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Florida insists Sugar Bowl foe Louisville is legit

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Florida insists Sugar Bowl foe Louisville is legit

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Florida seniors Jon Bostic and Omar Hunter are done dwelling on what might have been if not for their lone loss to Georgia.

After finishing third in the BCS standings, one spot too low to play for a national title in Miami, the Gators asserted they remain highly motivated heading into Wednesday night's Sugar Bowl against two-touchdown underdog Louisville.

Hunter even suggested a victory for fourth-ranked Florida (11-1) over No. 22 Louisville (10-2) would be a ``program changer,'' because Florida has not been to a BCS bowl game since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season.

Last year, the Gators nearly missed out on the postseason, finishing the regular season 6-6 before posting a 24-17 victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. This season, only a 17-9 loss to Georgia on Oct. 27 got in their way.

``Being able to get this program back to a BCS game and possibly winning the game is big for our program,'' Hunter said. ``Being able to say that you brought Florida back to the top before you left is going to be special for these seniors.''

The Gators are hesitant to buy into the idea they'll just roll over the champions of the Big East without much resistance.

One reason is their familiarity with Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who was Florida's defensive coordinator from 2003-09, a period that included national championships in the 2006 and 2008 seasons.

``I played for his defense and I know how he talked to us and got us ready for games and I know their defense is going to be ready,'' Hunter said. ``Coach Charlie Strong is a great coach. He's going to give everything he has to those guys and those guys are going to come out ready.''

Strong has sought to motivate his players by playing up their underdog status.

``Nobody really gives us a chance,'' Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith said. ``We kind of take that to heart and want to show everybody what we can do.''

Cardinals safety Calvin Pryor said he believes Louisville will ``shock the world.''

``I have confidence in my team and the guys who I play with and I feel like this is a big statement game for us,'' Pryor said. ``I feel like we're going to make big things happen on Wednesday.''

Strong said he may get a little sentimental when he walks onto the Superdome field and sees some of the players he recruited on the other sideline and hears the Florida band play the fight songs with which he became so familiar over the years.

Yet the importance of the game for Strong has more to do with matching his team against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, home to national title winners the past six years, than the fact he used to coach in the Swamp.

``It's going to be key for our program because we have a chance to go play a Southeastern Conference opponent, an opponent that's one game away from playing for a national championship,'' Strong said. ``If you look at the Southeastern Conference, look at the national championships over the last few years, it speaks for itself. ... Our team, they're really excited about it.''

Strong had a chance to rejoin the SEC as Tennessee's head coach, but chose instead to remain at Louisville, an indication of how far he believes he can take Cardinals football, particularly if he keeps prolific sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater around the next couple seasons.

Bridgewater, an exceptional passer and scrambler, ranked eighth in the nation in pass efficiency, throwing for 3,452 yards and 25 TDs. Although he was worn down up by the end of the season, he was tough enough to overcome a broken wrist and sore ankle, and played a crucial part-time role in a 20-17 victory over Rutgers in late November that punched Louisville's BCS ticket.

He's now had a little over a month to rest, and is doing better, though Strong was coy about how much better.

``Our game plan is all about Teddy. So Teddy's healthy now,'' Strong said. ``I'm not saying he's 100 percent, but he's going to be better than he was in the Rutgers game.''

Bridgewater led an offense that scored an average of 31 points this season, and Florida's defense is assuming the quarterback is healthy. But the Gators aren't exactly lacking confidence in their ability to slow him down. The Gators rank first nationally in pass defense efficiency, fifth in total defense and third in scoring defense, allowing an average of 12.9 points.

With its defense playing so well, Florida was able to win this season with a ball-control offense that did not ask too much of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who completed about 65 percent of his passes for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs.

The Gators largely rode running back Mike Gillislee, who rushed 1,104 yards and 10 TDs, and who is a threat to break off long runs.

``You look at the big plays he's had in the open field, he can do a lot of things,'' Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. ``One thing we cannot allow him to do is cut back on us. If he does, he's probably going to take it to the distance.''

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

The Florida Panthers played over half of Friday’s game with five defensemen after a hit from Alex Ovechkin ultimately knocked Mark Pysyk out of the game.

Early in the second period, Ovechkin attempted to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but it was swept away at the blue line back to Pysyk. Pysyk quickly chipped the puck away and then was on the receiving end of a hit from Ovechkin.

In real time, the hit did not appear to be a big one. It wasn't even the biggest hit Ovechkin delivered in the game, as in the third period he sent Aleksander Barkov flying with a shoulder hit. But Pysyk went down to the ice after the hit and left the game soon after.

After the game, Florida head coach Bob Boughner did not mince words.

“Pysyk got a high hit to the head,” he said.

When asked if he thought the league should review the hit, Boughner said, “I hope they do because if you see the replay, it's high. It's a head shot. And the league's trying to clamp down on that. Whether there's no call, I don't blame the refs. Maybe they missed it. That happens. But those are the kind of plays that need to be reviewed.”

Based on the replay, it is hard to determine if the principal point of contact was the head. Ovechkin does not launch himself, but does appear to take an upward trajectory into Pysyk. Still, it seems like a hard sell to say Ovechkin was targeting the head.

But the hit did send Pysyk out of the game, and in today’s NHL, when head hits are a big topic of conversation and when a player is injured on a play, the NHL has shown it takes those plays more seriously.

Pysyk returned to the game for one more shift after receiving the hit, but left the game after and did not return.

“Right now we're still getting him checked out, but we'll see more in the morning,” Boughner said.

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