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Big Ten shows it can put up the points, too

Big Ten shows it can put up the points, too

The rough-and-tumble Big Ten can put up gaudy score lines, too.

Ohio State scored 63 points last weekend, Michigan 44. After a paltry start, Penn State is pouring it on with 34 points or more in three of its last four games. Nebraska has yet to dip below the 30-point mark. As the season approaches its midway point, half of the teams in the conference so gritty the colors of its logo are black and blue are averaging 30 points or more.

``I think that's where college football is today,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday. ``Just to watch the way everybody is in a spread mentality, is playing with tempo, it's just a matter of time until teams score when you've got the defense out there as long as you are.''

Scoring has been on the rise across the nation, thanks largely to the proliferation of spread and pro-style offenses and the introduction of the running 40-second clock. Three years after Boise State and Houston were the only two teams to average more than 40 points a game, at 42.2 each, 17 schools are scoring 40 or more. Five teams are scoring in the 50s, led by Oklahoma State with 55.8 points per game.

It's not only the traditionally prolific schools piling up the points, either. Texas A&M, better known for its ``Wrecking Crew'' defense, is averaging almost 45 points a game, eighth most in the country.

``Football is a trendy sport, by nature,'' Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.

Yes, but trendy and Big Ten don't usually go together.

Scan the yearly list of the Big Ten's leader in scoring offense, and you'll see a lot of numbers in the 20s and 30s. Oh, sure, a 40 would show up every once in a while (40.0 by Ohio State in 1969 or 48.1 by Penn State in 1994). Most years, however, reflected the conference and its grind-it-out nature.

Then, in 1997, Joe Tiller arrived at Purdue, bringing his ``basketball on grass'' offense - and a kid named Drew Brees - with him. Pretty soon, that old notion that pro-style, pass-happy offenses couldn't work in the snow and cold of the Midwest had been turned on its head. Same for the idea that the only good football game was a 9-6 slugfest.

Wisconsin led the league with 43 points per conference game last year, and 45.2 the year before that. It was the first time ever the league's scoring average leader had topped 40 in back-to-back years. And it could be three in a row, with Nebraska currently averaging almost 44 points a game, 10th highest in the country.

``With the rise in talent level offensively and the things people are doing conceptually, it's been a big positive,'' Michigan State coach Mark D'Antonio said. ``The defense is working in those same realms. But ... since I was a defensive coordinator back in `02, 03, the game has changed dramatically.''

Now, not every Big Ten team looks like a WAC wannabe. Wisconsin's offense is still built around the ground game, and probably always will be. Yes, the Badgers had Russell Wilson last year, but that was an oddity. The year before, when Wisconsin was scoring in bunches, it was thanks to a behemoth offensive line that bulldozed such big holes the Badgers almost couldn't help but score.

But the league is no longer running different own versions of the same offense, either. Look at Ohio State. The school that produced Eddie George and Archie Griffin has opened things up under Urban Meyer, and is scoring 30 or more points in all but two games this year with its spread offense.

Nebraska runs a lot of option out of the shotgun. Illinois' aim is to run the spread. Michigan State and Iowa are more traditional.

And then there's Michigan, which changes from week to week depending on the kind of game Denard Robinson is having.

That variety, rather than the offenses themselves, are what has the most impact, D'Antonio said.

``It's not that one particular philosophy is good, bad or indifferent. It's that every week in college football, offenses change dramatically,'' he said. ``You only have three, four days max to prepare for that offense, and what you're seeing is people not executing on the defensive side of ball as well due to the complexities and changes. ... It's tough for a young player to (adapt).''

In the end, though, good football will always trump glitzy schemes. Just look at last year's Big Ten title game, which featured Wisconsin and Michigan State, two of the conference's most traditional offenses.

``If you can control the football and play good defense, play great on special teams, good things are going to happen for you,'' D'Antonio said. ``There are all different ways of getting to the top. It's just a matter of, philosophically, what direction you're going to take. In the end, it's about how you execute and your ability to adapt.''

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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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