Capitals

There's chaos in the ACC's Coastal Division

There's chaos in the ACC's Coastal Division

There's no other way to say it: The ACC's Coastal Division is a mess.

A month is left in the season, and - for better or worse - the race remains wide open.

The preseason favorite is having its worst season in two decades. Last week's leader absorbed a 41-point beating from the first-place team in the other division. What could be the division's most complete team isn't allowed to win it.

And the struggles in the Coastal - and the rest of the league, really - aren't helping the ACC's two best teams in the BCS rankings.

No. 9 Florida State and No. 10 Clemson, both in the Atlantic Division, are in the top 10 of the human polls used by the BCS. But they each have an average computer ranking of No. 21 and are considered longshots to climb back into the national championship picture, in large part due to the mediocrity of their conference mates.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn't worried that the rest of the ACC is dragging down his team's ranking.

``When it's all said and done, we will be where we need to be,'' Swinney said.

But there's no escaping this: The team that advances out of the Atlantic Division and reaches the ACC championship game won't get much of a strength-of-schedule boost from their opponent in Charlotte. Not when the Coastal has nobody in the Top 25 and four two-loss teams topping the standings.

Yet the coaches don't see that as a negative - but a positive, because for the most part, everyone still has a shot.

``I'm glad it's a muddled mess that we're muddling in it,'' Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. ``That's a good thing. That's November and meaningful games.''

Since the ACC went to its bidivisional format in 2005, the Coastal generally has been the stronger of the two divisions. But Coastal teams are 5-7 so far against those in the Atlantic with six matchups remaining. Three of those are this week, so that record realistically could slip to 5-10.

In each of the past five seasons, the Coastal champion has reached a BCS bowl. But that figures to be a long shot this year. The winner is assured of having at least two, and probably three, conference losses - just the second time that's happened.

So while Florida State and Clemson rule the Atlantic, there doesn't seem to be anybody in charge in the Coastal. Duke, North Carolina and Miami are 3-2 in league play while Virginia Tech at 2-2.

``You look around, and everyone has their own issues,'' Virginia coach Mike London said.

Virginia Tech, the overwhelming preseason favorite, has struggled to establish the run and its defense has been surprisingly leaky at inopportune times - two factors that have them with their worst record through eight games since 1992. Yet the Hokies will share the division lead with a win at Miami on Thursday night.

Georgia Tech, picked to finish second, has won just once since Sept. 15, giving up 40 points in four of its last five games to fall into fifth place and jeopardize its streak of 15 straight bowl berths.

North Carolina might be the division's best all-around team, but the Tar Heels can't win it because of their one-year bowl ban and a new ACC policy doesn't allow ineligible teams to claim regular season or division titles.

``That was our No. 1 goal going into the season, was to win the Coastal Division,'' first-year coach Larry Fedora said. ``Whether or not we're recognized, it's still about our football team and what our goals are and what we can accomplish. We can't worry about what happened outside. It has nothing to do with this football team right now.''

Duke had first place all to itself last week and - in what could be seen as an illustration of the gap between the divisions - the Seminoles handed the Blue Devils a 48-7 beating.

Miami failed to reach the league title game in any of its previous eight seasons in the conference, but the Hurricanes remain very much alive despite a young defense that has given up at least 415 total yards to each of the seven Bowl Subdivision teams it has faced.

And last year's surprise story - Virginia - is losing all those close games that went the Cavaliers' way during their charmed 2011 season. As a result, they're the only team in either division winless in league play.

``You look at the frustration of being where we are right now ... a couple of games that we've lost have been within a touchdown. You win those games, it puts you kind of back in that having won some conference games and being .500 or slightly above .500,'' London said.

So, which Coastal team has the best shot to play in Charlotte on Dec. 1?

The winner of this week's Virginia Tech-Miami game would seem to have the inside track because both teams have manageable paths down the stretch. The Hokies' final four ACC opponents - which include the last-place teams in both divisions - have a combined conference record of 9-11. The Hurricanes' is 5-8.

Had the Tar Heels been eligible, they would seem to be in control because their final three league opponents are a combined 4-9. And, as topsy-turvy as this season has been in the Coastal, it's hard to rule out Duke - which finishes against Georgia Tech and Miami.

``Every time you win in November, the next game's bigger, because there's a real prize out there, and that's a serious prize,'' Cutcliffe said.

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AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, S.C.; and Hank Kurz Jr. in Charlottesville, Va., contributed to this report.

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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.