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A Kid no More: Sidney Crosby is Back, and Better



Sidney Crosby does not have an off switch. If there were one, Patric Hornqvist believes he would have found it by now.

Not once over the past two years while playing alongside one of the NHL’s most popular players has Hornqvist seen an exasperated sigh, a roll of the eyes or so much as a smirk from the superstar who has dutifully served as one of the faces from the league from the moment the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him No. 1 over all in 2005 and he became tasked with restoring the languishing franchise to glory.

“It’s crazy how well prepared he is for everything,” Hornqvist said.

Of course it’s easy to say now, with the Penguins holding a 1-0 lead over San Jose heading into Wednesday night’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Their captain and two-time MVP seems restored to his place among the game’s elite after ending a seven-year drought between appearances in the NHL’s marquee event.

It’s a gap few saw coming when the 21-year-old Crosby held the Cup aloft in joy in Detroit back in 2009 after beating the Red Wings in seven taut games.

“Everybody thought [we’d] win 5-6-7 in the next 10 years,” recently retired Pittsburgh forward Pascal Dupuis said.

Everybody thought wrong. The burgeoning dynasty fizzled, with Crosby bearing the brunt of perpetual disappointment, accepting the blame for everything from his health to spotty goaltending to a top-heavy roster that lacked the depth necessary to make a deep postseason run.

“Look, this is his third final in his short career to this point, and that’s pretty good,” said former Pittsburgh coach Ed Olczyk, who coached Crosby as a rookie in 2005-06. “Now, in saying that, there haven’t been many teams that have underachieved more than the Pittsburgh Penguins over the course of the last five or six years.”

A label Crosby took personally even as circumstances – some beyond his control, some not – made him struggle to shed it. There was the protracted recovery from concussion-like symptoms that robbed him of two seasons in his prime. A series of meek playoff flame-outs in which opponents found a way to stifle his brilliance.

“You just have to be able to put it all together at the right time,” Crosby said. “I don’t think we necessarily lacked those things in years we didn’t win. I think you just have to be able to put it together and come up with those big plays at timely times.”

And in some ways, Crosby had to grow up, too. For all his talent, – he’s never finished outside the top 10 in points a game in any season in which he’s played enough games to qualify – he can occasionally be too unselfish with the puck on his stick, sometimes trading wide-open shots for difficult passes in search of a teammate who may or may not be ready for them.

It’s a line he’s learned to straddle more carefully under Mike Sullivan, who freed Crosby from the constraints placed on him by former coach Mike Johnston. Sullivan encouraged Crosby to embrace his creativity so long as he finds a way to do it responsibly. It’s not a coincidence that Crosby put up 31 goals and 36 assists in 52 games with Sullivan on the bench. He’s added six goals – three of them game-winners – and 10 assists through 19 playoff games.

“He’s a threat,” Sullivan said. “Every time he jumps over the boards, we feel like he’s a threat to score, just a threat as far as putting pressure on our opponent’s defence. He has that twinkle in his eye, I think.”

For proof, look no further than Crosby’s vibrant play in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win over San Jose in Game 1. There was the slick backhand feed to rookie teammate Conor Sheary for the opening goal. The relentless work around the net. The vision that allows him to see things others do not.

“Everything about him is about how he creates a competitive advantage for himself,” Sullivan said. “Watching it every day I’ve grown to have more respect and more admiration for the type of effort he’s put in to be the best player in the world.”

It’s a moniker Crosby held throughout his early 20s, right up until the moment the Washington centre David Steckel’s stick smashed into Crosby’s head during the 2011 Winter Classic, a collision that sent Crosby on a two-year odyssey for a return to normal and nearly made him a cautionary tale.

He only speaks about that period in only vague terms now, though Hornqvist is quick to point out Crosby is more judicious when it comes to deciding when to drive to the net and when to pull back than he was earlier in his career. Crosby would prefer to talk about the present and a future that once again looks promising. He turns 29 in August, hardly old but no longer “Sid the Kid.”

That’s a good thing. The captaincy thrust upon him as a teenager no longer feels symbolic but earned. He’s made it a point to become a better teammate away from the rink, whether it’s pulling aside younger players to talk about working with referees to keeping tabs on those recovering from injury, his comfort zone spreading far wider than his 200-by-85 foot office.

“I think he’s always been more mature than his age,” Dupuis said. “You take that and you take the stuff that he’s gone through and you add to it while he’s 28 right now, he’s probably the most mature 28-year-old you’ll see on the planet.”

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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