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Vilma's testimony ends latest bounty hearings

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Vilma's testimony ends latest bounty hearings

NEW ORLEANS (AP) The latest round of appeal hearings in the NFL's bounty investigation concluded Monday evening following witness appearances by former Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Now Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith and two other players await a ruling by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on whether player suspensions should be reduced. If they don't like how that turns out, they could still get relief from a federal judge in New Orleans who has been presiding over lawsuits challenging the way the league has handled the probe and resulting discipline.

Vilma sounded hopeful that Tagliabue, who has been appointed to oversee the players' latest appeals to the NFL, would bring the process to a fair resolution.

``I think it did go well,'' Vilma, wearing a gray suit, said as he left a downtown high-rise where Monday's hearing was held. Vilma added that Tagliabue ``seems a little bit more receptive'' to his version of events than Commissioner Roger Goodell did. The linebacker declined further comment, citing Tagliabue's directive that the parties involved keep details of the hearings confidential.

There were also several days of witness appearances in Washington, D.C., last week.

The hearings were scheduled to conclude in New Orleans by Tuesday, but ended Monday evening after about 10 hours of testimony from the three witnesses.

Tagliabue had informed attorneys representing all parties that he hoped to rule on the four players' appeals shortly after the hearings conclusion.

A person familiar with the situation said Tagliabue expects to rule by early next week, meaning Vilma and Smith expect to play Sunday against the New York Giants. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of Tagliabue's directive.

Smith, suspended four games, and Vilma, suspended for the entire current season, are permitted to play while their appeals are pending.

Like Vilma, Childress and Vitt honored the Tagliabue's request for confidentiality after their appearances.

As Childress left the downtown law office on Monday he said he had ``nothing to add.''

Vitt also didn't have much to say, though he spent about five hours at the hearing.

The Saints coach had said previously, including under oath in federal court last summer, that his players never took the field intending to injure an opponent. As he left, Vitt said that testimony ``was reiterated.''

While Vitt said he could not discuss details of the hearing, he said it was good to see the former commissioner, who he'd met before. Vitt said that they had friendly exchanges, even sharing some old stories.

Vitt then headed back to the Saints' suburban headquarters to catch up on how practice went.

Two former New Orleans players also were banned: Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, now on injured reserve, had his initial three-game suspension reduced to one game. Free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove has not played in the NFL this season but faces a two-game suspension if he signs with a team.

The NFL has described Vilma and Smith as ringleaders - and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as being in charge - of a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011.

The league has sworn statements from Williams and former Saints assistant coach Mike Cerullo - who both testified last week - saying Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.

Childress had informed the NFL after that game he'd heard from former player Jimmy Kennedy that the Saints had a bounty on Favre. Childress is currently the Cleveland Browns' offensive coordinator.

The NFL also has identified Kennedy as one of its witnesses, but Kennedy has said the league is lying about his statements. He added that the league irreparably damaged his reputation by its ``shoddy, careless, shameful so-called investigation.''

According to the NFL, Kennedy heard about the bounty from Hargrove, who has also denied knowledge of a bounty program.

Because of Tagliabue's insistence that the contents of the appeals process remain private, all of the hearings have been behind closed doors in private law offices.

Goodell issued the initial suspensions, which also included a full-season ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Lawsuits brought by Vilma and the NFL Players Association to challenge Goodell's handling of the case, including his decision in October to appoint Tagliabue as the arbitrator for the appeals, are pending in federal court in New Orleans.

Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan gave the parties until Monday to answer questions about whether the NFL's collective bargaining agreement prevents a commissioner from handing out discipline for legal contact, and whether the CBA's passages about detrimental conduct are ``ambiguous, hence unenforceable.''

Players and coaches testified in court that the Saints defense's performance pool rewarded only legal hits, and the judge said she was inclined to presume that testimony was accurate because it went unchallenged in court by the league.

Responding to the judge's request in a brief filed Monday around noon, the NFL Players Association argued the league's labor agreement does not give the commissioner authority to punish players for legal hits. The union added that if Tagliabue interprets the agreement otherwise, the provisions pertaining to the commissioner's authority in the CBA would be so vague as to be unenforceable.

In its response, the NFL said players were not punished for on-field actions. The league said the players' suspensions resulted from meeting or locker room pledges, rewarding injury-causing hits and lying to NFL investigators about the incentive pool.

In March, the NFL announced that its investigation showed the Saints put together a bounty pool of up to $50,000 to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opponents. ``Knockouts'' were worth $1,500 and ``cart-offs'' $1,000 - with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs, the league said.

According to the league, the pay-for-pain program was administered by Williams, with Payton's knowledge. At the time, Williams apologized for his role, saying: ``It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it.''

Later that month, Payton became the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, while Williams was suspended indefinitely.

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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

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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.