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Former walk-on Kovacs living his dream at Michigan

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Former walk-on Kovacs living his dream at Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Jordan Kovacs was stuck in the stands as a fan at Michigan Stadium as a freshman, stewing about having his dream delayed by a lingering knee problem.

``It ate at me because I knew I was so close to making it on the team,'' Kovacs recalled recently in an interview with The Associated Press. ``It made me hungrier.''

Four years later, Kovacs will start the 45th game of his storybook career Saturday when the 20th-ranked Wolverines travel to his home state to play No. 4 Ohio State.

``I'm still pinching myself,'' Kovacs told The AP. ``It's quite a story and it's been quite the ride, but I don't want it to end and thankfully the story isn't over yet.''

He grew up in Curtice, Ohio, about 15 miles southeast of the Michigan state line, hoping to follow his father's footsteps onto the field at the Big House.

College football's winningest program, though, didn't recruit him. Smaller schools such as Hillsdale, a Division II program in Michigan, didn't even want to offer the undersized safety without blazing speed a scholarship.

Kovacs sent in an application to attend Michigan and his father sent a highlight tape to Schembechler Hall, where Rich Rodriguez was getting ready for his first season as coach, and was put on a waiting list by the school's admissions office.

In June of 2008, running out of time to find a place to take classes and play football, Kovacs accepted an offer to be a preferred walk-on at Toledo. Remarkably on the very same day, then-Michigan director of football operations Brad Labadie called his father to say his son could get into the school and would have a shot to try out for a spot on the team.

``Jordan's tape didn't make him a slam-dunk to be on the team, but what helped him was it was obvious that his dream was to play at Michigan when he called or emailed me,'' Labadie, who now works in the insurance business, said Tuesday night. ``With walk-ons, we'd ask the question internally, `Does the kid or the dad want this?' And without a doubt, Jordan wanted it as much as much as any walk-on ever at Michigan.''

Kovacs then went through walk-on tryouts and earned a spot on the team.

Another obstacle, though, turned his dream into a nightmare.

Kovacs told Michigan's head athletic trainer, Paul Schmidt, who he knew as a kid, that he was still having problems with his surgically repaired left knee and that knocked him off the roster.

``He let me walk out the back door because he could tell how upset I was,'' Kovacs recalled. ``That was probably the most disappointing moment of my life because I reached my ultimate goal, my dream, and it was taken away from me just like that because I was honest about my knee.''

Kovacs walked back to his dorm, tears rolling down his cheeks, and called his parents to schedule another surgery on his knee in the hopes of getting healthy enough for another tryout the following spring.

When he and his mother showed up for the appointment in October of 2008, they were told that he wasn't scheduled for surgery, but she wouldn't take no for an answer and the procedure was done that day.

``So many weird things like that happened along the way,'' Kovacs said.

Kovacs made it through tryouts a second time in 2009 - and passed his physical - and quickly went from backup to key contributor that fall when safety Mike Williams left a game against Notre Dame.

``I remember standing on the sideline right next to him, he grabbed his helmet and had that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face,'' senior center Elliott Mealer recalled this week. ``You were kind of like, `Geez, I don't know how this guy is going to take this.' But he went out there and he hasn't looked back since.''

Kovacs ended up starting eight games as a freshman and has stayed on the field as a starter - earning All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition as a sophomore and junior - and earned the honor of being voted as a captain this season.

Lou Kovacs said he played only in ``mop-up duty'' from 1980-82 for Bo Schembechler at Michigan and is beyond proud of what his son has been able to accomplish at the same storied program three decades later.

He took his son to Ohio State for a few games against Michigan when he was a kid and will be in the stands at the Horseshoe with mixed emotions as he watches his him play the Buckeyes in his last regular-season game.

``Jordan had a great career, but it's a little sad that it's coming to an end,'' Lou Kovcas said Tuesday. ``He's a determined young man - and always has been - and has been very focused on reaching his dream. And the attributes that helped him do it, will serve him well for the rest of his life.''

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter:http://twitter.com/larrylage

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

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USA TODAY Sports

Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

The mood in the Capitals locker room following a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday was one of frustration. Forty minutes of strong play from Washington amounted to nothing because of a disastrous opening first period in which the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

No one in the locker room was more frustrated than Braden Holtby.

"Obviously you don't want to go down three," he told reporters after the game. "That's on no one else but me. The third goal, especially the third, fourth goal, that's the difference in the game. I thought we played a really strong game against a really good team. We should have got a better result and that's on me why we didn't."

Tampa scored three goals in the first off of only eight shots. For the game, the Lightning managed to pierce Holtby four times off of only 19 shots.

RELATED: WHY THE CAPS LOST TO THE LIGHTNING

Frustration seemed to boil over on the fourth goal when a normally stoic Holtby was visibly upset after allowing Nikita Kucherov to beat him on a breakaway in a play similar to what we saw in the All-Star Game.

See for yourself:

"The key to getting better is learning from your mistakes and obviously I didn't do that," Holtby said. "I was just trying to play it patient. I wasn't trying to cheat towards that move and he came at it a different way. That's on me for not recognizing it. That's not a goal I can give up in that situation after our team battled the way they did, especially in the third."

The frustration Holtby feels likely is not the result of one goal, but the culmination of a recent slump that continues to plague the Vezina winner.

Holtby has lost four straight starts and has given up at least four goals in each of those games.

While Holtby was quick to take the blame for Tuesday's loss, head coach Barry Trotz was quick to defend his netminder.

"No one takes the loss," he said. "We all take a loss. I take a loss, the group takes a loss and Braden's part of the group. ... He's had a little tough stretch. It's no different than, we've got guys that haven't scored in 15, 20 games. It's no different than a player."

The challenge now is overcoming that slump.

For a slumping skater, Trotz could try different line combinations or play someone in different situations over the course of the game. Getting a starting goalie out of a slump, however, is more difficult. Most of the work has to be done in practice with the hope that it will carry over into the next game.

"You analyze how the goals are going in, what you're doing differently," Holtby said. "There's always some stuff that you can't control and stuff that you can and it's focusing on those contrallables that you can make a difference at. Like the first goal in Chicago, the last two goals here, those are goals that I could and should stop. You get to practice the next day and you focus on that and work hard until you figure it out so you don't do it again."

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Part of the problem in Washington is that team defense is the Caps' biggest weakness. For most of the season, and even in years past, Holtby has made up for much of the team's mistakes on the backend. Now that he is slumping those mistakes become much more glaring and costly.

"The goaltenders in this league are erasers," Trotz said.

Lately, Holtby has not been able to erase those mistakes.

But the team has already moved to address the defense. Brian MacLellan added a puck-moving defenseman in Michal Kempny to help the team get the puck out of the defensive zone more quickly. Waiving Taylor Chorney could also signify another move may be coming before Monday's trade deadline.

As for Trotz, even during the slump, he made clear his confidence in Holtby has not wavered.

"He has been a rock since the day I've been here the last four years and he's been an elite goaltender and I look at him that way."

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2018 Olympic Hockey Results: Czech Republic eliminate U.S. men in shootout winner

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USA Today Sports

2018 Olympic Hockey Results: Czech Republic eliminate U.S. men in shootout winner

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Pavel Francouz stopped all five shooters and Petr Kouka scored the shootout winner as the Czech Republic eliminated the United States with a 3-2 victory in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

Jan Kovar and Tomas Kundratek scored in regulation for the Czech Republic, which was fresher after winning its group and getting a bye into the quarterfinals. The U.S. looked fatigued after facing Slovakia in the qualification round and was outshot 29-20.

Ryan Donato and Jim Slater scored for the U.S, which again was led by its youngest players, including speedster Troy Terry. U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski allowed three goals on 29 shots and one in the shotoout, while Francouz stopped 18 in regulation and overtime.

Koukal was the only player to score in overtime. Chris Bourque, Ryan Donato, Marc Arcobello, Terry and Bobby Butler couldn't beat Francouz.

RELATED: OVECHKIN HAS LITTLE DESIRE TO WATCH 2018 WINTER OLYMPICS