Capitals

Buckeyes win them all but still get left behind

Buckeyes win them all but still get left behind

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Jack Mewhort loves college football. Yet he likely won't go out of his way to watch a single bowl game in the coming days.

What's the point, the thoughtful, red-haired Ohio State offensive lineman says, not really seeking an answer.

``Now that the season is over, you can sit around and think to yourself a little bit,'' he said in a voice a lot softer than you might expect coming from a body measuring 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds. ``Your mind kind of wanders. We accomplished everything we possibly could.

``But you've got to keep the demons out.''

The Buckeyes aren't allowed, due to NCAA violations committed by those no longer with the team, to play in a bowl game. They did all they could during the 2012 season, going 12-0.

So while Notre Dame and one-loss Alabama fight it out for the national championship, and while lesser teams play in sunny climes and get maximum exposure, Mewhort and the rest of the Buckeyes are left with their thoughts.

Coach Urban Meyer is perfectly willing to move on, to cease all the talk about NCAA crimes and punishment.

But that doesn't mean, the Ohio State coach still doesn't have a lingering regret: What might have been.

``It's very difficult,'' concedes Meyer, not one to spend a lot of time dealing with the what-ifs of daily life. ``After we won our last game (against rival Michigan) and we saw we couldn't go play in the Big Ten championship game, and then if we would have won that we might have been playing for the national championship - you can't help but think about it.''

There's plenty of regret to go around at Ohio State these days. There's regret that former coach Jim Tressel, who wrote books about integrity, morals and leading a Christian life, found out in 2010 that some of his best players took money from a suspected drug dealer and yet did nothing about it. He played those players anyway and they were later ruled ineligible for taking cash and free tattoos. A 12-1 season, including a Sugar Bowl victory two years ago, was wiped off the books.

Tressel was forced out of the job in disgrace after 10 years and all of the players involved either graduated, moved on to the NFL or went elsewhere.

There's also regret that athletic director Gene Smith, who once worked on the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, didn't give up a meaningless Gator Bowl bid after the 2011 season as a pre-emptive strike to mollify the NCAA. The thinking is that, had he surrendered that game - what would be the seventh loss in an utterly forgettable year of suspensions, innuendo, investigations and sanctions - perhaps the current Buckeyes might still be pursuing that elusive national championship berth.

Smith, for one, refuses to play the blame game. He said he doesn't feel any remorse for his decision whatsoever.

``No. As I've said before, with the information we had at the time we made the decisions at the time that we felt were the best decisions,'' he said. ``So we've moved on. I guess that's the challenge. We've moved on. We're looking at what we accomplished this year, we're looking at the future and we're recognizing the opportunities ahead of us that are exciting because of how we stayed focused on helping this team and this coaching staff be successful.''

Of course, the players affected the most by the bowl ban are Ohio State's seniors. They overcame doubts and questions to post just the sixth unbeaten and untied season in the program's 123 seasons. Yet, for the sins of others, they're deprived of the reward of going on a good bowl trip.

``I can't stay here and live in the past and wish and hope,'' said a wistful Etienne Sabino, a senior linebacker. ``There's nothing I can control. I try not to think about it.''

But the underclassmen feel a void, as well.

Star quarterback Braxton Miller says it's an injustice that the Buckeyes paid the price for others' mistakes in judgment.

``I'm really disappointed,'' said Miller, who will be a junior next fall. ``They got in trouble before I got here. With the probation, it's very disturbing for the players. We put in the hard work and went 12-0 and, you know, should have had an opportunity to go to the national championship game. It's not fair.''

There are other considerations, of course. The lack of a bowl game denies Ohio State weeks of practice that even a mediocre bowl-bound team with a 6-6 record gets. It also denies a national stage to an unbeaten team, perhaps preventing the seniors from another opportunity to impress pro scouts. And it eliminates an additional high-profile chance for Meyer to show off the rebuilding project he's overseen at Ohio State, one that might be very appealing to potential recruits who are glued to the TV during the postseason.

Meyer believes the players will just have to work harder to make up for those missed practices. And that the coaches must work even harder to reach recruits and spread the word of the rebirth at Ohio State in the wake of the Tressel trauma.

Those are still minor considerations, he believes, compared to what the seniors lost.

``Everybody has a dream of playing for a national title and our guys don't get that opportunity,'' he said softly.

Despite the premature end to their season, the players take great pride in that perfect record. NCAA rules allow players to leave a team - without having to sit out a transfer year - when a team gets hit with major penalties. Yet none of the Buckeyes left under those circumstances. They stuck around, and will be rewarded with rings for winning their Big Ten division and will be remembered as a unit that provided a cornerstone for what's to come.

``This season just kind of sets a tone for the future years,'' senior fullback and linebacker Zach Boren said.

That doesn't mean being left behind isn't painful.

``We're really proud of what we did going 12-0. We accomplished everything we could. We won our division, we won our big game (Michigan) at the end,'' Mewhort said. ``I want to stress how important that was to us to win every game possible for these seniors. They led us. It was all for them. But it does get a little frustrating as you get close to bowl season.

``Because you still have that fire burning, you know. You want to go out there and compete.''

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Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

We all know that Alex Ovechkin is a world-class goal scorer. He is the best goal scorer of his generation and perhaps the best of all time. He tallied another two goals Monday in Game 6, but that’s not what really impressed head coach Barry Trotz.

While Ovechkin's career is full of highlight reel goals, it was the ugly plays that really caught Trotz's eye on Monday.

"[Ovechkin's] evolved in areas of his game," Trotz said after the game. "He’s not just at that dot. He’ll go to the front of the net, he’s not scared to do that. It’s just adding layers to his game."

Ovechkin's first goal of the game was not pretty. It won't make any Top 10 lists, it won't be shown throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was an ugly rebound goal...and it was beautiful.

Just four minutes after Nick Foligno tied the game, Ovechkin put the Caps back ahead with a rebound goal. He had parked himself in front of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and was in perfect position when Bobrovsky made a kick out save to backhand the rebound into the empty net.

Those are the type of plays we did not always see from the Great 8 and it didn't stop there.

As Washington tried to close out the game, Ovechkin went all out trying to help his team preserve the lead as he blocked a shot from Ryan Murray with less than three minutes to go.

"I’m probably as proud of him right at the end of the game blocking shots and doing that type of thing," Trotz said. "That’s full commitment. When that was necessary, that’s where you get your street cred with your teammates. You’ve got to block a shot when it’s necessary and get a puck out when it’s necessary. I’d probably give him more props on that than even scoring goals because that’s what you really expect of him."

Few expected a 32-year-old Ovechkin to rebound from a 33-goal season, but he did just that with 49 goals in 2017-18 to win his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy as the league-leader. The reason why was on full display on Monday. It is because he has evolved his game. Instead of relying just on the quick rushes, pretty one-timers and incredible dekes, he has committed more to getting to the contested areas and scoring those dirty goals.

That commitment on offense seemed to translate to the defense as well as he was there blocking shots with the rest of his teammates.

"Those are the necessary things, those necessary details that allow you to win," Trotz said. "If you don’t have them, then you’re not going to win."

MORE CAPITALS: Pens again: Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

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Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

The Caps are headed to the 2018 NHL Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins… again.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Yes, for the third time in three years, the Capitals will play the Penguins, hoping to take down the defending Stanley Cup champions and advance out of the second round of the playoffs and to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the 1998 season, when the team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals are riding momentum from their first-round series win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, where they fought back from an 0-2 series hole to win the series thanks to a 6-3 victory in Game 6 Monday night in Columbus.

That momentum coupled with home-ice advantage — should they choose to capitalize on that this time around — could create an ideal atmosphere for the Caps to take a 2-0 series lead before heading to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.

A perennial problem, Sidney Crosby enters this series playing some of his best playoff hockey. In their 4-2 series win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pens’ captain scored six goals in six games, including a hat trick in the opening matchup.

But he’s not the only one creating havoc for goalies. Center Jake Guentzel is tied with Crosby at the top of the league in goals and points in the playoffs. The pair each had six goals and seven assists against the Flyers, as well as 17 shots on goal apiece.

Is it possible they’ll get stonewalled by Braden Holtby, who — despite not starting initially in the first two games for the Caps against the Blue Jackets — is rocking a 93.6 save percentage and ranks fourth in the league with a 1.66 goals against average among goaltenders who have played more than one postseason game.

If the Caps can find a spark in their offense with Holtby staying strong in goal, perhaps this could be the year they finally slide past the Pens.

However, history isn’t exactly on Washington’s side. In the second-round series from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, the Pens hold an 8-5 record over the Caps, eliminating them both years on their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Pittsburgh leads the Caps in the overall playoff game record, 38-24, and they’ve met for 10 series in the postseason, dating back to 1990-91. Four times the series was pushed to a Game 7, but the Caps never came out on top.

The one and only time the Caps have ever eliminated the Pens from the playoffs was in the 1993-94 season, when they beat Pittsburgh 4-2 in the first round before losing to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

But hey, this year could become the second time in franchise history the Caps take down the Pens.

The NHL has yet to announce when Game 1 of the Capitals vs. Penguins series will take place, but with the Wizards playing Game 6 of their NBA Playoff series at home on Friday, the likliest start date is either Thursday, April 26 or Saturday, April 28.