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Joking aside, No. 1 Djokovic hopes to make history

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Joking aside, No. 1 Djokovic hopes to make history

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Novak Djokovic shelved the conventional preparations for a while, warming up for a shot at a third consecutive Australian title with a bit of weekend hit-and-giggle and a Gangnam Style dance with Serena Williams.

That was for kids' day, when thousands of people flocked to Rod Laver Arena to see 2012 Australian champions Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka hitting in a just-for-fun match with players including past champions Roger Federer and Williams, a cast of human-sized cartoon characters and a marching band that played the tune to Michael Jackson's ``Thriller.''

Come Monday, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic will be back to work, hoping his opener against Paul-Henri Mathieu is the first of seven matches this month at the venue where he's had the most success in Grand Slam tennis. His five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute win over Rafael Nadal in the final last year has already been written into Australian Open folklore, and followed his titles at Melbourne Park in 2008 and 2011.

The fun matches, the joking around and the break from official tournaments in the offseason are crucial ingredients to Djokovic's success in Australia.

``You get time to recover, regroup, recharge your batteries mentally, physically, try to get ready for the new season,'' said the 25-year-old Djokovic, who had a final practice session early Sunday afternoon with fellow Serbian Viktor Troicki . ``You come here fresh. You're motivated and inspired to play some good tennis.

``This is my most successful Grand Slam. But this Grand Slam is also known for a lot of surprises, players who have been reaching the final stages who are not expected to. We'll see. The Australian Open always brings something interesting.''

No man has won three successive Australian titles in the Open era, which dates back to 1968 - Jack Crawford (1931-33) and Roy Emerson (1963-67) did it before then. Nine players have won back-to-back titles in the meantime, but were unable to complete the hat trick.

Williams also has three on her mind, as in three majors in a row. The No. 3-ranked Williams is a hot favorite to win her sixth Australian Open title after a run of 35 wins in her last 36 matches since a shocking first-round defeat at the French Open. She finished off last year by winning at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the season-ending championships.

She started this year by winning the title at the Brisbane International, where she was due to face Azarenka in the semifinals before the 23-year-old Belarusian withdrew due to treatment for a toe infection.

Williams, who puts her dominating streak down to a new ``serene'' and calm approach on and off the court since hiring Patrick Mouratoglou as a coaching consultant, will get a chance to watch older sister Venus Williams in the first match Monday at Hisense Arena against Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakhstan. Second-ranked and 2012 finalist Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from the Brisbane International with an injured right collarbone, will get the program under way on Rod Laver Arena against fellow Russian Olga Puchkova.

Serena and top-ranked Azarenka, who are in the top half of the women's draw and could meet in the semifinals, get another day off before starting Tuesday.

There was no Williams-like domination on the men's side last year, with four players sharing the majors. After losing the Australian final to Djokovic, Nadal captured his seventh French Open title. Federer broke a mini drought when he took the Wimbledon title, his 17th major, fending off Andy Murray in the final. Murray beat Federer for the Olympic gold medal before his career breakthrough at the U.S. Open, where he ended a 76-year drought for British men at the majors.

Djokovic is the only leading man in action Monday, with No. 2 Federer and third-seeded Murray on the opposite side of the draw and not due on court until Tuesday. Nadal is still yet to return to tennis, which has critics and fans speculating on who might capitalize among the other men.

Fourth-seeded David Ferrer, a semifinalist at the French and U.S. Opens last year, opens against Olivier Rochus in an evening match on Hisense Arena, and fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist, faces American Michael Russell on Show Court 2. No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, and big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic are in the same half as Murray and Federer.

Djokovic, who lost a singles match to Australia's Bernard Tomic in an exhibition tournament last week, was asked to pick the best of the potential challengers and politely named quite a few.

``It's probably expected that the three of us, and Nadal of course, would still be main candidates to win all the major titles. But, you know, I wouldn't underestimate Del Potro, (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga, Ferrer, Berdych, anybody who is in top 10,'' he said. ``I don't think it's nice for me to predict that us three will be champions of all Grand Slams this year.

Federer will also get an extra break before starting his 53rd consecutive Grand Slam event, second only to retired South African Wayne Ferreira's mark of 57.

He didn't play a warm-up event, preferring instead to rest.

``I can practice as hard as I want, make it feel also like a match,'' said Federer, who has played every Australian Open since 2000 and has won the title four times. ``I have a lot of experience. I feel like if I'm playing well in practice. Today, at this age, I know where my game's at.

``I'm ready to go and eager. That to me right now dominates. It's important to be fresh.''

Another 31-year-old with a long history at the Australian Open is former No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt. The former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion first qualified for his national championship at age 15 and is due to start his 17th consecutive Australian Open campaign on Monday night against eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.

Hewitt's best result at Melbourne Park was a losing final against Marat Safin in 2005 and has he slid down the rankings to No. 81 due to age and injuries.

No Australian man has won the Australian Open since Mark Edmondson in 1976.

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Braden Holtby picks up first regulation loss in five weeks

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Braden Holtby picks up first regulation loss in five weeks

Braden Holtby’s stretch of 11 consecutive starts without a loss in regulation came to a screeching halt Wednesday night, when the depleted Capitals lost 4-1 to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Caps’ goalie was 10-0-1 since Oct. 14, when head coach Todd Reirden benched him for allowing the Colorado Avalanche to score three times in the first eight minutes of the game.

Holtby looked good through the first two periods Wednesday, allowing just one power play goal off the stick of Artemi Panarin entering the third.

But things fell apart from there. New York scored two goals within 23 seconds of each other early in the third period, and while Evgeny Kuznetsov’s power play goal closed the deficit to 3-1 with a little less than 13 minutes to play, Brett Howden put the game away with a goal late.

Holtby is tied with the Vegas Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury for the most wins in the NHL with 11 but wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity to move into sole possession of first place while Vegas had the night off.

The Capitals will be back in action on Saturday when they play host to the Vancouver Canucks, with puck drop scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET.

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Shorthanded Caps suffocated by Rangers in loss

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Shorthanded Caps suffocated by Rangers in loss

A shuffled Capitals lineup took the ice in New York on Wednesday and was handed a 4-1 loss by Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. Washington was without Nicklas Backstrom, Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd (all injured) and Garnet Hathaway (suspended) and that proved to be too many losses for the team to overcome. This loss ends a streak of seven-straight wins over the Rangers by the Caps.

Here is how Washington lost.

Panarin's 2 power play goals

Tom Wilson was called for boarding with less than a minute remaining in the first giving New York a power play at the start of the second. Artemi Panarin would cash in to put the Rangers on the board.

The Caps' penalty killers did their homework on Adam Fox who is pivotal to the Ranger's power play. As the main distributor, clearly Washington wanted to keep the pressure on him when he had the puck. As the power play set up, Fox got the puck and Richard Panik came hard after him at the blue line. Fox managed to get the puck away to Kaapo Kakko and then Washington was in a bind.

With Panik up high after Panarin and Jonas Siegenthaler still down low, that left Panarin open in the middle. That's the wrong guy to give too much room to and he made the most of it, writing the puck past the glove of Braden Holtby.

Just after the Caps killed off an Alex Ovechkin penalty in the third, Dmitry Orlov was called for high-sticking 40 seconds later. Panarin extended New York's lead to 2-0 as Kakko tried a spin move to get a shot off close in on Holtby. He lost the puck and it came to Panarin on the far side with an empty-net yawning.

Buchnevich's knockout punch

Going down 2-0 in the third period is a tough blow. Going down 3-0 just 23 seconds later is deflating.

As the Rangers broke the puck into the offensive zone, Siegenthaler was on the far left of the ice as Pavel Buchnevich skated in. Seeing that Buchnevich had a step on Siegenthaler and with Tom Wilson to his right, Gudas got caught in no man's land as he tried to step up to challenge Buchnevich while also getting his stick in the passing lane. Filip Chytil had a step on Wilson and was in alone after the pass from Buchnevich. Gudas took a weird angle on Buchnevich and ended up colliding with Siegenthaler. Buchnevich got behind them both and was open for the pass and the slam-dunk goal to make it 3-0.

A horrendous defensive zone breakdown

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on the power play to breathe some life back into Washington. That life was extinguished when Buchnevich found Brett Howden all alone in front of the net.

  

Yeah, that's a bad breakdown.

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The Caps may have struggled to put points on the board Wednesday, but it wasn't for a lack of offense. Washington outshot the Rangers 62-48 and managed 31 shots on goal. They beat Lundqvist five times, but four of those times they were met with a loud "PING" as the puck hit off the post.

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