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Column: 'I told him, 'Dang, you're good.'

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Column: 'I told him, 'Dang, you're good.'

We can quantify most of the things a football coach does to help his team win games.

Count the hours he puts in. Track whether players get better or worse. Turn his schemes inside out, tote up blown timeouts at the end of close games, and more. Or just go straight to the standings.

All of those things combined don't quite explain what's been going on with the Indianapolis Colts. They were 1-2 six weeks ago, when coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. They're 4-1 since, and he just got some promising news from his doctor - that the cancer is in ``complete remission.'' The turnaround was already a conversation starter in Indianapolis. Now that the rest of America got to watch Pagano addressing the team after it narrowly beat the Dolphins, try to put a number on inspiration.

Think back to last season, when it was Tim Tebow confounding the experts and the Broncos who were somehow more than the sum of their parts. Now he's stuck on a bench in New York and the momentum has resettled 1,100 miles or so to the east in Indianapolis. The Colts are still a long from being a playoff contender, but they made themselves the best story in the NFL so far. They weren't expected to do much, not after losing Peyton Manning from a team that went 2-14 without him, and not even with Andrew Luck coming to town. That's one reason why the franchise was willing to roll the dice on Pagano, who hadn't been a head coach at any level.

But he had big plans.

``He never believed this was going to be a rebuilding year. That's why he took it on,'' Sam Pagano recalled Thursday over the phone from Boulder, Colo. ``I was there for the talk he gave the team before the first exhibition game. He told them he really believed they could be successful. It was good stuff.

``So I asked him afterward, `Do you get nervous when you talk?' Because he was a typical coach's son growing up. A lot of `yessir' and `no, sir' and not much else. But he said, `No, I don't.' I told him, `Dang, you're good.' ``

Sam Pagano knows plenty about talking to a team. He delivered 200 speeches and more during 21 years as the coach at Fairview High in Boulder, where he won two state titles and split a third. He spent time abroad and even took a team with limited English-speaking skills to the Italian Super Bowl. Both Chuck and another son, John, who's the defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, played for him.

And neither got the playing time they deserved, Sam says now, because he treated them more like a father than a coach. ``Like the dad with the kid in right field who's praying the ball doesn't get hit there,'' he said. His wife, Diana, even called the principal once to ask him to make sure Sam played his son.

``You know how far that got?'' he laughed. But Sam also realized about the time both were bouncing from the ranks of graduate assistants into full-fledged jobs on good college and NFL staffs, that the boys had no problems fending for themselves.

``It's painful, just painful, to watch him go through this - the suffering, how awful it is. ... That's the word he used, `awful' - and to be so far away,'' Sam said. ``But I just couldn't believe how elegant and truthful he was, talking about his vision and being around for his daughters' weddings. You can tell he's a fighter.''

What's that worth? Bruce Arians, the interim coach and a close pal of Chuck Pagano, won't even pretend he's done any calculations. Pagano was in the locker room before the game, too, and sneaked into the coaching booth five minutes before kickoff to watch the players. They knew it.

``I don't know how you put that into any form of value,'' Arians said Monday, when asked what Pagano's presence meant to the team. ``It was very special to have him walk through that group of guys and see their reaction to it and take that message. Obviously, in the second half we played with that same fight.''

But a moment later, he slipped back into coach speak and reminded us why NFL coaches watch so much film. They can afford to believe in only those things they can actually see.

``We did a great job two weeks in a row, defensively, of swinging the tempo from a first-half basically average performance, to a really good second-half performance. The young offensive guys battled their tails off with a bunch of injuries during that game. At one point in time, we had a rookie flanker, a rookie split end, rookie tight end, rookie running back and rookie quarterback fighting on third down against the number one third-down defense, and I thought they did a good job.''

Good enough, anyway, that it didn't come as much of a surprise back in Boulder. The Paganos knew sorrow years ago, when their daughter died accidentally. They learned that by honoring something or someone with your effort, some good is guaranteed to come of it.

``Like I said, he was a coach's kid. Always asking, `What do you want me to do? What's my next move?' He always put a lot of thought into things, but he didn't really come out of his shell until college,'' Sam said. He paused and added, ``Isn't he something now?''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Tom Wilson does the little things in Capitals’ 3-2 overtime win at Colorado

Tom Wilson does the little things in Capitals’ 3-2 overtime win at Colorado

To call it a hit is generous. To call it a huge play is accurate. 

Capitals forward Tom Wilson backed into a loose puck along the boards in the defensive zone of Friday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. He waited for a hit sure to come from behind. 

Colin Wilson, the Avalanche center, moved in to dislodge the puck. Instead he got dislodged from gravity. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Tom Wilson, barely moving and braced for contact, used his own leverage to launch Colin Wilson into the air, arms and legs akimbo. 

By the time Colin Wilson crashed to the ice, Tom Wilson had chipped a blind backhand pass to center ice, where Alex Ovechkin stopped it with his skate, dropped it to teammate Nicklas Backstrom, who gave it back as they entered the offensive zone. Ovechkin crossed from left to right and ripped a shot past former teammate Philipp Grubauer in goal for Colorado. 

It was a wonderful pass from Backstrom, who put the Avalanche on their heels. Ovechkin’s shot was a bullet that left little chance for Grubauer. But make no mistake – it all started with Wilson, who was prepared to take a hit to make a play. It is those little things that the Capitals missed during Wilson’s 16-game suspension by the NHL. It was the little things that helped them to a 3-2 overtime victory.  

“[Wilson] brings so much energy to this group,” Backstrom said. “He’s everywhere out there. That’s what we need. He’s playing PK, he’s playing power plays, he’s doing everything. He’s a valuable guy in this group so we’re happy to have him back.”

The game-winning goal in overtime by Backstrom was a perfect example. Wilson took a drop pass from defenseman John Carlson 12 seconds into overtime with Washington on a 4-on-3 power play. That’s when he went to work. 

For six seconds Wilson and Avalanche center Carl Soderberg did battle along the right boards high in the offensive zone. Just as Wilson was knocked to the ice, he slipped a pass back to Backstrom alone at the point. 

With Soderberg on top of him and both out of the play, Wilson watched Backstrom take advantage of the extra space in what effectively became a 3-on-2. He passed to Carlson in the right faceoff circle and then got the puck back in the high slot and beat Grubauer blocker side for the win. That doesn’t happen without Wilson. 

“When you’re playing with good players, you just try and keep it simple, win your battles and they’ll do the rest,” Wilson said. “And that’s exactly what happened on both those plays. At the end there, I thought about throwing it across the ice a couple times, but I’m not that comfortable out there yet so just kind of ragged on the wall and waited. Nicky got open for me and made it easy, I just threw it over to him and it was in the back of the net.”  

The Ovechkin goal put Washington ahead 2-1 at 18:29 of the second period. The Backstrom winner came 22 seconds into overtime. Wilson, in his third game back after his original 20-game suspension was reduced by a neutral arbitrator, played a career-high 24 minutes, 24 seconds. He moved to the power play for 4:19 with T.J. Oshie out with an upper-body injury and contributed 1:35 on the penalty kill – a little less than usual. 

Wilson played on the PK for 5:23 in his first game back Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. He scored a goal in that game, too, by driving the net hard and has been a jolt of energy for a team that was scuffling coming into a difficult four-game road trip. The Capitals are 2-1-0 with one game left Monday at the Montreal Canadiens. 
 
“Tom is one of those guys that was vocal in our room, vocal on the bench that we’re fully in control of that game still even though we gave up the late goal,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. “But that’s a tough start [after the suspension], three in four, and then add in the altitude and the minutes that we’re counting on him playing because they aren’t easy minutes. And then obviously having to chase around that top line tonight from Colorado is no easy task. Just really happy with the fact that we got him back a little earlier than was originally set up for us. It’s been a good bounce for our team.” 

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

5 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

A shorthanded Capitals team marched into Colorado and took a 3-2 overtime win over the Avalanche on Friday.

Here are five reasons the Caps won.

A big glove save

With no T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Braden Holtby, the Caps were a bit shorthanded heading into the game. After the Avalanche took a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds in, it felt like it could be a very long night for Washington.

It could have been if not for an early breakaway save by Pheonix Copley.

Soon after the goal, Nathan MacKinnon grabbed the puck on a breakaway. MacKinnon is one of the best offensive players in the league and not the guy you want to see going in alone on Copley on a breakaway.

Copley, however, flashed the glove and made the save to keep the game at 1-0.

One year ago to the day, the Caps lost 6-2 in Colorado. With the injuries Washington was dealing with, it’s not a stretch to think this game could have gone off the rails quickly had the Avalanche jumped out to a 2-0 lead.

Tic-Tac-Toe

The Caps struggled through the first period to get any real penetration on Colorado’s defense and were kept largely on the perimeter with very few high-danger opportunities. The Avalanche defense got a bit more porous in the second and Washington took advantage.

Travis Boyd collected the puck in the offensive zone below the goal line. As he skated along the wall, he found himself face-to-face with four Colorado players who were all just following the puck. As far as defense goes, that’s not an ideal situation. Boyd found a wide-open Chandler Stephenson on the cross-ice pass, Stephenson goes back left to Devante Smith-Pelly who had an empty net to shoot on to get the Caps on the board and tie the game at one.


Game speed

After six seasons in Washington, Philipp Grubauer has faced literally thousands of shots from Alex Ovechkin in practice. But he never faced one of those shots in a game until Friday. Those shots come off the stick a bit faster when it counts as Grubauer learned.

Nicklas Backstrom entered the offensive zone with the puck and backhanded it to Ovechkin. Backstrom kept driving to the net drawing the defense with him except for Tyson Barrie. Backstrom’s passed to the left, but Ovechkin collected it going right which caught Barrie flatfooted. Ovehckin easily skated around Barrie to find an open shooting lane, then snapped a shot past Grubauer to put the Caps up 2-1. Ovechkin’s celebration was almost instantaneous, he knew he had Grubauer beat.


A late penalty

The referees really put away the whistles in the third period. They even missed a clear high-stick to Dmitry Orlov that drew blood and should have been a double-minor. Colorado came back to tie the game, but Smith-Pelly finally drew a blatant holding penalty from Ian Cole with just over a minute left to go in regulation.

The Avalanche survived to force overtime, but Nicklas Backstrom scored the game-winner on the power play just 22 seconds in for the win.

Tom Wilson making a Tom Wilson play

Space is important in hockey. That’s what makes a four-on-three power play harder to cover than a five-on-four power play. You know what’s even better? A three-on-two.

The Caps entered overtime on a power play which gave them a four-on-three to start. Tom Wilson had the puck on the wall and took a hit from Carl Soderberg. He saw the hit coming and took it so he could make the pass to Backstrom. He won the board battle and the hit took Soderberg out of the play, giving the Caps a three-on-two in the offensive zone to work with. Backstrom passed to John Carlson who passed back to Backstrom. He had all day to fire the game-winner and it was all thanks to a tremendous play from Wilson that most people would not have noticed.

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