Capitals

Pac-12 South race still clouded

201211032051751198518-p2.jpeg

Pac-12 South race still clouded

PHOENIX (AP) Arizona State has gone into a small tailspin, losing three straight games, all in conference.

Even that hasn't been enough to knock the Sun Devils out of what's become a muddled race in the Pac-12 South Division.

``We're still competing for this,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ``This thing is far from over. We're going to fight and scratch all the way down until the end.''

The North Division race appears to be Oregon's to lose.

The second-ranked and undefeated Ducks (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) have been nearly untouchable so far this season and are coming off a record-breaking performance against Southern California last week. They still need to play well with No. 13 Oregon State and No. 16 Stanford just a game back at 5-1 and still to come for the Ducks.

The race for the South is not so clear cut.

Arizona State was out in front when the conference season started, thanks to USC's opening loss to Stanford and the Sun Devils' wins over Utah, California and Colorado.

After Arizona State lost to Oregon, it was USC's turn to be in control of the South. The Trojans didn't stay there long, falling back after losses to Arizona and the Ducks.

Now UCLA has taken the wheel.

Once 1-2 in the Pac-12, the 17th-ranked Bruins have surged to the South lead after beating Utah, Arizona State and Arizona.

Heading into this weekend's games, UCLA leads the division at 4-2. No. 21 USC is a half-game back at 4-3 and Arizona State still has a chance at 3-3.

The way things have gone so far in the South, the lead could change three more times over the final three weeks of the season, teams winning by 30 one week, losing by 40 the next.

``College football is really interesting to me,'' UCLA coach Jim Mora said. ``I'm used to where you get a 10-point lead on somebody, that's a pretty darn good lead. I'm used to games coming down the last two or three drives of a game in the pros, but in college it's just a totally different animal. Boy, it's exciting. It's wild, it's crazy, it's exciting, it's emotional. It's a lot of fun.''

This weekend could mark the end of one team's run to the division title.

While UCLA is expected to roll past winless-in-conference Washington State, Arizona State and USC meet in the Coliseum at high noon on Saturday.

Both are searching for ways to end losing streaks.

Arizona State has fallen off after opening the season 5-1, blown out by Oregon and unable to come up with the big plays when it needed them in losses to UCLA and Oregon State.

Once a national-title contender, USC is reeling after allowing 101 points and over 1,300 yards of offense in losses to Arizona and the Ducks.

If the Trojans win, they'll be right there in the race for the South. If the Sun Devils win, they'll still be within at least a game of the division lead and tied with USC for second.

``We have in no way given up our focus on our goals on wanting to be a champion, but we just have got to win a game,'' Graham said. ``That is our focus, to go win a game. Our guys are very motivated to have the opportunity play USC this week and obviously, it's a big challenge as well.''

While Arizona State and UCLA still have three conference games left, USC is down to two, closing the season with a nonconference game against Notre Dame.

With little margin for error, USC has to beat Arizona State this weekend and faces a huge game against rival UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17.

But, should the Trojans win both of those, they would win the South and earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 20.

``They can control the rest of their season,'' USC coach Lane Kiffin said. ``There's a lot of teams in the country that can't after everything that's happened. After screwing games up, we're fortunate to be in that situation.''

UCLA is coming off a somewhat unexpected 66-10 rout over Arizona and is a two touchdown favorite over Mike Leach's Cougars on Saturday.

It gets a little tougher after that.

Despite its two straight losses and problems on defense, USC still has one of the nation's most prolific offenses and it will be a rivalry game, where almost anything can and usually does happen.

After that, the Bruins have to gather themselves for another difficult game, facing Stanford and its power running game in the season finale on Nov. 24.

UCLA won the South last season because USC was ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, but will have to earn it this season. That starts with avoiding a letdown against Washington State.

``They haven't been distracted up to this point,'' Mora said. ``They've done a tremendous job of focusing on the here-and-now, the goal that's directly in front of them.''

One goal, at least for three teams, is still to win the Pac-12 South.

That could change this weekend - and probably will.

Quick Links

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

After a rough start, the Caps battled back to make a game of it against Tampa Bay, but ultimately fell 4-2 to the Lightning. Here's why.

The first period

To put it simply, this game was lost in the opening period. Washington was the better team for the second and third but they could not overcome the 3-0 lead they spotted the Lightning in the first. Beyond the goals, the Caps just did not play well. Even the simplest of plays looked difficult as Washington struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, gave up numerous turnovers and scoring chances and just looked overmatched. Braden Holtby also looked shaky allowing three goals on just eight shots. Usually he is able to cover up some of the mistakes the defense makes it front of him, but he was not there to bail the team out on Tuesday in what was a really rocky start.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Taking a penalty 34 seconds into the game

Entering Tuesday’s game, Tampa Bay boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Playing a disciplined game is part of every game plan, but that is especially true against such a dominant unit. Giving up a penalty just 34 seconds into the game was not an ideal start. The call itself was debatable. Brett Connolly was called for interference when he knocked over Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. The puck was just behind Girardi as he had lost control of it in his skates. The sticking point here is that Girardi no longer had possession and Connolly could have played the puck instead of the player. Most referees would probably let that go with the puck so close, but Connolly was not so lucky. Whether it was a good call or not, the Caps found themselves down a man and down a goal soon after as Brayden Point scored the power play tally.

A missed opportunity from Kuznetsov on one end, a goal for Nikita Kucherov on the other

Even after spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead, the Caps made a game of it. Lars Eller struck on the power play in the second period and Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington to within one with about nine minutes left to play. Just over a minute later, Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the puck away from Nikita Kucherov, the frontrunner for league MVP this season, at the Tampa blue line giving the Caps a short 2-on-1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was textbook on the play forcing Kuznetsov as far wide as he could go while still covering the passing lane and Kuznetsov elected to shoot from the faceoff dot rather than attempt the pass to T.J. Oshie.Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine blocker save to deny what looked like a great opportunity to tie the game. As always happens in hockey, a failed opportunity on one end led to an opportunity in the other direction. Less than a minute later, Kucherov made up for his mistake by scoring a breakaway goal to put the game out of reach at 4-2.

MORE CAPITALS: KEMPNY EXCITED TO MOVE FROM LAST PLACE CHICAGO TO FIRST PLACE WASHINGTON

Quick Links

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

The first 20 minutes of Tuesday's game did not go well for Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored three times in the opening frame and rode that lead all the way to the 4-2 win.

With the game heading towards a repeat of their blowout loss to Chicago, the Capitals rebounded in the second period to make a game of it as Lars Eller scored on a power play. Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington within one in the third period, but Nikita Kucherov slammed the door shut with a breakaway goal to extend the lead back to 2.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Brayden Point: Tampa Bay won this game in the first period when they took a 3-0 lead. Point scored two of those three goals. His first came only 2:30 into the game. He retreated to the blue line on the power play believing Jay Beagle would clear the puck. When Beagle turned the puck over, he recognized it and immediately crashed the net, taking a Ryan Callahan pass in the slot and shooting it through the five-hole of Braden Holtby.

On his second goal, Anton Stralman saw an opportunity on the Caps’ line change and passed the puck up to Point at the blue line. Point turned on the jets to get behind the defense and went five-hole again on Holtby to make the score 3-0.

2. Alex Ovechkin: After the first period, Washington slowly took this game over for much of the remaining 40 minutes. Ovechkin was a big part of that as he totaled an incredible 19 shot attempts for the game. Nine of those shots were on goal and he found the back of the net in the third period for career goal No. 594.

3. Tom Wilson: Through the first period, the Caps looked well on their way to a repeat of the 7-1 debacle they suffered Saturday in Chicago. They had nothing going in this game until Wilson drew a trip from Vladislav Namestnikov in the second period. Eller would score on the resulting power play giving Washington some much-needed life.

The Namestnikov penalty was the 29th drawn penalty of the season for Wilson, which moves him into a tie with Matthew Tkachuk for the most drawn penalties in the NHL.