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'The Hyphen' Stephens-Howling still defying odds

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'The Hyphen' Stephens-Howling still defying odds

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) LaRod Stephens-Howling doesn't mind if fans call him ``The Hyphen.'' He realizes his real name is a bit cumbersome. He has trouble with it himself.

There's never enough room on documents, he says, to sign his name. The back of his jersey is a bit crowded with letters, too.

He was for most his life LaRod Stephens but when his parents eventually got married, he decided to add his father's last name, but keep his mother's maiden name, too.

Whatever they call him, fans of the Arizona Cardinals, and now the Minnesota Vikings, know this guy is no pint-sized pushover. Against the Vikings on Sunday, he was a power back in miniature, scampering and sometimes plowing his way to a career-best 104 yards in 20 carries and catching five passes for another 45 yards in the Cardinals' 21-14 loss.

It's another triumph for the 5-foot-7 Stephens-Howling in a life of overcoming all those who told him he was just too small for football.

``The first thing you have to do is believe, you have to believe in yourself,'' he said after the team practiced Tuesday.

He has been overachieving so long that the term probably no longer applies.

At Greater Johnstown High School in Pennsylvania, he rushed for a school-record 4,597 yards, averaging 8.9 yards per carry. Off the field, he was a member of the National Honor Society, Who's Who Among American High School Students and the Minority Scholars Club.

At Pittsburgh, he started as a freshman and sophomore only to lose that job when LeSean McCoy, now a star with the Philadelphia Eagles, arrived on campus.

``It wasn't an easy time,'' Stephens-Howling said, ``but I had the right people, the right support system, making sure I stayed on track and stayed on course.''

A backup running back at Pitt, especially one who stands 5-7, didn't get a lot of attention from the pros. But Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and his scouts knew about him and made him the team's seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, the 240th player chosen overall.

From the beginning, he was impossible to keep off the roster. As a rookie, Stephens-Howling appeared in all 16 games, catching a TD pass from Kurt Warner and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. His role grew over the next two seasons.

Entering this year, he was a goal-line back and Whisenhunt planned to use him in certain offensive sets to take advantage of his skills while minimizing the impact of his size. He also was to return kickoffs.

But when running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams both went down with injuries, the job fell to Stephens-Howling. There was widespread panic among the Cardinals faithful, but not within the team, quarterback John Skelton said.

``I have so much respect for him and what he does,'' Skelton said. ``He has probably stepped up the most with some of the injuries that we've had and all the outside critics saying `Who's the running back, who are you going to start?' I think, in house, we never had any doubt in LaRod and his abilities.''

Strangely, Arizona's running game was stuck in the mud with Wells and Williams but got in gear first with William Powell getting most of the carries against Buffalo two weeks ago, then last week with Stephens-Howling, who has finally recovered from a nagging hip injury.

He appreciates getting to where he is the hard way, with so many doubting a small man could make it in this big man's game.

``I'm actually just that much more gratifying that it's working out this way,'' Stephens-Howling said. ``Nothing was handed to me. I've definitely worked hard work and it means a lot more when it's paying off.''

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

After losing three straight, the Capitals battled back in Game 6 on Monday. With their 3-0 win, Washington forced the Eastern Conference Final into a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.

Here is how the Caps did it.

1. Braden Holtby matched Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save

Andrei Vasilevskiy was just as great in this game as he was in the three previous, but one of the major differences in this one was that Holtby was just as good. He may not have been tested as much (Vasilevskiy made 32 saves, Holtby 24), but he was big when the team needed.

In the second period with the scored tied at 0, Holtby made one of the most critical saves perhaps of the entire season when he denied Anthony Cirelli with the toe on a 2-on-1. When the Caps took the lead, Holtby really shut the door in the third period with 10 saves to cap off what was his fifth career playoff shutout and first shutout of the entire season.

2. T.J. Oshie’s timely goal

Over halfway into the game, it looked like it was just going to be one of those nights. Caps fans know it well by now. Washington outplays their opponent, they get chance after chance and develop a whopping advantage in shots, but they run into a hot goalie and a random play suddenly turns into a goal for the other team, game and season over.

Vasilevskiy was on his way to having perhaps his best performance of the series. Considering how he played in the three games prior to Game 6, that’s saying something. The Caps were doing everything right, but he continued to make save after save. Then on the power play in the second period, John Carlson struck the inside of the post, the horn went off and the roar of the crowd gave way to dismay as the referee waved his arms to indicate there was no goal and play continued. Just seconds later, T.J. Oshie gave the Caps the 1-0 lead.

You have to wonder if doubt was starting to creep into the back of the minds of the players when that puck struck the post as they wondered what else they had to do to beat Vasilevskiy. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last long.

3. Special teams

Braydon Coburn’s tripping penalty in the second period gave Washington its only power play of the night and its first since the second period of Game 4. They had to make it count given how well Vasilveskiy was playing and they did.

Washington now has a power play goal in each of their three wins against the Lightning and no power play goals in their three losses. So yeah, it’s significant.

Tampa Bay had two opportunities of their own, but Washington managed to kill off both power plays in the penalty kill’s best performance of the series.

4. Washington’s physical game plan

On paper, the Lightning are better than the Caps in most categories. One area in which Washington has the edge, however, is physical play and it was clear very early that they intended to use that to their advantage in Game 6. Tampa Bay was pushed around and they seemed to struggle to recover.

Ovechkin was a one-man wrecking ball out there hitting everything that moved. The energy he brought with every hit was palpable and both the team and the crowd fed on it.

Washington was credited with 39 hits on the night compared to Tampa Bay’s 19. Ovechkin had four of those as did Nicklas Backstrom while Devante Smith-Pelly contributed five and Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik each led the team with six.

5. Fourth line dagger

Tampa Bay’s fourth line was the story of Game 5, but Washington’s fourth line sealed the deal on Monday with its third period goal.

Chandler Stephenson beat out an icing call, forcing Braydon Coburn to play the puck along the wall. Jay Beagle picked it up, fed back to Stephenson who backhanded a pass for the perfect setup for Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly scored seven goals in the regular season. He now has four in the playoffs.

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors at 19, hit a three-run homer in his first career start as the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 10-2 on Monday.

Mark Reynolds had two solo home runs for the Nationals, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Bryce Harper had a homer and an RBI double.

Soto's drive highlighted a five-run second inning for Washington. The promising outfielder, who played for three minor league teams this season, hit the first pitch from Robbie Erlin (1-3) over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field. Soto also singled.

Soto's homer traveled an estimated 442 feet at Nationals Park. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the teenager responded by taking a curtain call. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Soto became the first teenager to hit a home run in a major league game since Harper on Sept. 30, 2012.

Called up to Washington on Sunday, Soto became the first 19-year-old to make his major league debut since Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in 2016. He entered that game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and struck out.

Washington's starting left fielder began the season at Class A Hagerstown. He hit a combined .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in his three minor league stops.

Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed two runs and two hits in seven innings.

San Diego's Franmil Reyes, playing in his seventh career game, also hit his first career home run.

Trea Turner hit a pair of RBI doubles for Washington. Reynolds had three hits.

Erlin surrendered six runs and seven hits over four innings in his third start of the season. San Diego had won three in a row.

Reyes connected for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, but the Padres' lineup generated little else against Gonzalez, who allowed one run over six innings in a no-decision at San Diego on May 9.

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.