Capitals

Gophers still trying to get over that Big Ten hump

201211031230450156447-p2.jpeg

Gophers still trying to get over that Big Ten hump

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The good news for Minnesota last weekend was that the Gophers had plenty of opportunities to assemble a strong enough game to beat Michigan, one of the Big Ten powers they've been least successful against.

The bad? They still lost at home by 22 points.

So the Gophers (5-4, 1-4) have moved on, buoyed by their clear improvement over last season when they fell 58-0 to the Wolverines but frustrated by a lingering inability to put together the kind of performance required to beat the traditional big boys of the conference.

``You can't really practice it. You've just got to get in the games and do it. That just comes by experience,'' quarterback Philip Nelson said Tuesday. ``I think that we're so close to getting there that it really creates some disappointment after the games.''

This is what happens with many rebuilding projects. They're still lacking the overall talent and attitude to play well most of the time.

``When you first take a program over, they're usually open because there's a reason for it. There's a struggle there. And your first year, you're just not very good,'' Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. ``The second and third year, and you hope you can move it quickly, is that you win some games, but then you're close in a lot of games that you don't win because you're not quite good enough to get over that hump, and I'd like to see us be able to get over that hump a little bit.''

There were at least three glaring examples in Saturday's 35-13 loss for the Gophers of a team capable of hanging with one of the Big Ten's best but not yet able to produce enough confidence, smart calls or clutch plays to win.

-Michigan had the ball at the Minnesota 45 midway through the second quarter trailing 7-0 and facing a third-and-17. Gophers linemen got to the backfield, forcing quarterback Devin Gardner to scramble to avoid a sack. After running the equivalent of roughly the entire width of the field, Gardner saw Drew Dileo wide open in the end zone and threw him ball for the tying touchdown. As well as the Gophers had the rest of the receivers covered, one lapse cost them dearly on that play.

``We had all the momentum in the world. At some point, we lost it. And we struggled to get it back,'' safety Brock Vereen said.

-Trailing 21-7 late in the third quarter, Minnesota had first-and-goal at the Michigan 3. But Donnell Kirkwood was stopped for no gain, and then Nelson was too. Next came a false start penalty on left guard Zac Epping, and Nelson's third-and-long pass was incomplete, prompting a short field goal.

``Anytime you get inside the 5-yard line, you've GOT to come out with a touchdown,'' Nelson said Tuesday. ``I'm sure that's something that's going to be a huge point of emphasis this week in practice.''

-When the Wolverines got the ball back, Gardner completed a third-and-4 throw to Dileo for 11 yards to midfield. Then on the next play, Gardner threw a pass into double coverage that Ray Roundtree somehow came down with at the 3-yard line. Troy Stoudermire was in prime position for the interception, but in the end, the ball landed in Roundtree's hands.

``We're making good plays, we're making strides, but that's not much of a consolation,'' linebacker Mike Rallis said.

A trip to Illinois is on tap for this Saturday. The Illini (2-7, 0-5) are already playing for next season. With a game at Nebraska on Nov. 17 and Michigan State due at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 24, this is obviously the best chance for the Gophers to ensure themselves an extra game.

``Not making a bowl game is not really an option for me,'' Rallis said, adding: ``We're getting down to the end of it, and we need to find a way to get a couple victories here and go out the right way. But we've got to start with this one game and kind of get in that atmosphere where every game is a huge game.''

The Gophers will likely be without leading receiver A.J. Barker again. He didn't play against Michigan because of a right ankle he sprained in the previous week's win over Purdue. Barker has 30 receptions, 577 yards and seven touchdowns, by far the most on the team in each category. The freshman Nelson has showed promise and poise in three starts since taking over the job, but success is harder for him without his best target.

``Unless some miracle takes place, so to speak, I don't look for him to be able to play on Saturday,'' Kill said.

---

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

Quick Links

4 keys for the Caps to win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final

4 keys for the Caps to win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final

It all starts Monday!

The Vegas Golden Knights will host the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final as both teams look to take early control of the series.

Can the Caps steal one on the road to start? Here are four keys to winning Game 1.

Win the first period

The Golden Knights have not played a game since May 20. While rest can benefit a team at this time of the year, there is such a thing as too much rest and over a week would certainly qualify. If there is absolutely any rust in Vegas’ game to start, the Caps need to take advantage.

T-Mobile Arena and the Vegas crowd have already built a reputation in year one. The atmosphere is going to be electric, but the Caps can combat that with a good start to the game and by scoring first.

Vegas is 10-1 when scoring first this postseason. If they are able to come in and get on the board right off the bat in the first period after seven full days between games, that does not bode well for the Caps’ chances.

Don’t allow Marc-Andre Fleury to pick up where he left off

Fleury is having a postseason for the ages, but it’s hard to believe momentum is simply going to carry over to a new series after such a lengthy break. Players are not simply going to pick up where they left off and play as if there’s no rust to shake off. The need to get to Fleury as early as possible.

What that means is getting traffic in front of the net, making him move, contesting rebounds, making him feel uncomfortable as much as possible and generating quality offensive chances.

The Caps can do is starting flinging pucks at the net and giving him easy saves. Getting 12 shots in the first period would be great, but not if they are all perimeter shots for easy saves that help bring Fleury's confidence back to where it was in the Western Conference Final.

Limit the turnovers

Turnovers are blood in the water for Vegas. The high-effort, high-speed style of play of the Golden Knights has caught several players off guard at points this postseason. No one can afford to be casual with the puck at any point in this game because Vegas has a knack for turning those turnovers into goals.

Winning Game 1 on the road will be hard enough without giving the Golden Knights at any help.

Shut down the top line

Only three players have reached double digits in points for the Golden Knights in the playoffs: Jonathan Marchessault (18), Reilly Smith (16) and William Karlsson (13). What do these three have in common? They all play on Vegas’ top line. To compare, the Caps have seven players in double digits.

Much has been made of Vegas’ offensive depth and their ability to roll four lines, but the play of Fleury in net has really masked how much this team relies on its top line for offense. The Caps need to get Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the ice against them and focus on shutting them down. Force the Golden Knights to win with their other three lines and see if they can.

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

Quick Links

MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

LAS VEGAS—One of the more intriguing storylines of this year’s Stanley Cup Final centers on a couple of men who make their living behind the scenes: Brian MacLellan of the Caps and his counterpart with the Golden Knights, George McPhee.

They’ve known each other for 40-plus years, dating back to their time as bantam teammates in Canada. And, starting Monday, they’ll be on opposing sides, with hockey’s Holy Grail at stake.  

Caps fans, of course, are familiar with McPhee’s work. He served as GM in Washington from 1997-2014 and drafted 13 players who are currently on the Caps’ roster. McPhee was also the Caps’ rookie GM the last time the franchise appeared in the Final 20 years ago.

But here’s what Caps fans might not know about the connection that MacLellan and McPhee share:

  • They were born in a few months apart in 1958 in Ontario.
  • They captured the Canadian Jr. A championship as members of the 1977-78 Guelph Platers.
  • Both were on scholarship at Bowling Green from 1978-1982.
  • They played together with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.
  • And, finally, they worked side-by-side in Washington from 2000-2014. After working his way up from the scouting ranks, MacLellan replaced his managerial mentor, who had been let go following a disappointing season.

 

“It's kind of a weird experience,” MacLellan said. “We kind of have been texting back and forth how strange it feels to have this line up the way it has. It's a little awkward, but it's going to be a fun experience, I hope.”

At one point, MacLellan got choked up when talking about his relationship with McPhee, who’ll become the first GM in the expansion era to face a former team of which he served as GM.

“We played junior together and then we both went to Bowling Green on scholarships, so we lived together,” he said, fighting back tears. “It was fun.”

MacLellan also acknowledged that the two weren’t as tight—for a time, at least—after he replaced McPhee four years ago. McPhee also hinted at some strain, though he said the two men had dinner at the most recent GM’s meetings.

“Not as close, I don't think,” MacLellan said of his relationship with McPhee following McPhee’s dismissal. “A little bit of communication here and there. But I think it just took a little time for things to evolve. I think he needed a break from the game, needed a break from how it went down for him here and it just took time.”

When the two negotiated during last year’s expansion draft, which saw McPhee pluck promising you blueliner Nate Schmidt from Washington’s roster, MacLellan said the two old friends keep things “businesslike.”

“He was all business,” MacLellan said. “He wasn’t giving in on anything.”

Although McPhee drafted most of the core players who delivered the Caps to this year’s Final, MacLellan also deserves credit for getting this team over the second round hump. Among his first acquisitions were defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, a pair of vets that helped shore up a shaky defense. MacLellan also added forwards T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller via trade in recent seasons and, this year, added defenseman Michal Kempny, a particularly shrewd move that bolstered a blue line that needed a little tightening.

As weird as the next few days will be for MacLellan as he faces his old friend, it figures to even more strange for McPhee, who will look down from the GM’s suite on Monday and see not one, but two teams that he built on the ice. McPhee also pilfered a handful of current and former front office employees from Caps, including Goalie Coach Dave Prior, while building the Golden Knights.

Indeed, the history between MacLellan and McPhee runs deep. But for the next couple of weeks, they’ll put aside their decades-old friendship as their clubs battle for the NHL’s ultimate prize.
 

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS: