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Bengals better on defense heading into playoffs

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Bengals better on defense heading into playoffs

CINCINNATI (AP) The Bengals think they're a better team - especially on defense - heading into the playoffs for the second season in a row.

They finished 9-7 last season, earned a wild card and lost at Houston 31-10 in the first round.

A 13-10 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday clinched another wild-card berth, only the second time in franchise history that they've gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

They're locked into the No. 6 seed regardless of what they do on Sunday against Baltimore (10-5) at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals (9-6) said their playoff appearance last season - when quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green were rookies - taught them a lot about what it's like when it's one-and-out.

``I think it's helpful anytime you can get to the postseason and really see what it is about and just how games, how momentum can swing,'' safety Chris Crocker said on Wednesday. ``Just crazy things. We saw that last year. I think that will help guys going into it - kind of knowing what the atmosphere will be like.''

Cincinnati's limited playoff experience has been a detriment. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990. They've made it three times previously under coach Marvin Lewis - 2005, 2009 and 2011 - and lost their opening games by 14, 10 and 21 points.

Going for the third time in four years should help them keep the postseason in perspective. Lewis pointed out that there was no giddiness in the locker room when the Bengals clinched a berth on Sunday.

``When you've been beyond that, you realize there are bigger fish to fry,'' Lewis said. ``I think our group understands this now. Appreciate it, feel good about it, celebrate it, but realize what it took to get there and that it takes more, because now we're going to pare it down again.''

They're encouraged by the way their defense has dominated teams during a 6-1 streak that got them into the postseason. The front four has gotten pressure on quarterbacks consistently, with tackle Geno Atkins emerging as one of the NFL's top linemen.

Atkins leads NFL interior linemen with 12 1/2 sacks. Cincinnati has 47 sacks, one behind Denver for the league lead and one shy of the franchise record. The defense is ranked No. 6 in the league this week in yards allowed and has given up 13 points or fewer in six of the past seven games.

``Our defense is really clicking right now, man,'' tackle Domata Peko said. ``I love the way we're playing and I love the energy we're playing with. You have to have that chemistry, and it seems we're building on that. Everyone's been playing great.''

The defense played its best game in Pittsburgh. Leon Hall's interception return accounted for Cincinnati's only touchdown. The defense repeatedly pushed the Steelers out of field goal range in the fourth quarter, allowing Cincinnati to win it with a field goal set up by an interception in the closing seconds.

The Bengals hadn't beaten the Steelers since 2009, dropping four in a row. They've also lost four straight to the Ravens and were 0-6 the past two seasons against their top AFC North rivals before the breakthrough win in Pittsburgh.

``You think about that stuff,'' Crocker said. ``In my mind, we hadn't beaten anybody good, so what are we going to do now? We really stepped it up. I feel good from that standpoint.''

The Bengals won't know their first-round opponent until after their game against Baltimore. Currently, New England is in line for the No. 3 seed and would host Cincinnati.

If the Patriots lose at home to Miami and the Ravens win at Paul Brown Stadium, Baltimore would move into the No. 3 spot and would host the Bengals in the first round of the playoffs.

If the Patriots win, they have a chance to move up to a better seed depending upon how other games turn out. There's a chance the Bengals could open at New England, at Houston or at Denver.

Notes: The Bengals moved their practice on Wednesday to the University of Cincinnati's covered practice field because a winter storm moved through the area. The Bengals are the most northern team without their own covered field. Last year, they practiced in the cold leading up to the playoff game in Houston, and Dalton got sick. ... K Mike Nugent fully participated in practice. He has missed the past three games with an injured right calf. ... Cornerbacks Adam ``Pacman'' Jones, Terence Newman and Jason Allen were limited by hamstring injuries.

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The Dougie Hamilton-Alex Ovechkin drama continued in Game 6 and the internet has thoughts

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NBC Sports

The Dougie Hamilton-Alex Ovechkin drama continued in Game 6 and the internet has thoughts

Alex Ovechkin's assist to Brett Connolly in Game 5 started when Carolina Hurricanes defender Dougie Hamilton shied away from Ovechkin's imminent check.

To start Game 6, Ovechkin tried to ram Hamilton along the boards again, but Hamilton sidestepped him to get the puck to safety.

After Ovechkin tumbled to the ice when he missed the hit, he made his way back to the bench, when he appeared to, well, you decide.

Ovechkin's mocking did not go unnoticed by the broadcast crew on NBC Sports Network or by fans on Twitter. "And there it is, that's what Eddie was talking about," chuckled Pierre McGuire as Ovechkin appeared to raise his arms like a clucking chicken.

The Hurricanes would respond with a goal to even the game 1-1, but Ovechkin answered back at 15:12 of the first period on an assist from Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen to make it 2-1 Capitals.

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The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

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USA TODAY Sports

The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

The finalists for the Norris Trophy – awarded to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in the position – were unveiled on Sunday. Somehow, John Carlson was not among them.

This is the second consecutive year Carlson was a deserving candidate and the second year he will not even be among the top three.

The Norris Trophy is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association -- of which I am a member so I guess you can blame us -- but make no mistake, this is a snub in every sense of the word and a major oversight that Carlson cannot get the recognition he deserves.

Ballots will be made public after the awards are given out. Until then, we are not supposed to divulge exactly how we voted, but I will tell you that Carlson was in my top three, and he absolutely should have been a finalist this year.

If you had asked me prior to the 2017-18 season who the most important defenseman on the Caps was, I would have told you it was Matt Niskanen. I saw Carlson as an offensive-heavy player whose skills in his own zone were lacking. I had to eat those words later as Niskanen was injured in mid-October and missed the next month of the season. During that month, Carlson averaged 27:47 of ice-time per game, which led the entire league. He showed he could contribute offensively, defensively, on the power play and penalty kill. There was nothing he could not do.

Suddenly, the Caps’ top pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen was replaced by Carlson and whoever he was paired with. That continued into this season.

But while Carlson has reshaped his image in Washington, his reputation as an offensive first player instead of an all-around defenseman persists, and it cost him.

There is no set standard every voter sticks to when it comes to evaluating players for the Norris. You can look at whatever stats you want whether it is Corsi, Fenwick, points, PDO, defensive zone starts, high-danger chances for -- the list goes on. Here’s why Carlson was in the top three of my ballot: Not only did he play exceptionally well, but the Capitals relied on him more in more situations than any other team relied on a single defenseman.

Carlson finished the season ranked eighth in the NHL in time on ice per game at 25:04. Burns finished just ahead of him with 25:06. Both Giordano (24:14) and Hedman (22:46) played less.

Carlson was among the top 40 defensemen in shorthanded time on ice per game with 2:35, something only Giordano (2:40) could boast among the other finalists. Carlson was also first among all defensemen in power play time on ice per game with 4:05, significantly more than Hedman (3:19), Giordano (3:19) or Burns (3:17).

There is no situation in which the Caps are not comfortable putting Carlson out on the ice and no situation in which he is not expected to play heavy minutes. He has taken a bigger role defensively as the team’s top shutdown pair of Orlov-Niskanen has had a down year. Despite the heavier defensive workload, Carlson still managed to finish in the top four in points among defensemen with 70, a career-high.

I am not here saying that Burns, Giordano or Hedman are not deserving of being finalists. In fact, Carlson did not finish first on my ballot. It seems crazy to me, however, that he did not finish in the top three this season or last. All three finalists had strong seasons, but Carlson’s season was just as good and he was more heavily relied upon. He is one of the top offensive blueliners, but that’s not all he is.

Until he manages to overcome that reputation, which persists through no fault of his own, he will continue to be on the outside of the Norris race looking in. And that’s a shame considering how good he has been.

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