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Steelers battered, bruised after loss to Titans

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Steelers battered, bruised after loss to Titans

PITTSBURGH (AP) Max Starks stood in the midst of an equally parts stunned and downtrodden Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room on Thursday night and tried to put yet another second-half road collapse in perspective, this one a 26-23 loss to the previously woeful Tennessee Titans.

``I think that if this is the worst that can happen then we will be alright,'' the veteran left tackle said. ``Adversity is here and as long as we overcome it then we will be a better team in the end.''

At this point, the only way to go is up.

The Steelers (2-3) posted their third straight road defeat to start the season, and it followed an all-too familiar pattern. They jumped to an early lead. They were in control in the fourth quarter. They let another veteran quarterback well past his prime pull off an unlikely comeback.

In the opener it was Peyton Manning. Two weeks later it was Carson Palmer. On Thursday night it was Matt Hasselbeck channeling 2005 while leading the Titans to 10 points in the final 4:19, the last three coming on a 40-yard field goal by Rob Bironas as time expired.

During the short week, the Steelers stressed the need to finish off an opponent. Instead, they find themselves on the verge of being finished as a legitimate AFC contender barely a month into the season.

Injured stars Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley were joined on the sideline by running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles), Isaac Redman (ankle), center Maurkice Pouncey (leg) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle), all of whom limped gingerly off the field on a night the Steelers exhausted all seven of their linemen and had third-string running back Baron Batch playing in crunch time for the first time in his career.

Batch scored his first NFL touchdown on a 1-yard dive to give Pittsburgh a 20-16 lead early in the fourth quarter. He also lost a critical yard on the Steelers' final drive that helped push the team to the edge of kicker Shaun Suisham's range. Suisham's 54-yard attempt fell just short of the crossbar with 54 seconds left, giving Tennessee one last shot that Hasselbeck turned into the second game-winning drive given up by Pittsburgh's defense in the last three games.

``Guys just have to play better everybody, especially in the fourth quarter,'' linebacker Larry Foote said. ``You have to make plays and you can't have mental breakdowns. That's what gets you beat in this league.''

And has gotten the Steelers beat with alarming regularity. Pittsburgh is under .500 this late in the season for only the second time under coach Mike Tomlin, who took responsibility for opting for Suisham's field goal attempt rather than going for it or punting on fourth down.

``We didn't do the job obviously (and) defeated ourselves in some areas,'' Tomlin said.

In addition to Suisham's miss - which would have been a career-long if it had gone through - the special teams allowed a blocked punt. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for 363 yards and broke Terry Bradshaw's franchise record for career passing yards but also tossed a pick late in the first half that allowed the Titans to kick a field goal just before the break.

``It stinks,'' Roethlisberger said. ``We have to get better.''

The defense had its own issues.

Cornerback Ike Taylor was victimized by Hasselbeck all game long and picked up a pair of pass interference penalties in addition to getting beat repeatedly by Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt, including for the game-tying touchdown with 4:19 to play. The defensive front seven failed to get pressure on Hasselbeck on the final drive and surrendered a 25-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook that put the Titans in position to win it.

While safety Ryan Clark understands why Roethlisberger would try to bear the brunt of the blame, Clark would rather put it on the defense. The Steelers are averaging 24.3 points in their three road games.

Most years, that's more than enough for Pittsburgh's defense.

Not this year.

``They're going to say it's a team game and they should have made one more play, but it's not true,'' Clark said. ``They gave us enough points to win, they made enough plays to win the game. We had the lead in the fourth quarter, we need to keep it and we didn't do it.''

Again.

The Steelers have 10 days to get ready for Cincinnati. They'll eagerly accept the rest and hope some of the injuries clear up. Woodley, who sat out with a hamstring injury, will likely be back. He may be one of the few, however.

Pouncey has dealt with ankle injuries in each of his first two seasons and watched his right leg bend awkwardly after getting rolled into by Gilbert in the first half. He spent the rest of the game on the bench with the leg immobilized. Mendenhall left early with an Achilles injury that doesn't appear to be related to the torn ACL in his right knee that sidelined him for nine months. Redman was in the midst of a standout game before an ankle injury sent him limping off.

The Steelers, however, don't do excuses. The standard is the standard regardless of who's in the game.

Still, even the ever-optimistic Starks allows the Steelers have no more wiggle room.

``I have been here through a lot worse situations at more critical points during the season,'' he said. ``It's still early and I think that's one of the biggest things that we have on our side is that there is still some time and we have to be vigilant.''

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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.