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Pac-12 races starting to heat up

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Pac-12 races starting to heat up

PHOENIX (AP) Oregon State is off to its best start since before World War I, undefeated and up to No. 7 in the BCS standings after winning eight combined games the previous two seasons.

In the Pac-12, all that's done is keep the seventh-ranked Beavers even with second-ranked Oregon for the North Division lead.

It's been a fun ride so far, but now's not the time for the Beavers to get caught up in how far they've come and where they might end up. There are still too many games left and too much at stake.

``Sometimes it's a disconnect, kind of a funny feeling,'' Oregon State coach Mike Riley said Tuesday. ``I sometimes see it on TV or something, the rankings, but I've always in good or bad seasons felt like we've lived in a bubble, where our focus immediately turns to the next game.''

Oregon State isn't the only team that needs to stay sharp.

The division races are heating up in the Pac-12 as teams jockey for spots in the conference championship game on Nov. 30 and the best bowl game possible.

In the North, Oregon and Oregon State are tied at 4-0 for the division lead and No. 9 Stanford is just a game back at 3-1.

No. 10 Southern California leads the South at 4-1, a half-game ahead of 3-1 Arizona State, and UCLA is still in the division picture at 2-2, but really can't afford any slipups over the final five games of the season.

None of the teams still in the division races has an easy schedule.

Oregon State (6-0) has a road game against Washington this week, followed by Arizona State, Stanford, California and its annual Civil War with Oregon in Corvallis on Nov. 24. The Beavers have a quirk in the schedule thanks to a postponement due to a hurricane, facing Nicholls State on Dec. 1, but that won't have any impact on the conference race.

Oregon (7-0) has been unstoppable so far this season, its closest game a 17-point win over Fresno State. The Ducks have the nation's second-best scoring offense at 51 points and are eighth in total offense at 529.14 yards after rolling over Arizona State 43-21 last Thursday.

Oregon shouldn't have any problem against Colorado at home on Saturday - the Ducks are more than six-touchdown favorites - but still has games against USC, California and Stanford before its rivalry game against Oregon State.

Fourth in the BCS standings, the Ducks have aspirations of reaching the BCS title game for the second time in three years, but can't afford a letdown now.

``What's going to go on in December or if we have an opportunity to play in January means nothing if we don't go focus on our next game, so that's all I can really talk about, just the next one up,'' Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. ``The teams that get sidetracked, start talking about we want to play in this game, we want to play in that game, don't take care of business in the present. For us, we're always going to be in the present.''

In the South, USC seems to be in control, on a roll since losing to Stanford 21-14 in its conference opener with four straight wins, including a 50-6 home rout of Colorado last Saturday.

USC still has some tough games left, starting with what should be an offensive shootout against Arizona on Saturday. USC has games against Oregon, Arizona State and rival UCLA after that before closing the season with a nonconference game against Notre Dame.

Stanford still has a shot at the North title despite following up its big win over USC with a loss to Washington the next week.

The Cardinal outlasted Arizona in overtime three weeks ago and followed a nonconference loss to Notre Dame with a spirit-infusing, 21-3 win over rival California on Saturday in the Big Game.

Stanford needs to avoid a letdown against Washington State and Colorado over the next two weeks before closing out the season with games against Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA.

``We've talked on our team about the fact that we've let a couple of games get away from us and that we can't afford to have highs and lows anymore,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ``We've got to start playing our best football and play our best football for weeks, and not for a series, not for a quarter, not for half a game.''

Arizona State (5-2) has been one of the surprises in college football its first six weeks under new coach Todd Graham, taking the South lead after winning its first three conference games and USC's loss to Stanford.

The Sun Devils got a big punch to the gut in their last game, though, overwhelmed by Oregon at home to fall behind the Trojans for the division title. Arizona State has a tough road toward making up the small gap, with a backloaded schedule that starts with UCLA at home on Saturday and includes Oregon State, USC and a closer against rival Arizona in Tucson.

``Coming off a game that we didn't play well, we go to the next game,'' Graham said. ``This is a big, important game. Our guys have a lot to play for and this is the time. This is the end of October and November, and this is when you decide your fate.''

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Follow John Marshall at www.Twitter.com/jmarshallap

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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.

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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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