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Big Ten bowl lineup is thin; Gophers 5th qualifier

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Big Ten bowl lineup is thin; Gophers 5th qualifier

The turnaround at Minnesota has passed a significant milestone. The Gophers are going to a bowl game.

This won't have any bearing on the national championship, but it's still an important achievement. The Gophers will never be able to crack the conference elite if they don't become a middle-of-the-pack team first.

``It's a good thing for our kids. They've gone through a lot of transition,'' coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. ``I'm very excited for them.''

The Gophers (6-4, 2-4) play at Nebraska on Saturday and host Michigan State to finish their schedule, and an upset in one of those games would give them a chance for eight victories, a feat unaccomplished since a 10-3 record in 2003.

``It was a long route, but we're finally there. In your senior year it feels great to do that,'' said cornerback Michael Carter, one of a handful of players who wept in the locker room after beating Illinois 17-3 last weekend.

Here's the most remarkable part about the Gophers, though: They became only the fifth Big Ten team to qualify for the 2012 postseason, and it's mid-November. Good for them, landing an opportunity to play in Arizona or Texas, but it's another bad sign of the conference's national standing.

Nebraska (8-2, 5-1), Michigan (7-3, 5-1), Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) and Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) are the others who've secured an extra game; the Badgers have even clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game. That's because Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) and Penn State (6-4, 4-2) aren't allowed to participate as punishment for the scandals revealed at their schools over the past two years. Illinois? Already eliminated.

Granted, the Big Ten would have seven qualifiers were it not for the Ohio State and Penn State sanctions, but the last time the league had only five bowl teams was 1998, when there were far fewer postseason contests than the 35 there are now. Big Ten teams filled 10 slots in 2011-12.

Those September struggles the Big Ten endured didn't just sully that proud reputation. Bowl-game bids were weakened, too.

The league went 2-8 against teams from the Southeastern, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences, plus Notre Dame. Excluding eight victories over FCS foes, two of which were narrow wins by Iowa and Wisconsin over Northern Iowa (4-6), the Big Ten had an unimpressive 26-14 nonconference record.

That included three losses to Mid-American Conference teams. That's two or three too many for the Big Ten, which finished 9-3 against the MAC.

Due to that defeat at home by Central Michigan, Iowa (4-6, 2-4) must beat two of the conference's best teams to make a bowl. And because of a loss at Ball State, Indiana (4-6, 2-4) has to win out with two straight road games.

Michigan State (5-5, 2-4) has arguably the Big Ten's strongest nonconference victory, over Boise State, but the Spartans have lost all four league games in their home state (including at Michigan) by a total of 10 points. They have two more chances to notch that elusive sixth win, but neither of them will be easy.

Purdue (1-5, 4-6) has the safest path to eligibility among the non-qualified, but the Boilermakers just got their first Big Ten victory last week, 27-24 at Iowa. Illinois has nothing to lose, plus the law of averages on its side. Indiana is the in-state rival, with a trophy at stake.

So it was no surprise, then, when coach Danny Hope said he's satisfied with the six-victory requirement for bowl eligibility as opposed to the seven that's been proposed from some corners of college football. As every one of his peers have noted, too, the additional practices allowed by the NCAA for bowl qualifiers are a valuable way to develop players for the following season.

``It's an opportunity to reward the young people for their efforts,'' Hope said.

Northwestern was the first team to qualify, and the Wildcats would be unbeaten had they not blown double-digit second-half leads to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. Coach Pat Fitzgerald insisted he's focusing solely on teaching his team, but he acknowledged that part of him roots for all of his competitors.

``Before I'm a Big Ten coach, I'm a Big Ten fan. I'm a Big Ten alum. I hope all of our guys get bowl eligible,'' Fitzgerald said, then pivoting to lobby for the Wildcats to any bowl representatives who might've been listening.

``They'll get a young exciting football team ... but we'll worry about that later,'' Fitzgerald said.

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

It's almost here.

After a lengthy break between the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals, the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights are set to meet on Monday for Game 1.

Who will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup?

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir give their keys to the series and their predictions for the Stanley Cup Final. Plus, JJ speaks with several member from the local media to get their insights and predictions.

Check out their latest episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?

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