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Washington's 4-0 Pac-12 start all because of D

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Washington's 4-0 Pac-12 start all because of D

SEATTLE (AP) Even in the past when they were pretty good defensively, the Washington Huskies' fast-paced athleticism on the offensive end always got the attention.

It's easy for defense to get overshadowed when future NBA players like Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Quincy Pondexter, Spencer Hawes, Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Ross are cycling through your program.

But the reason Washington has turned around a stumbling start this season and won 10 of its last 12 games is because of the effort and improvement being made on the defensive end. After Wednesday night's 64-54 win over Colorado, the Huskies improved to 4-0 in the Pac-12 and are allowing just 56 points per game in conference play.

Granted it's still early and the Huskies have yet to see any of the ranked Pac-12 squads - Arizona, Oregon and UCLA - but coach Lorenzo Romar has his team on pace to be the finest defensive squad in his tenure.

``It's both our attitude and us figuring things out,'' Washington guard Abdul Gaddy said. ``We take pride in our defense, we don't like when people score on us. We're really starting to jell, which is the main thing.''

Romar has preached defense since coming to Washington and it has often been a struggle. Yet this group has figured out the principles needed to be successful at that end.

For the season, the Huskies are giving up 64.9 points per game, which would be the lowest in Romar's tenure by nearly five points. Teams are shooting just 41 percent and only 37 percent in Washington's four conference games thus far. The Huskies have held seven of their last nine opponents under 40 percent shooting. They've accomplished that in each of their first four conference games, only the second time under Romar that the Huskies have held four straight opponents under the 40 percent mark.

Now in his 11th season, Romar has never had a team that has allowed less than 66 points per game in Pac-12 play or lower than 42 percent shooting. Even in their best seasons, when Washington reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament - 2005, 2006 and 2010 - the Huskies still allowed around 70 points per game.

It might be a little ugly as compared to Washington teams of the past, but Romar doesn't mind.

``You can color it any way you want to color it,'' Romar said. ``I just know that when you go out and you play two games in a row and you have single-digit turnovers, you hold four teams to under 40 percent from the field, you outrebound three out of the four, you're beginning to do things right.''

The defensive improvement this year has many layers and much of it starts at the other end of the floor. Washington made the transition in the offseason to using a high-post offense as its primary set. It was very choppy at the beginning of the season, to where Romar reverted to the motion offense for stretches, but has become more efficient of late. The net result of running an offense that requires more passing, more precision, is that the Huskies are putting up fewer shots and running more of the clock.

Washington is attempting seven fewer shots per game compared to last season. In turn, games are played at a slower pace and they are defending for fewer possessions.

Additionally, the Huskies have figured out how to use their length to cause defensive headaches. The Huskies will never be mistaken for a team filled with towering bodies, but guards C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs are 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6, respectively, with long arms and the ability to make passing lanes shrink.

Then there is 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye in the back. N'Diaye has improved his lateral speed and become very good at coming from the opposite side of the lane to alter shots. N'Diaye has 10 blocks in the last four games and he's stayed away from foul trouble.

``We always knew we could play good defense, and we came into the season saying that that is what we needed to do,'' Wilcox said. ``It just took some time to get through our heads that that is what we needed to do and we're starting to learn that, and get better game by game.''

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How Nicklas Backstrom saved the Capitals 3 different times in Game 5

How Nicklas Backstrom saved the Capitals 3 different times in Game 5

The Capitals found themselves in deep trouble on Saturday.

Game 5 at Capital One Arena provided Washington a golden opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. A loss -- another home loss -- would have been a devastating blow.

After battling back from a 2-0 series deficit, to lose in Washington would mean facing elimination in Columbus. Game 5 was the game the Caps needed and it would have slipped away from them if not for Nicklas Backstrom.

The Caps’ most underrated superstar -- the one who is constantly overshadowed by the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby -- took center stage on Saturday as he tipped a Dmitry Orlov shot past Sergei Bobrovsky at 11:53 of overtime to seal the victory for Washington.

“It was just a good shot from [Orlov],” Backstrom said after the game. “I thought before he had a chance to block it, and I got a tip on it, and it’s usually what happens in the playoffs. Tip goals or rebound goals. That’s the way it is. It was nice.”

Backstrom’s overtime goal capped off a three-point night for the veteran center, who also scored in the first period and assisted on a goal from T.J. Oshie.

The team ended up needing every one of his points.

From the start, Columbus outplayed Washington. With the series tied 2-2, a best-of-three mentality took over and the Blue Jackets pushed hard for the pivotal Game 5 win.

It is in those very moments that team needs its superstar players to step up. In Game 3, it was Holtby who stole the show to help Washington steal a win in Columbus.

On Saturday, it was Backstrom.

Columbus converted a shorthanded goal to seize a 1-0 lead in what was shaping up to be a dominant first period. A fluke goal from Backstrom, however, made sure the score was knotted up, 1-1, after the opening frame.

With the puck behind the goal line, Backstrom tried to slip a pass through the crease. Bobrovsky got a piece of the puck with his stick, but the amount of spin on the pass forced the puck to carom off the stick, off the back of Bobrovsky himself, and into the net.

“I was trying to make a pass,” Backstrom said. “Honestly, got lucky. I don’t know who came back-door there but I was trying for him. I’ll take it.”

After a back and forth game, the Blue Jackets came out swinging to start the third. Down 3-2, Columbus tied the game just 2:30 in and made a real push to win the game in regulation. Washington was outshot 16-1 in the third and looked like they had no push at all.

But the Caps looked like a different team when they took the ice for the extra frame. What happened in between periods?

“As I was leaving the room after the period, I could hear guys, the right guys, all saying the right things,” head coach Barry Trotz said.

When later asked if one of those guys was Backstrom, Trotz said, “Absolutely. He's one of the leaders on our team. They were all talking about let's make sure we're doing the right things. There's a lot of pride, lot of good leadership in that room.”

Whatever Backstrom and the other leaders said did the trick. Washington made a strong push in overtime leading to Backstrom’s game-winning goal.

This isn’t the first time Backstrom has delivered. Saturday’s overtime tally is the fourth of his career. That’s the most in franchise history and tied for fifth in NHL history.

Through his efforts on the ice, the Caps were able to erase a bad first period and steal the win in overtime. But it also took a big effort off the ice to get the job done.

“If you just look at the scoresheet, that doesn't say enough of about Nick Backstrom, his contribution from in the dressing room to on the ice to key moments to key faceoffs,” Trotz said.

“I've been on his soapbox about how complete a player he is and I never really worry about Nick Backstrom. He's got enough games under his belt, he's got enough stats to back it up and he's played huge minutes and he's one of our leaders. He's a tremendous hockey player.”

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John Tortorella guarantees series will return to Washington for Game 7

John Tortorella guarantees series will return to Washington for Game 7

After losing Game 1 and Game 2 at home, Alex Ovechkin declared "It’s going to be fun when we bounce back and going to tie the series and come back here and play Game 5 at home.”

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella seems to be taking a similar tactic.

The Capitals won Game 5 in overtime on Saturday in a game that could prove to be emotionally draining for the Blue Jackets in a number of ways.

  • It was Washington's third straight win
  • Columbus was the better team for the majority of the game, but still took the loss
  • The Blue Jackets now face elimination despite holding a 2-0 series lead to start and losing only once in regulation

Tortorella has become famous for his fiery postgame press conferences in the past, including abruptly walking out after Game 4's presser when he declared "We sucked" to the media.

Saturday's was another fun one.

In a presser that lasted less than two minutes, Tortorella twice said, "We'll be back here for Game 7."

After such a draining game, Tortorella was asked how he would get them ready for what is sure to be an emotionally charged Game 6.

"I won't have to say a damn word to them," Tortorella said. "No. We'll be back here for Game 7."

The Blue Jackets will have to win Game 6 in Columbus to make that happen.

Barry Trotz was asked for his reaction after Tortorella's comments.

"What else are you going to say? That's good. He wants to get it out there, he believes in his team just as I believe in my team. It's our job for that not to happen."

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