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Lofton aims to end former team's unbeaten run

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Lofton aims to end former team's unbeaten run

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Linebacker Curtis Lofton left Atlanta just in time to miss out on the Falcons' best start to a season in franchise history.

Now a defensive leader for the struggling Saints, Lofton insists he has no regrets, did what was right for him and is eager to experience one of the NFL's more intense and longstanding rivalries from the other side when the Saints (3-5) host unbeaten Atlanta (8-0) on Sunday.

``Yeah, I'm excited to play these guys after playing for them,'' Lofton said this week. ``It's ifs, ands, woulda, coulda - now we'll see what happens.''

It can be difficult to read in the loquacious Lofton's playful grin whether he harbors any real resentment about his departure from Atlanta. On one hand, he says it's nothing personal, but sometimes he'll throw in a few extra comments insinuating that he felt somewhat underappreciated.

``I look at it as I left. I mean, they offered me and they wanted me to stay, but I just felt better'' moving to New Orleans, Lofton said. ``I wanted to go to a team that celebrated me, not tolerated me. That's the way that I felt. I'm happy that I'm here and I'm excited for this game.''

Lofton signed a five-year, $27.5 million free-agent deal with the Saints last spring, and the timing seemed ominous for incumbent starting middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Vilma not only had undergone offseason knee surgery but also had been implicated in the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints.

When training camp began, Vilma's since-vacated season-long suspension was in effect, and Lofton immediately assumed the starting middle linebacker role which he continues to hold even as Vilma has worked his way back onto the field.

Vilma has played mostly spot duty at outside linebacker since returning in Week 7 against Tampa Bay. He acknowledges that it's a little odd to see someone else owning his position, relaying play calls from the defensive coordinator as he once did, but said he likes working with Lofton.

``When we're out there together - you saw it the last game - I made some plays, he made some plays. Hopefully we make plays together, it doesn't matter,'' Vilma said. ``Sometimes he'll see things I don't see. Sometimes I see things he doesn't see. ... We can almost communicate simultaneously. I can communicate to the back end while he's talking to the (defensive) line or vice versa, so it's actually been really good.''

Lofton leads the club with 76 tackles, including four tackles for losses and one sack. He also has a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

Falcons coach Mike Smith referred to Lofton as a ``tackling machine'' who he would have liked to keep if not for a free agency system that inevitably causes teams to lose good players now and then.

``Curtis was an integral part to our success in our first four years here,'' Smith said. ``The way that the league is set up, with free agency and everything, you'd like to be able to sign all of your players back, but it's just not possible. Curtis had been a leader for us and had done a very good job. Unfortunately, the way that the league is set up, guys are going to change teams. I miss Curtis.''

Some of Lofton's old teammates seem to miss him, too, even if they opt for a tongue-and-cheek way of expressing it.

``I've talked to Curtis a couple of times,'' said Falcons receiver Roddy White, who worked out some with Lofton last offseason. ``I told him I'd be looking for him. Tell him when I come over the middle, I'm going to be looking for him. I hope he gets the message.''

Falcons running back Michael Turner added: ``It's going to be weird, especially to see him wearing those colors. I'm pretty sure he's going to be juiced up for this game. I look forward to playing him.''

While Lofton stresses that his decision to play for New Orleans was more professional than personal, he said he understands why Falcons fans, and maybe even some former teammates, see him as a turncoat. And he doesn't seem all that concerned with trying to change their minds.

``When I was with the Falcons, I hated the Saints. Now I'm with the Saints, I hate the Falcons,'' Lofton said. ``Both of these cities hate each other and there's no love lost. So, it's a divisional game and we'll get it on. That makes it fun.''

Notes: Saints assistant he coach Joe Vitt said RB Darren Sproles (lef hand), WR-KR Courtney Roby (left shoulder), DE Junior Galette (left ankle) and RT Zach Strief (left groin), who all have missed practice this week, will not play Sunday. ... Vitt said Strief spent part of the week seeing a specialist in Philadelphia for his injury.

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AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report from Flowery Branch, Ga.

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Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

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Twitter/City of Las Vegas

Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

The Washington Capitals official #ALLCAPS hashtag started in 2017 during a Caps-Penguins game after the Pittsburgh Penguins' official Twitter account decided to tweet in all lowercase letters during the game. 

Now, as the Caps look to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final ahead of Game 1 Monday, Vegas has followed suit by changing their iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign to include only lowercase letters, a jab at the Capitals #ALLCAPS.

Additionally, the City's official Twitter account has changed their handle to "the city of las vegas" without any capital letters and the hashtag #nocaps.

It will be interesting to see how the Capitals' official Twitter will respond...

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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