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Back in contention, Saints brace for tough stretch

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Back in contention, Saints brace for tough stretch

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Cam Jordan had a question for anyone surprised to see the New Orleans Saints back at .500 and in the hunt again for a playoff spot.

``Why are you astounded?'' the Saints' second-year defensive end began. ``We have the quarterback that we have. We have the key defensive players that we have. (It was) sort of disappointing to start off the way that we did, of course. Everybody expected a lot better of us and we expected a lot better of ourselves. Now that we're back at .500, we're trying to put this thing back on the right track and keep it rolling.''

After an 0-4 start, New Orleans has won five of six games to get back to 5-5, one game behind three 6-4 teams - Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay - currently tied for the last NFC wild-card spot.

``Maybe to the outside (New Orleans' turnaround) was shocking because it was such a slow start. But there was never a doubt in anybody's mind that it could happen inside this locker room,'' center Brian de la Puente said. ``There was never a doubt in anybody's mind that we could get back to .500 and continue this winning because this organization, this coaching staff, this team - we have a winning tradition that they've set here.''

The offseason bounty scandal and resulting season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton provided the Saints with an excuse for an off year, but the club seems to have adjusted.

The Saints now have six games to make up remaining ground to get to a fourth straight postseason, but what's left of their schedule is tough, with the next three games against current division leaders: San Francisco, Atlanta and the New York Giants. That might explain why assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has helped guide New Orleans to wins in three of four games since his return from a six-game bounty suspension, sounded like he was warning his players against acting like they'd accomplished anything yet.

``We've got miles to go. We're nowhere near where we need to be,'' Vitt said Monday. ``We're nowhere near where anyone on this team wants to be. That's why every practice and every meeting and every chance you have to get better is critical. This is a marathon.''

In terms of statistical rankings, the Saints remain about where they were after Week 4. Their offense, led by ever-prolific quarterback Drew Brees, ranks fifth. The defense ranks last, having given up more than 400 yards in every game this season, even in the 38-17 victory Sunday at Oakland.

However, New Orleans has made significant strides in the running game during its current three-game winning streak, while its defense has been stout in the red zone and more opportunistic in the turnover department.

In their first seven games, the Saints eclipsed 100 yards rushing once and failed to gain more than 53 yards four times. In their last three games, they've rushed for 140, 148 and 153 yards - all without Darren Sproles (broken left hand), who could return this week.

``With the early struggles we had in the run game, we just kept at it. We stressed the little things. We knew we were close the whole time,'' de la Puente said. ``We are at a point right now where we're very confident in our run game.''

The defense is gaining confidence as well.

In the Saints' victory over Philadelphia three games ago, the Eagles had five possessions inside the Saints 20 without scoring a touchdown. New Orleans forced Atlanta to settle for two field goals in the red zone and the Falcons turned the ball over on downs late in the game from inside the 5. Against Oakland, New Orleans safety Roman Harper intercepted a tipped pass in the Saints' end zone to thwart another red-zone chance.

Meanwhile, first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo continues to see evidence of his players adjusting to his scheme. A prime example was Malcolm Jenkins' interception return for a score at Oakland.

Safeties were expected to make more plays on the ball in Spagnuolo's system, and that has been happening more for Jenkins and Harper lately.

``Sometimes it takes a little time,'' Spagnuolo said. ``Both those guys have come a long way in this system and they're both good football players.''

Many Saints players are quick to point out that even as they opened 0-4, each loss ended as a one-possession game.

``We kept plugging away and kept believing that things would turn, and they have,'' Brees said. ``We're starting to catch some breaks. We're starting to just kind of hit our stride, but still I feel like our best is yet to come. I still don't feel like we've put together just a fantastic performance.''

That may be required of Brees and Co. soon enough.

Notes: Vitt could not provide an update on an apparent right knee injury to offensive lineman Charles Brown, who started the past two games at right tackle because of a left groin injury to starter Zach Strief. Vitt said the Saints may work out some free-agent offensive tackles on Tuesday, but also were pleased with how reserve Bryce Harris played after Brown went down at Oakland. Reserve guard Eric Olsen also works at the tackle spots and would be the next backup at that spot, Vitt said.

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

It seems so simple. The Capitals have one of the best goal-scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin and on the power play, he’s almost always in the same spot. He sets up in the “office,” the faceoff circle on the left side of the ice, and waits for one-timers. Everyone knows the Caps are trying to get him the puck, everyone knows the shot is coming.

But nobody can stop it.

“It’s still pretty unique,” Matt Niskanen said after the game. “Basic logic tells you it’d be easy to stop, but it’s not.”

Even Ovechkin has no explanation. “It’s all about luck,” he said.

New York Rangers head coach David Quinn had another word for it.

“Sickening.”

Quinn’s Rangers were the latest victims of a power play that has been among the league’s best units for several years. Since 2005, no team in the NHL has a better power play percentage than the Capitals’ 20.8-percent. They once again look lethal this season with the unit currently clicking at an incredible 39.1-percent.

Ovechkin tallied two power play goals Wednesday, both from the office, to help power the Caps to a 4-3 win over New York. Both of Ovechkin’s goals looked pretty similar with John Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office for the one-timer.

Ovechkin obviously is what powers the team’s power play. With him on the ice, other teams need to account for him at all times.

But the real key to the Caps’ success with the extra man is not Ovechkin, but the other weapons around him.

“In order to completely take [Ovechkin] away other guys are just too open and they’re good enough to score,” Niskanen said. “Are you gonna leave [T.J. Oshie] open in the slot from the hash marks to cover [Ovechkin]? Our power play is set up well with what hands guys are and their skill sets so we have a lot of different options. Guys are good at reading what’s open. It’s pretty lethal.”

“Nobody knows who's going to take a shot when we play like that,” Ovechkin said. “And it's fun to play like that, to be honest with you. When [Nicklas Backstrom] and when [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeling the puck well, they can find you in the right time and the right place -- same as [Carlson]."

With so many weapons on the power play, teams are forced to choose between playing Ovechkin tight and leaving other players like Kuznetsov and Oshie wide open, or trying to play a traditional penalty kill and risk giving Ovechkin too much room for the one-timer.

The Rangers chose the latter on Wednesday and they suffered the consequences.

“I don't think many teams have played him like they did tonight,” Carlson said. “They gave him a lot more space.”

And Carlson certainly took advantage as well.

Washington’s power play seems to have found a new gear now with the emergence of Carlson. He took his game to a new level last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. On Wednesday, as part of a three-point night for him, Carlson provided two brilliant setups for Ovechkin on the power play.

“He dominates the game, I think,” Niskanen said of Carlson. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch. Big shot. He’s a good player.”

For many years, it looked like the only thing missing from the Caps’ power play was Mike Green. Carlson has always been good, but no one was able to setup Ovechkin quite as well as Green was in the height of the “young guns” era of the Caps. Now that Carlson seems to be coming into his own as a superstar blueliner who can both score and feed Ovechkin with the best of them, that makes an already dominant Caps’ power play even more lethal.

That was certainly on display Wednesday as the Caps fired eight shots on goal with the extra man. Ovechkin’s two goals tie him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list with Dino Ciccarelli at 232.

Even with Ovechkin now 33 years old and after several years of dominance with the extra man, the Caps’ power play may be better than ever.

“They don’t get rattled,” Quinn said. “There’s a confidence to them and a swagger to them, which they should have.  They’ve been playing together a long time and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should play with a swagger.”

 

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5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

The Caps gave up a 2-1 and 3-2 lead, but ultimately came away victorious on Wednesday in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers thanks to an overtime goal from Matt Niskanen.

Here are five reasons why the Caps won.

1. Djoos saves a goal

With the Caps already trailing 1-0 in the first period, they were about an inch away from going down by two. Luckily, Christian Djoos was there to make the save.

Yes, Djoos, not Braden Holtby.

A diving Jesper Fast got to a loose puck before any of the Caps defenders and beat Holtby with the shot. Djoos, however, was there to sweep the puck off the goal line and out, saving a goal.

That play turned out to be a two-goal swing as less than two minutes later, the Caps scored to tie the game at 1.

2. Carlson off the faceoff

The Caps emphasized the importance of the faceoff this week and worked on it specifically in practice on Tuesday. That practice turned out to be very prescient as Washington’s first goal of the night came right off the faceoff.

Nicklas Backstrom beat Ryan Spooner on the draw cleanly in the offensive zone, feeding the puck back to John Carlson. With the players all bunched up off the draw, Carlson benefitted from Brady Skjei standing right in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Carlson teed up the slap shot and beat Lundqvist who never saw the puck.

Of the five combined goals scored in the game, three were directly set up off a faceoff.

3. Hand-eye coordination

With the Caps on the power play, Fast tipped a pass meant for Carlson that looked like it was headed out of the offensive zone. Carlson reacted to the puck then stretched the stick and somehow managed to control the bouncing puck and keep it in the zone.

Fast charged Carlson at the blue line so he chipped the puck to Ovechkin in the office. Ovechkin managed to hit the puck just as it hit the ice and somehow beat Lundqvist with the shot.

Ovechkin was by the boards at the very edge of the circle. It was an amazing shot and it was set up by the great hustle play from Carlson. Both showed tremendous hand-eye coordination to control that puck.

4. Braden Holtby

Lundqvist entered this game with a 1.99 GAA and .939 save percentage, but he was outplayed by his counterpart from Washington.

Holtby had himself a night. He was particularly strong down low with the pads as he made a number of key pad saves throughout the game, particularly in the second period when he recorded 17 saves including a shorthanded breakaway save on Kevin Hayes as time expired.

Of the three goals Holtby allowed, the first he made a great save on Chris Kreider who looked like he had an empty net to shoot at. Mike Zibanejad would score on the rebound. The second goal came as a shot deflected off Devante Smith-Pelly and went right to Jimmy Vesey for an easy tap-in. The third was a deflection goal from Kreider to redirect a shot that was going wide.

Can’t blame Holtby for those.

5. Working from the office

The Caps had three power play opportunities on the night. They scored on two of them and those two goals looked pretty darn similar.

There was the one described above in which a hustle play by Carlson at the point kept the puck alive and he fed to Ovechkin in the office. The second goal came with Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office.

Those two goals give Ovechkin 232 power play goals for his career, tying him with Dino Ciccarelli for ninth on the NHL’s all-time list.

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