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'Jacks on cusp of first conference title since '03

'Jacks on cusp of first conference title since '03

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) Even in a town with limited sports options, Northern Arizona sometimes suffers from the same ho-hum support as so many other teams in Arizona, usually gaining attention only when it wins.

The Lumberjacks are on the verge of changing that behind a star running back, a gifted quarterback, the program's longest winning streak in 54 years and the possibility of a conference title.

The attitude won't change overnight, but the `Jacks are chipping away.

``It's going to take time; it's going to have to be consistent over time,'' senior quarterback Cary Grossart said. ``It's new, but I think people have started to notice toward the end of the season as we started winning - winning always helps.''

Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) wasn't supposed to be in this position, at least according to the coaches in the Big Sky Conference. The Lumberjacks haven't won more than six games the previous eight seasons and the coaches saw no reason to think it would be any different in 2012, picking them to finish seventh in the conference.

Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers knew better.

In his 15th season in Flagstaff, Souers saw the progress the Lumberjacks made last season and during the offseason. He had Grossart and dynamic running back Zach Bauman coming back, along with plenty of returning players with experience.

Put that all together and Souers figured the dire predictions were off the mark.

``It's been coming together the last couple of years,'' Souers said. ``Last year was close from the standpoint of our quality of play. We were 4-7, we lost a bunch of games that were close at the end and in the offseason matured and developed and understood the things we need to do to finish out a game.''

Northern Arizona has been doing just that all season.

Well, after a difficult start.

Confident that the days of mediocrity were behind them, the Lumberjacks went into the season expecting a big turnaround.

Instead, they hit a speed bump out of the gate against Arizona State, losing Grossart and Bauman to injuries in the first half of a season-opening 63-6 loss to the bigger, faster Sun Devils.

The Lumberjacks dusted themselves off quickly, picking up one of the biggest wins in program history by rallying for a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off UNLV 17-14 the next week, ending a 25-game losing streak to FBS schools.

``The guys have been working hard for three years and we've been recruiting toward a higher end for a while now, but getting everyone to believe it takes reinforcement that you're making progress,'' Souers said. ``A win like that is affirmation that we are making progress, we were exceeding some of the norms of where we had been.''

The Lumberjacks weren't done.

Two weeks after taking down the Rebels, Northern Arizona went up to Montana and snatched a 41-31 victory, ending a 14-game losing streak to the Grizzlies.

Montana had become a nemesis for the Lumberjacks and Souers, a former assistant in Missoula, and the satisfaction of that win was right up there with knocking off UNLV.

``To see coach Souers, to see the respect he got from the people in Missoula and Montana, that made me be proud to be a part of NAU,'' Grossart said. ``I was so excited for him and for our team to do something that hadn't been done in a long time was special and will last a long time.''

Those two program-defining wins propelled Northern Arizona into an eight-game winning streak, the program's longest run since winning 11 in a row in 1958.

Bauman and Grossart have led the way.

Lightly recruited out of Arizona powerhouse Chandler Hamilton High School, Bauman has raced up NAU's career rushing chart with 1,138 yards and eight touchdowns this season. A junior, he's second in school history with 3,632 yards, 162 behind Marcus King's school record.

An undersized quarterback who came out a spread system in high school, Grossart has developed into a steady leader as a senior. Leading an offense that averages over 410 yards per game, he's thrown for 1,723 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Behind those two stars and a we-belong-here attitude, the Lumberjacks are on the cusp of their first conference title since 2003.

Northern Arizona, No. 15 in the latest FCS coaches poll, slipped up on its chance to earn the title outright by losing a triple-overtime shootout to Southern Utah last weekend, but can earn at least a share by beating Cal Poly at home on Saturday.

Accomplish that and the Lumberjacks will move on to the FCS playoffs, where they can add to their growing following in Flagstaff.

``We just decided in the offseason that 6-5, 4-7 every year wasn't good enough and we put in the work to make sure it didn't happen again,'' Bauman said. ``It's great to shock everybody.''

Well, not everyone. The Lumberjacks believed all along that they were capable of playing like this.

Now, the community around them is starting to believe, too, even if it is a little at a time.

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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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