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At 21, Hillman has many to learn from on Broncos

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At 21, Hillman has many to learn from on Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Between Peyton Manning and Willis McGahee, the Broncos have a quarter century of experience in their starting backfield. Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, the NFL's youngest player, is barely old enough to buy his teammates a drink.

Hillman, who will be 21 years, 1 month, 21 days old when Denver plays at Cincinnati on Sunday, is soaking up knowledge from the veterans on a daily basis. As the lessons sink in, it's not surprising his role with the Broncos is expanding, as well.

Last week against the Saints, Hillman had his biggest day. Spelling the man who has become his mentor, McGahee, the Broncos rookie was on the field for 27 plays, carried the ball on 14 of them and gained 86 yards.

``He's a young player who's getting better every week,'' Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. ``He's fortunate to watch Willis every day. He's got a good role model.''

The Broncos (4-3) have been taking it slow with their rookie third-round draft pick, as he learns the subtleties of NFL blocking schemes and gets used to the grind of playing a longer schedule in a league that's, well, slightly more physical than what he went against during his two seasons at San Diego State.

Like most rookie running backs, Hillman has gone through his share of growing pains as he figures out how to protect the two most important things on the field - the ball and the quarterback. Those issues, plus a hamstring injury that cost him playing time in the preseason, relegated him to the inactive list the first two weeks and held him to a total of 17 carries in his first four games on the active roster, seven of which came in the second half of a blowout win over Oakland.

Slowly, though, he is finding his way onto the field - his time there directly related to his ability to understand the blocking schemes.

``I'm pretty sure of it. They just want to get more comfortable with me in there in case a team decides to blitz,'' Hillman said.

Over the past month, Hillman has vaulted up the depth chart from the Broncos' fourth running back to No. 2, leapfrogging Lance Ball and 2009 first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno, who lost a fumble in Week 2 against Atlanta and hasn't been on the active roster since.

At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Hillman has more flat-out speed and elusiveness than McGahee. McCoy said he doesn't use the backup so much as a ``change of pace guy,'' as an option for when McGahee needs a rest. Unspoken in all this is that the Broncos are ramping things up for Hillman at the midseason point - a point at which a 31-year-old back such as McGahee, second-oldest starting running back in the league, could become more vulnerable.

``Being a running back, you're going to get beat up as the year goes on. That's why it's nice to have a couple backs who can stay in the flow of the game if you need a break here or there,'' McCoy said.

Last week against New Orleans, Hillman had seven of Denver's 20 carries in the first half and another seven in the second half. His season-high 31-yard gain in the third quarter essentially summed up all his potential and his downside in one play. He found a big hole in the left side of the Saints defense and was accelerating in the open field, but a New Orleans defender was able to punch the ball out because Hillman was holding it a bit loosely.

The fumble went out of bounds - no damage done - and the Broncos scored a touchdown on the drive. Hillman learned his lesson; he's been learning a lot from his teammates, including Manning.

``You've got to have accountability when you play with him,'' Hillman said. ``You've got to know what you did wrong and you've got to actually be on your `A' game at all times. He kind of helps you out but most of the time it's on you. So, you have to grow up a lot faster than if I was with somebody else.''

Says receiver Brandon Stokley, who has played five of his 15 NFL seasons alongside Manning: ``You can imagine a 20-year-old trying to come into this type of situation. I think he's done a great job and I think he'll continually improve and get better just as the game kind of slows down for him. I couldn't imagine being that age and doing what he's doing right now.''

Hillman said all the time he's spending with the veterans does, indeed, make him better. He also knows there's not much time for learning curves when he's playing with 30-something veterans in search of Super Bowl rings.

``They expect me to come here like I'm 25 and a vet,'' Hillman said.

Notes: QB Peyton Manning earned AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors, the fifth time he's received the award. Only Patriots QB Tom Brady has more, with six. Manning completed 77 of 104 passes for 951 yards with nine touchdowns with one interception in three games in October. ... The Broncos are 1-11 in their last 12 games in which they've traveled two or more time zones to the east (11 in the Eastern time zone, one in London). For the second straight season, coach John Fox is bringing the team east two days before the game to try to get acclimated to the time change. ``I love it. Wish I could do it every week. Home games, as well,'' said Broncos CB Champ Bailey. ... Fox said doctors have regulated CB Tracy Porter's medicine to control seizures and he was cleared for full practice Thursday. Porter hasn't played since Nov. 7.

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

After losing three straight, the Capitals battled back in Game 6 on Monday. With their 3-0 win, Washington forced the Eastern Conference Final into a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.

Here is how the Caps did it.

Braden Holtby matched Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save

Andrei Vasilevskiy was just as great in this game as he was in the three previous, but one of the major differences in this one was that Holtby was just as good. He may not have been tested as much (Vasilevskiy made 32 saves, Holtby 24), but he was big when the team needed.

In the second period with the scored tied at 0, Holtby made one of the most critical saves perhaps of the entire season when he denied Anthony Cirelli with the toe on a 2-on-1. When the Caps took the lead, Holtby really shut the door in the third period with 10 saves to cap off what was his fifth career playoff shutout and first shutout of the entire season.

T.J. Oshie’s timely goal

Over halfway into the game, it looked like it was just going to be one of those nights. Caps fans know it well by now. Washington outplays their opponent, they get chance after chance and develop a whopping advantage in shots, but they run into a hot goalie and a random play suddenly turns into a goal for the other team, game and season over.

Vasilevskiy was on his way to having perhaps his best performance of the series. Considering how he played in the three games prior to Game 6, that’s saying something. The Caps were doing everything right, but he continued to make save after save. Then on the power play in the second period, John Carlson struck the inside of the post, the horn went off and the roar of the crowd gave way to dismay as the referee waved his arms to indicate there was no goal and play continued. Just seconds later, T.J. Oshie gave the Caps the 1-0 lead.

You have to wonder if doubt was starting to creep into the back of the minds of the players when that puck struck the post as they wondered what else they had to do to beat Vasilevskiy. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last long.

Special teams

Braydon Coburn’s tripping penalty in the second period gave Washington its only power play of the night and its first since the second period of Game 4. They had to make it count given how well Vasilveskiy was playing and they did.

Washington now has a power play goal in each of their three wins against the Lightning and no power play goals in their three losses. So yeah, it’s significant.

Tampa Bay had two opportunities of their own, but Washington managed to kill off both power plays in the penalty kill’s best performance of the series.

Washington’s physical game plan

On paper, the Lightning are better than the Caps in most categories. One area in which Washington has the edge, however, is physical play and it was clear very early that they intended to use that to their advantage in Game 6. Tampa Bay was pushed around and they seemed to struggle to recover.

Ovechkin was a one-man wrecking ball out there hitting everything that moved. The energy he brought with every hit was palpable and both the team and the crowd fed on it.

Washington was credited with 39 hits on the night compared to Tampa Bay’s 19. Ovechkin had four of those as did Nicklas Backstrom while Devante Smith-Pelly contributed five and Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik each led the team with six.

Fourth line dagger

Tampa Bay’s fourth line was the story of Game 5, but Washington’s fourth line sealed the deal on Monday with its third period goal.

Chandler Stephenson beat out an icing call, forcing Braydon Coburn to play the puck along the wall. Jay Beagle picked it up, fed back to Stephenson who backhanded a pass for the perfect setup for Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly scored seven goals in the regular season. He now has four in the playoffs.

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors at 19, hit a three-run homer in his first career start as the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 10-2 on Monday.

Mark Reynolds had two solo home runs for the Nationals, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Bryce Harper had a homer and an RBI double.

Soto's drive highlighted a five-run second inning for Washington. The promising outfielder, who played for three minor league teams this season, hit the first pitch from Robbie Erlin (1-3) over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field. Soto also singled.

Soto's homer traveled an estimated 442 feet at Nationals Park. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the teenager responded by taking a curtain call. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Soto became the first teenager to hit a home run in a major league game since Harper on Sept. 30, 2012.

Called up to Washington on Sunday, Soto became the first 19-year-old to make his major league debut since Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in 2016. He entered that game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and struck out.

Washington's starting left fielder began the season at Class A Hagerstown. He hit a combined .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in his three minor league stops.

Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed two runs and two hits in seven innings.

San Diego's Franmil Reyes, playing in his seventh career game, also hit his first career home run.

Trea Turner hit a pair of RBI doubles for Washington. Reynolds had three hits.

Erlin surrendered six runs and seven hits over four innings in his third start of the season. San Diego had won three in a row.

Reyes connected for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, but the Padres' lineup generated little else against Gonzalez, who allowed one run over six innings in a no-decision at San Diego on May 9.

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.