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Bucks in thick of Central race for now

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Bucks in thick of Central race for now

MILWAUKEE (AP) Before the season, few figured the Milwaukee Bucks would be challenging for the Central Division lead.

Yet here they are at 15-12, just a half-game behind division-leading Indiana and tied with Chicago entering Thursday night's games. With Detroit and Cleveland struggling, the Central is currently a three-team race between Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee.

The Bulls are eagerly awaiting the return of star guard Derrick Rose from a knee injury and the Pacers are in similar situation with injured star Danny Granger, with both not expected back until February at the earliest. That leaves the Bucks, often maddeningly frustrating so far this season, with an outside chance of grabbing their first division title since 2001.

``Based on the records, you have to think (there's a chance),'' says Mike Dunleavy, Jr., one of the team's most consistent players this season. ``Nobody has separated themselves to this point. Until somebody does that, it's anybody's race.''

It's been an up-and-down season for the Bucks, who opened eyes with a 6-2 start but followed that with just two victories in their next nine games. After a four-game winning streak, Milwaukee has alternated wins and losses, and like many teams in the East, is trying to separate itself from the pack.

``We're 15-12,'' coach Scott Skiles says. ``I don't think we're a finished product yet. We're still trying to figure out some things.''

After a bruising stretch of four games in five nights, the Bucks got a bit of a breather with just one game - a 108-93 victory over Brooklyn on Wednesday night - over the course of a week. Along with getting a chance to rest weary legs and get injured players healthy, the break also let the Bucks get back on the practice court to clean up some loose ends.

``We're OK right now, but we can get better,'' guard Monta Ellis says. ``Hopefully we make that run and separate ourselves. We just have to worry about us; one day, one game at a time and see what happens.''

The Bucks' defense, a hallmark of Skiles-coached teams, has taken some time to come around, but has started to show some consistency. Milwaukee is 11th in the league, allowing 96.75 points per game and in the middle of the pack defending shots, holding opponents to 44 percent shooting.

Shot blocking has become the Bucks' specialty this season. Larry Sanders who is tied with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka for the league lead with 3.0 per game. As a team, Milwaukee is second in the league with 7.54, just slightly behind the Thunder overall.

``Our defense is getting to an acceptable level,'' Skiles says. ``It's getting better, there's no doubt about that. As long as we don't (take shortcuts), we're in pretty good shape. Then, of course, we have really good rim protection. We just have to make sure that when we're ahead, or playing behind, we're playing the same way.''

As the defense has become more consistent, the offense has often struggled. Milwaukee is 21st in the league with 95.46 points per game and 25th from the field, connecting at a 43 percent clip. The 3-pointer was supposed to be a strong suit for the Bucks this season, but even with sharp-shooters like Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Jennings and Ellis, Milwaukee is near the bottom of the league with a 32.5 percent average.

They showed signs of life Wednesday, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and going 10 for 17 from behind the arc. In his last three games, Ellis is averaging 28 points and five assists while shooting 50 percent (31 of 62) from the field. He was the lone bright spot in Milwaukee's 94-82 loss to Cleveland last weekend, scoring a season high 37 points.

During that same stretch, Jennings is averaging 14.6 points - slightly below his season average of 17.6 - but when his shot hasn't been falling, he's found other ways to contribute, as when he dished out eight assists the case in a 99-94 victory at Boston on Dec. 12.

The pressure on that duo will be lessened slightly as Beno Udrih returned to the court Wednesday after missing 12 games with a sprained ankle. Before the injury, Udrih was a key weapon off the bench, averaging 8.3 points in 18 minutes.

``We've been a little bit thin back there,'' Skiles says. ``We're getting healthy again and may be in a situation where they don't have to play 40 minutes. Hopefully that will be the case.''

For the Bucks to make a move, they can start by protecting their home court, where Milwaukee is just 8-6 this season. It's not a new problem: The Bucks were just 22-19 at home during the 2010-11 season and 17-16 during the lockout-shortened campaign a year ago.

By contrast, the Bucks were 28-13 in Milwaukee during the 2009-10 season, when a late surge earned them the sixth seed in the playoffs.

``We have to win that game,'' Skiles says. ``We can't keep letting that happen, especially at home. We have to be much better at home.''

Five of the Bucks' next eight games are at home, but it starts with a bang: The defending NBA champion Miami Heat visit on Saturday.

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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.