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Erratic Steelers still searching for consistency

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Erratic Steelers still searching for consistency

PITTSBURGH (AP) Casey Hampton believes greatness is still within reach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even if at the moment the only thing Hampton's team has a firm grasp on is maddening inconsistency.

``Going forward I feel like we're going to win every game,'' the veteran nose tackle said. ``That's what we've got to do to get in the playoffs.''

Better that than try to rely on the kind of help the Steelers received on Sunday, when a demoralizing 34-24 home loss to San Diego did minimal damage to their postseason hopes. Pittsburgh ended the day in the same position it began, holding onto the AFC's final wild card spot.

The grip, however, is sure to get slippery if things don't turn around quickly.

``We can't be happy just because other teams lost and we're still in it,'' linebacker Larry Foote said. ``It's one of those gut-checking times.''

Maybe it's a good thing the next three weeks hardly look like gimmes. Pittsburgh has done its best work this season when backed into a corner, and a road trip to Dallas (7-6) followed by home games against AFC North rivals Cincinnati (7-6) and quickly improving Cleveland (5-8) to wrap up the regular season is sure to get the Steelers' attention.

If not, a season that looked promising a month ago will end before the calendar flips to 2013.

``Good teams have to find a way to win,'' defensive end Brett Keisel.

Even if it's hard to tell which side of the equation the Steelers are on at the moment. A resume that includes wins on the road at Baltimore, Cincinnati and the New York Giants also includes losses to Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and the Chargers, who are a combined 17-35.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can't quite put a finger on why the Steelers play so well against good teams and so poorly against also-rans. And unlike the losses to the Browns, Raiders and Titans, this one wasn't even close.

The Chargers, finishing out the string under likely lame-duck coach Norv Turner, dominated the first 40 minutes and built a 27-3 lead en route to winning in Pittsburgh during the regular season for the first time in franchise history.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers picked on Steelers cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown relentlessly. The duo, getting extended playoff time in place of injured starter Ike Taylor, struggled against the Chargers' big wide receivers. San Diego converted 12 of 22 third downs, with 11 of them coming through the air, and all but two of them coming with Allen and Brown in coverage.

Coach Mike Tomlin actually benched Brown in the second half in favor of Josh Victorian, who was activated from the practice squad an hour before game time.

``We didn't make the necessary plays that we needed to make,'' Allen said. ``We have to be better as a whole. We just have to be better.''

Something the Steelers tend to be against the league's better teams. Pittsburgh's high points this fall have come in an inspiring 24-20 win over the Giants Nov. 4, and an invigorating 23-20 comeback triumph in Baltimore last week.

They cruised past the Washington Redskins with ease, crushed the New York Jets and handled the Philadelphia Eagles when it looked like their cross-state rivals had a pulse.

The key to those victories, however, came in lights-out defense and a hint of a running game. The Steelers had neither against the Chargers. Jonathan Dwyer managed all of 32 yards rushing, or one more than Roethlisberger gained on five last-option scrambles.

Though Roethlisberger passed for 285 yards and three scores, most of the yards and all of the touchdowns came after San Diego had the game firmly in hand.

Roethlisberger, as he tends to do, took responsibility for the lack of production though he was hardly helped out by his wide receivers or his short-handed offensive line.

Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both watched deep balls that could have changed the game bounce harmlessly away in the first half and Roethlisberger spent long portions of the afternoon under significant duress.

Pittsburgh will continue to shuffle the line next week after left guard Willie Colon went down with a knee injury in the first half. Center Maurkice Pouncey moved from center to guard, with Doug Legursky taking over for Pouncey. Putting a line together on the fly is nothing new for the Steelers, who did it with great aplomb two years ago en route to the Super Bowl.

At this point, nobody is thinking that far down the road. And after getting plenty of help on Sunday, Pittsburgh knows it's time to start helping itself if it wants to play into January.

``Our goals are still big,'' Foote said. ``We have to correct this thing and make a commitment.''

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Giannis Antetokounmpo says he has no problem with Moe Wagner after headbutt

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he has no problem with Moe Wagner after headbutt

Despite seeking him out after the whistle and headbutting him with force to earn an ejection from Tuesday night's game, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo says he has no problem with Wizards big man Moe Wagner. He explained the move as general frustration boiling over.

"I don’t have nothing against Wagner, it wasn’t just him. It was just, like, in my mind all these games I’ve played guys hitting me so I lost it for a second," Antetokounmpo told reporters. 

He went on to express regret over the incident, which is certain to result in a fine and possibly a suspension. His explanation, though, runs a bit counter to how the Wizards saw it all.

Wagner was not made available to the media, but his teammates weighed in and all seemed to believe it stemmed from something that happened between them earlier this season.

"They have something in the past, I don't even know," Rui Hachimura said.

"That was just some blood from back then," Ish Smith said. 

They seemed to be referencing the Feb. 24 meeting between the teams when Antetokounmpo fouled out in only 25 minutes, and with some help from Wagner. That night, Wagner gave a quote that could also have been said after this game: "He’s a really good player. I want him out of the game, obviously."

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On Tuesday, Antetokounmpo again exited early against the Wizards, and again the Bucks held on for the win, just like they did in February. Still, him leaving gave the Wizards a bit of a break. 

The reigning MVP had been dominating with 12 points and nine rebounds in 10 minutes.

"I'm not saying he's a dirty player, but he's good at those little things," Hachimura said of Wagner. "Giannis was actually out for the game. It was really big [for] us. He changed the whole game, actually. Moe's a great guy."

RELATED: GIANNIS EJECTED FOR HEADBUTTING MOE WAGNER

Wagner has a tendency to get under the skin of his opponents. He has had run-ins with other big men, most notably Joel Embiid.

He did his part, but the Bucks still had enough to beat the Wizards. Now the question is whether it was a pyrrhic victory with a potential suspension for Antetokounmpo coming next.

"There's no place for that. It's unfortunate," head coach Scott Brooks said. "It's unfortunate that it happened. I'm sure the league is going to look at it and make a decision. Fortunately for [the Bucks], it's not a playoff game [up next]. I'm sure he's probably going to miss a couple of games."

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Capitals and Islanders have produced legendary Stanley Cup playoff moments

Capitals and Islanders have produced legendary Stanley Cup playoff moments

The Capitals and Islanders have played seven times in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the eighth on tap starting Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in the midst of a pandemic.

This isn’t where we thought we’d be early in the 2019-20 NHL season. It still doesn’t seem real with neutral sites and empty buildings. But this matchup is one we thought would happen last spring. One goal was all that stood between a rematch between New York and coach Barry Trotz and the team he led to the Stanley Cup the year before. 

Alas, the Capitals gave up a goal in Game 7 at home to the Carolina Hurricanes and never got the chance. The Islanders were swept right out of the postseason and we were denied a fascinating matchup between Trotz and Todd Reirden, his assistant coach in Washington for four years.

Little did we know we just had to wait a little longer. The Capitals and Islanders have history far beyond just their coaches. Some of the NHL’s most memorable moments took place in the Stanley Cup playoffs between these Metropolitan Division rivals. Here is a look back at some of the best:

April 10, 1983
The Capitals were just happy to be here. Two years after the desperate “Save the Caps” campaign kept hockey in Washington, their first playoff series came against the three-time defending champions. The Islanders kept their crown.

The plucky Caps weren’t quite ready. But they took Game 2 at famed Nassau Coliseum and were tied 1-1 at Capital Centre in Game 4 when New York, led by Mike Bossy, scored three straight times. Washington kept fighting with a Kent Houston goal at 11:34 of the third period to make it 4-3 before the champs put them away with a second Bossy goal with 2:46 to play.  

April 16, 1985
The first true Caps playoff collapse. The two teams met in the second round of the 1984 playoffs after Washington won its first playoff series. And while the Islanders’ dynasty came to an end that year, it wouldn’t be until they were dethroned by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.

The old crew still had enough to dispatch the Capitals in five games. But in 1985? No that was different. An aging New York fell behind 2-0 in a best-of-five series with overtime losses at a rocking Capital Centre. This felt different. Washington was the better team during the regular season – third-best in the NHL. 

But a pair of losses at Nassau set the stage for Game 5 at Capital Centre. For the third year in a row, the Capitals fell short. A goal in the first, a goal in the second and New York was up 2-0, the crowd was tight. That’s familiar. It all started back then and took Washington another 33 years to shake the demons. A Bobby Carpenter goal 29 seconds into the third period gave the Capitals life, but veteran goalie Billy Smith stopped 39 of 40 shots. New York only had 22. The first of many shocking playoff collapses. 

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS GAME 1 - WHAT TO EXPECT NOW THAT THE GAMES MATTER

April 18, 1987
The Easter Epic. One of the great games in NHL history. The Capitals finally beat the Islanders in the first round in 1986 in a three-game sweep. This time they were up 3-1 in a best-of-seven first-round series and headed home to finish it off. Uh oh. “3-1” and the Caps never have mixed. They have blown that lead five times now. It’s only happened 28 times in league history.

But this was the very first. A game that began on a Saturday evening, ended at 1:56 a.m. on Easter morning. It is now the 11th longest game in league history after Tuesday night's five-overtime fiasco between Tampa Bay and Columbus. They played 68:47 of overtime into Easter morning before Pat LaFontaine’s spinning shot from just inside the blueline beat Washington goalie Bob Mason, who stood in shock in the crease for 10 seconds before dropping exhausted to a knee while the Islanders celebrated. It remains one of the sport's iconic moments. 

April 28, 1993
The Capitals and Islanders needed a break from each other after playing five years in a row in the postseason. Six years later they met again under different circumstances. The 1992 Capitals had blown their second 3-1 series lead to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins. But they returned a solid team that finished second in the Patrick Division, a slight favorite over New York, hoping for another shot at Pittsburgh. 

Instead, an insanely frustrating series followed. The Islanders won Games 2 and 4 in double overtime and Game 3 in regular old overtime. Just like that they were up 3-1. Washington staved off elimination at home in Game 5. But Nassau Coliseum was a House of Horrors. There would be no Game 7. 

Dale Hunter opened the scoring for the Capitals in the first period. But the Islanders were up 3-1 after the second period and the old barn was roaring. Another goal made it 4-1 and with 8:31 to play, Pierre Turgeon put Washington away with a fifth goal. The crowd had been chanting “Nah-Nah-Nah-Nah, Hey-Hey-Hey, Goodbye!” The season had slipped away again. Hunter then lost his mind.

 After a Hunter turnover, Turgeon deked on goal and scored, skating with his arms raised looking up into the crowd. He never saw Hunter following him like a shark for three seconds. He never sensed the check that was about to come well after the goal that buried him into the boards. The Islanders won the series. But Turgeon missed the ensuing series against the Penguins with a separated right shoulder. New York won that anyway before its Cinderella run ended in the Eastern Conference Final against eventual champion Montreal. 

Hunter was hit with a 21-game suspension to start the following year and it’s still considered among the dirtiest hits in NHL history. 

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April 28, 2015

The Islanders and Capitals took another long break from each other but that was mostly because New York stunk. It made the playoffs just six times in the next 20 years and didn’t win a series.

That looked to change in 2015 – Trotz’s first with Washington – when a back-and-forth series with an overtime win for each team went to a Game 7. Given the Alex Ovechkin-led Caps had lost a Game 7 at home in 2008 (Flyers), 2009 (Penguins), 2010 (Canadiens) and 2013 (Rangers), the home crowd was a little tense.

 A 1-1 game for most of the third period became unbearable. It took a young Russian with a flair for the dramatic to make the difference. No, not Ovechkin. Evgeny Kuznetsov had his back to the play near the right circle against the boards, baited Frans Nielson to skate up behind him and then turned on a dime and blew toward the center of the ice. 

No one stopped him. Kuznetsov took the puck across the middle and almost down to the opposite goaline, waiting for Jaroslav Halak to sprawl to the ice – the man who stunned Washington in goal for Montreal in that crushing 2010 series. The lead held for the final 7:18 and for once a Game 7 didn’t end in tears for Capitals fans. That would happen in the second round when the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and won Game 7 in overtime. You can’t win them all. 

Kuznetsov insisted to NBC Sports Washington's Rob Carlin this past spring that it is that Game 7 goal against New York that remains his favorite and not the Game 6 OT winner against Pittsburgh during the Stanley Cup run in 2018. Whether that's just kuzy being Kuzy, who knows? They're both epic and wonderful moments in franchise history. 

Playoff series No. 8 between the Capitals and Islanders has enough storylines to fit in a Stanley Cup Final. Let's see if they can add another memorable chapter to 37 years of history starting Wednesday afternoon. 

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