolo said.