Capitals

Pac-12 has 8 teams eligible for bowls

201211172052751414333-p2.jpeg

Pac-12 has 8 teams eligible for bowls

PHOENIX (AP) Just two years ago, the Pac-12 didn't come close to filling its bowl allotment, sending four teams to the postseason.

Two of those teams went to BCS bowls - Oregon played for the national championship and Stanford played in the Orange - but it wasn't what the conference was hoping for, even as a 10-team conference.

In its first season as the Pac-12, the conference bounced back, sending seven teams to bowl games a year ago.

It's even better this season: eight bowl-eligible teams, two possibly to BCS games, an outside shot at the national title game.

After a season of teams beating up on each other and some surprising upsets, the Pac-12 has re-emerged as a powerhouse conference.

``It's just indicative that this conference is really good and really competitive, and I think has done pretty well on a national scope,'' Oregon State coach Mike Riley said Tuesday.

There's still a lot to be decided in the final two weeks.

No. 15 UCLA has the South Division's spot in the Nov. 30 Pac-12 championship game wrapped up, but can have an impact on who wins the North in the final weekend of the regular season.

The Bruins, who have a two-game lead over Southern California after beating their SoCal rivals last week, host No. 11 Stanford, which shook up the BCS standings by knocking off then-top-ranked Oregon last weekend.

If the Cardinal beat UCLA, they will win the North and face the Bruins again the next week in the Pac-12 title game. If UCLA wins and No. 5 Oregon beats No. 16 Oregon State in the Civil War on Saturday in Corvallis, the Ducks will play the Bruins in the championship game.

What may be the best scenario from a conference standpoint would be if Stanford and Oregon both win.

If the Cardinal beat the Bruins on Saturday, it won't matter who wins the Pac-12 title game the next week since the champion has a slot in the Rose Bowl already waiting. If Oregon beats Oregon State, the Ducks are almost certain to get an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, most likely the Fiesta.

Oregon still has an outside shot at the national championship game, but, at No. 5 in the BCS standings, would need some help from the teams ahead to play in Miami on Jan. 7.

``The only thing that matters is winning on Saturday,'' Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. ``You can run through 27,000 scenarios, but if we don't win Saturday, none of them come true.''

The Pac-12 has plenty of postseason options.

Arizona has had a successful first season under coach Rich Rodriguez, fighting a thin roster with an explosive offense to win seven games.

Up Interstate 10 in Tempe, Todd Graham also has Arizona State bowl eligible in his first season as coach, clinching the six-win mark last week by rolling over Washington State in the final home game for the Sun Devils' seniors.

The desert rivals face each other on Friday in their annual rivalry with bragging rights and positioning for a bigger bowl on the line.

Riley's Beavers shook off consecutive losing seasons and dire predictions for this one to win eight games so far and become bowl eligible.

Washington corrected its problems during a three-game losing streak midway through the season to become bowl eligible for the third straight season.

USC didn't live up to its national-title expectations, losing four games, but will still head to a bowl in the first season after its two-year bowl ban was lifted.

Utah is facing some long odds to make it nine Pac-12 teams in the postseason.

The Utes are 4-7 heading into their season finale against Colorado, which in most years would knock them out of the bowl picture.

But if there aren't enough eligible teams to fill the 35 bowls, teams with the highest APRs will be placed in a group for bowls with open slots to negotiate with. Utah has an APR of 33 and, with a win over the Buffs, could be in the running for a bowl with schools like Rice, Wake Forest and Missouri.

Don't beat Colorado and it won't matter, sending Utah to its first four-win season since 2000.

``I've told this team many times you shouldn't need a carrot out in front of you to play hard,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ``It should be just for the respect of the game and the competitive fire that is within. That should be enough.''

Even if the Utes don't squeak in, it's been a good year for the Pac-12.

What was supposed to be a runaway to the title game by Oregon and Southern California turned into one of the most competitive seasons in recent years for the conference.

It started with Stanford upending USC's national-title hopes in the conference opener and the standings changed seemingly every week, capped by the Cardinal's overtime win over Oregon last Saturday night.

Once the dust settles, the Pac-12 will have teams playing throughout December, maybe even a couple in January.

``We kind of predicted it coming in, you could see it happening: this is the most competitive this league has been ever, I think,'' Riley said. ``It's very exciting for the fans, but very hard on the coaches.''

And good for the conference.

Quick Links

Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Coach Barry Trotz indicated that Andre Burakovsky’s benching wouldn’t last long.

And it didn’t.

The 23-year-old winger will return to the lineup on Monday night as the Caps look to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

During the morning skate, Burakovsky skated on the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly—a trio that’s enjoyed some success in the past.

It’s been a difficult postseason for Burakovsky, who has not recorded a point in six games. He missed 10 contests after suffering a hand injury in Game 2 of the first round that required minor surgery.

What he found out upon returning was this: coming back from injury in the regular season is hard...and it’s exponentially tougher in the playoffs.

“It’s definitely tough to jump in in the semifinal,” he said. “When you’re out, you just want to get in and help the team and do what you’re good at—score goals and produce.”

“What I realized is that it’s not that easy,” he added. “I really thought I could jump in and just play like I did before I got injured. 

But obviously it didn’t work out as well I thought it would.”  

Burakovsky also said that he’s planning to work with a sports psychologist this summer in an effort to maintain an even keel when things aren’t going as well as he would like. It’s a problem that he said he’s struggled with since his childhood.

Asked what he hopes to see from Burakovsky in Game 6, Coach Barry Trotz kept it simple: offense.

The Caps have scored just two goals in each of the last three games, with Evgeny Kuznetsov contributing 50-percent of that total.

“He’s a guy that’s given us some good offense all through his time here,” Trotz said of Burakovsky. “We think that he can add some of that.”

MORE CAPITALS STORIES:

Quick Links

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

The more you look at Monday's Game 6 between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the more you realize this game is the most important game of Alex Ovechkin's career.

This is the first time Ovechkin and Co. have made it to the conference finals and it is the first time this postseason in which the Caps face elimination.

Here are the keys for the Caps to staving off elimination and forcing a Game 7:

1. Get off to a better start

It took Tampa Bay just 19 seconds to score in Game 5 and the score was 3-0 nothing before the Capitals really began to show any signs of life. They cannot allow the Lightning to jump all over them in the same way and take the crowd out of the game early.

With the game being in Washington, the Caps will have the crowd on their side. Use it.

The Caps have been at their best this series playing the trap, holding their own blue line and countering against Tampa Bay's aggressive defensemen leading to odd-man breaks. That's a hard gameplan to run if you're playing from behind. Scoring first would go a long way for Washington.

2. Stay out of the penalty box

Washington has given up six power play goals to Tampa Bay on just 15 opportunities in this series. That means the Lightning's power play is producing at a blistering rate of 40-percent. That's an insanely good power play rate and that may be putting it mildly.

So far, the penalty kill has had no answer for how to shut down a Tampa Bay unit that features Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov setting up for one-timers and being quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. That's a formidable cast.

If you can't beat it, then there's only one solution: Stay out of the box.

Despite everything that went wrong in Game 5, the one thing the Caps did right was not give up many penalties. They took only one on the night and even that one was avoidable as Brett Connolly got caught holding Brayden Point trying to get around him to get the puck.

3. Win the top line matchup

The Lightning have found success matching their fourth line against Ovechkin. Of his six points this series, only two of them (one goal, one assist) have come at 5-on-5. That's not good enough.

It's gut check time. The Caps need their best players to be at their best and that means Ovechkin has to win the matchup against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. In Game 5, Tampa Bay's fourth line actually outscored Ovechkin's line in 5-on-5 play 2-0.

Washington will not win this game if the fourth line outscores Ovechkin's line. It's just that simple.

4. Take advantage of the power play opportunities

The Caps scored at least one power play goal in Game 1 and Game 2, both wins. They have not scored any since and have lost all three games since. They scored on three of seven opportunities in the first two games and zero of seven opportunities in the last three.

Not a coincidence.

Granted, they did not draw any penalties in Game 5, but it seems unlikely the Lightning will stay out of the box for another sixty minutes. At some point, they will take a penalty and when they do, Washington must take advantage.

5. Win the goalie matchup

Not much attention has been paid to Braden Holtby in this series. The Caps are not facing elimination because they have been getting bad goaltending, but when the Lightning needed Andrei Vasilevskiy to steal them a win and up his game to get them back into the series, he responded.

Vasilevskiy has been brilliant the last three games as he has turned aside 100 of the 106 shots he has faced for a .943 save percentage. For the series, Holtby has a save percentage of only .883.

Again, Washington is not down 3-2 in the series because of goaltending. Holtby has faced far fewer shots than Vasilevskiy and has been just about the only thing that has worked against Tampa Bay's lethal power play.

But as one of the team's top players, the Caps need Holtby to step up the way Vasilevskiy has. Game 6 will be about winning by any means necessary. If that means they need a hat trick from Ovechkin so be it. If that means they need Holtby to steal it for them, so be it.

Holtby has to be just as good as Vasilevskiy in Game 6, if not better, for Washington to come out on top.

MORE CAPITALS STORIES: