Nebraska 1 win from berth in Big Ten title game


Nebraska 1 win from berth in Big Ten title game

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) It's been 13 years and one seismic league change since Nebraska won a conference championship.

One more win against downtrodden Iowa will move the Huskers a step closer to their first Big Ten title.

The surging Huskers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten), winners of their last five games, play at Iowa (4-7, 2-5) on Friday for the first time since 1999. A berth in the league title game against Wisconsin on the line for the Huskers.

``We have a lot of maturity on the team and I think we know we have to beat Iowa for us to go to the Big Ten Championship,'' Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Nebraska can still reach the title game with a loss if Michigan falls to Ohio State on Saturday. But few expect it to come to that. The Huskers are considered heavy favorites to beat the Hawkeyes, losers of their last five, and book its trip to Indianapolis.

The annual Nebraska-Iowa game on the day after Thanksgiving was supposed to be one of the marquee matchups of the new-look Big Ten.

But the Huskers are playing as well as anyone in the league outside of Ohio State - and hardly anyone has been worse than Iowa over the past month.

Nebraska has regrouped after a humbling 63-38 loss to Ohio State. The Huskers had a comeback win over Northwestern and thumped Michigan 23-9 to earn what's turned out to be a crucial tiebreaker in their division.

Nebraska survived close games with Michigan State and Penn State before trouncing Minnesota 38-14 last weekend.

The Huskers have seemingly put their poor defensive efforts in losses to UCLA and the Buckeyes behind them. But coach Bo Pelini also believes that coordinator Tim Beck's offense has been just as important to Nebraska's success as its defense.

``I can't say enough (about) what coach Beck and the offensive staff have done offensively. I think he has done a phenomenal job. They make adjustments every week, they practice and have gotten better every single week and I think they are playing at a very high level,'' Pelini said. ``I think offensively we have played at a high level all year, and I think right now we are kind of hitting stride and playing pretty good in all phases of the game and that's got to continue.''

Iowa won't be bowl eligible for the first time in 12 years.

What began as a shaky start for the Hawkeyes has disintegrated into a complete collapse.

Though Iowa has played in six games decided by three points or less - more than anyone else in the country - Michigan left little doubt about how far the Hawkeyes have fallen in a 42-17 blowout last week.

The Wolverines scored touchdowns on their first six possessions, leaving exasperated coach Kirk Ferentz to search for answers during an offseason that'll be much longer than anyone in Iowa City thought possible.

``We're 4-7 right now. That's what we are. So be it talent, coaching, performance, whatever, there are a lot of things that go into results,'' Ferentz said. ``Typically, it's not quite as bad or quite as good as you think. Again, that's for another day.''

Nebraska won the first installment of this new rivalry 20-7 in Lincoln a year ago. The Huskers didn't exactly light up the scoreboard, but their defense shut down what had been a decent Iowa offense.

This year the Hawkeyes are worse on both sides of the ball, and Nebraska looks like a team primed for two more wins and the league's coveted Rose Bowl spot.

It's gotten so bad in Iowa City that one of the main fears among Hawkeyes fans was that Kinnick Stadium will be flooded with Nebraska supporters who snapped up tickets from frustrated Iowa fans.

If the game goes the way most expect, there will be a ton of Nebraska red in Indianapolis next week as well.

``I think we know what we have to do,'' Martinez said.


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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”




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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.