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After rough start, Packers near division title

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After rough start, Packers near division title

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) A month into the season, few people outside of Green Bay would have given the Packers a shot at the NFC North title.

Heck, even the folks in Green Bay could have been forgiven for feeling a little pessimistic.

The injuries were already starting to pile up, and the Packers had been the victims of the Inaccurate Reception. With a losing record five weeks in and the Chicago Bears off to a blazing start, a wild card seemed about the best the Packers could do.

Now look at them. One of the NFL's hottest teams over the past two months with seven victories in eight games, Green Bay (9-4) can clinch the division title with a win Sunday in Chicago. The No. 2 seed, and the first-round bye that goes with it, is still a possibility, too.

``We're excited about the opportunities that we continue to create,'' coach Mike McCarthy said. ``You get what you put into it and our guys have a great frame of mind. It's a good locker room, it's a steady locker room. We don't swing with the highs and lows.

``Special, that's what we're in it for,'' he added. ``We're not in it just to get to the playoffs or to have a winning season.''

Players and coaches on pretty much every team talk about resiliency, and how they can't let injuries or losses turn into a distraction.

Or, worse, an excuse. But talk is cheap - just look at some of the records out there - and it's tough to continue looking ahead week after week.

The Packers, though, have turned it into something of an art form. Few teams have been hit harder by injuries, with the Packers losing more than a dozen starters or projected starters for two or more games. That includes No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings (eight games), perennial Pro Bowler Charles Woodson (six games), sackmaster Clay Matthews (four games) and C.J. Wilson (three games), a cornerstone of their run defense.

Running back Cedric Benson is on injured reserve, as is offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.

Yet the Packers simply fill the holes and move on. In Sunday night's 27-20 win over Detroit, it was a rookie, Mike Daniels, who had the fumble return for a score that swung momentum Green Bay's way.

The go-ahead touchdown was scored by DaJuan Harris, who'd been elevated from the practice squad eight days earlier.

``You can't sit around and invest a lot of time in guys that you're not going to have out there,'' defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. ``You've got to focus all your attention on the guys you do have.''

The Green Bay resolve starts with McCarthy. Low-key and humble - he joked Monday that his players take their cue from his ``boring'' press conferences - he is not one for histrionics on the sideline or drama anywhere else.

Circumstances are what they are, and there's no sense wasting time on anything else. When the Packers lost that game in Seattle on a controversial call, not only did McCarthy refuse to whine or complain, he called the replacement referee who made the wrong call to offer his support.

That attitude has filtered down to the players.

``It says a lot about the locker room leadership,'' McCarthy said. ``We've accomplished some things in the past that we can maybe look back on. What are you to do with your energy? What are we going to do with our time? How are you going to apply it? I think our guys do a good job of it.''

It helps that the Packers have some practice at this. Two years ago, they had so many injuries they were practically pulling guys off the street to fill the lineup.

They wound up winning the Super Bowl.

``They know there's an expectation level ... that they've got to be not only accountable to themselves, but accountable to everybody in that room,'' Capers said. ``So if their number's called, then they owe it to the guy sitting next to them to be ready to go out and do their job.''

Green Bay's recent run hasn't always been pretty; the Packers struggled against Jacksonville, and trailed in both games against Detroit. But aside from a blowout by the Giants, Green Bay has managed to find ways to win.

``I don't get caught up in statistics,'' McCarthy said. ``We've got nine wins. That's only statistic I worry about.''

The Packers could make it 10 wins - and a division title - against the Bears, adding extra buzz to a rivalry that's already the NFL's best.

And it's the rivalry, not the spoils that could come with it, that will get Green Bay's full attention this week, McCarthy said.

``You start to get voice mails from Willie Davis, people like that, early this morning, you know it's a big game,'' McCarthy said. ``So we're focused on beating the Bears down there. It's a tough place to play. Yes, we'd love to wrap up division and hopefully be playing for more the next two weeks. But this is about the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.''

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

The Florida Panthers played over half of Friday’s game with five defensemen after a hit from Alex Ovechkin ultimately knocked Mark Pysyk out of the game.

Early in the second period, Ovechkin attempted to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but it was swept away at the blue line back to Pysyk. Pysyk quickly chipped the puck away and then was on the receiving end of a hit from Ovechkin.

In real time, the hit did not appear to be a big one. It wasn't even the biggest hit Ovechkin delivered in the game, as in the third period he sent Aleksander Barkov flying with a shoulder hit. But Pysyk went down to the ice after the hit and left the game soon after.

After the game, Florida head coach Bob Boughner did not mince words.

“Pysyk got a high hit to the head,” he said.

When asked if he thought the league should review the hit, Boughner said, “I hope they do because if you see the replay, it's high. It's a head shot. And the league's trying to clamp down on that. Whether there's no call, I don't blame the refs. Maybe they missed it. That happens. But those are the kind of plays that need to be reviewed.”

Based on the replay, it is hard to determine if the principal point of contact was the head. Ovechkin does not launch himself, but does appear to take an upward trajectory into Pysyk. Still, it seems like a hard sell to say Ovechkin was targeting the head.

But the hit did send Pysyk out of the game, and in today’s NHL, when head hits are a big topic of conversation and when a player is injured on a play, the NHL has shown it takes those plays more seriously.

Pysyk returned to the game for one more shift after receiving the hit, but left the game after and did not return.

“Right now we're still getting him checked out, but we'll see more in the morning,” Boughner said.

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