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Pac-12 South race still clouded

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Pac-12 South race still clouded

PHOENIX (AP) Arizona State has gone into a small tailspin, losing three straight games, all in conference.

Even that hasn't been enough to knock the Sun Devils out of what's become a muddled race in the Pac-12 South Division.

``We're still competing for this,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ``This thing is far from over. We're going to fight and scratch all the way down until the end.''

The North Division race appears to be Oregon's to lose.

The second-ranked and undefeated Ducks (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) have been nearly untouchable so far this season and are coming off a record-breaking performance against Southern California last week. They still need to play well with No. 13 Oregon State and No. 16 Stanford just a game back at 5-1 and still to come for the Ducks.

The race for the South is not so clear cut.

Arizona State was out in front when the conference season started, thanks to USC's opening loss to Stanford and the Sun Devils' wins over Utah, California and Colorado.

After Arizona State lost to Oregon, it was USC's turn to be in control of the South. The Trojans didn't stay there long, falling back after losses to Arizona and the Ducks.

Now UCLA has taken the wheel.

Once 1-2 in the Pac-12, the 17th-ranked Bruins have surged to the South lead after beating Utah, Arizona State and Arizona.

Heading into this weekend's games, UCLA leads the division at 4-2. No. 21 USC is a half-game back at 4-3 and Arizona State still has a chance at 3-3.

The way things have gone so far in the South, the lead could change three more times over the final three weeks of the season, teams winning by 30 one week, losing by 40 the next.

``College football is really interesting to me,'' UCLA coach Jim Mora said. ``I'm used to where you get a 10-point lead on somebody, that's a pretty darn good lead. I'm used to games coming down the last two or three drives of a game in the pros, but in college it's just a totally different animal. Boy, it's exciting. It's wild, it's crazy, it's exciting, it's emotional. It's a lot of fun.''

This weekend could mark the end of one team's run to the division title.

While UCLA is expected to roll past winless-in-conference Washington State, Arizona State and USC meet in the Coliseum at high noon on Saturday.

Both are searching for ways to end losing streaks.

Arizona State has fallen off after opening the season 5-1, blown out by Oregon and unable to come up with the big plays when it needed them in losses to UCLA and Oregon State.

Once a national-title contender, USC is reeling after allowing 101 points and over 1,300 yards of offense in losses to Arizona and the Ducks.

If the Trojans win, they'll be right there in the race for the South. If the Sun Devils win, they'll still be within at least a game of the division lead and tied with USC for second.

``We have in no way given up our focus on our goals on wanting to be a champion, but we just have got to win a game,'' Graham said. ``That is our focus, to go win a game. Our guys are very motivated to have the opportunity play USC this week and obviously, it's a big challenge as well.''

While Arizona State and UCLA still have three conference games left, USC is down to two, closing the season with a nonconference game against Notre Dame.

With little margin for error, USC has to beat Arizona State this weekend and faces a huge game against rival UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17.

But, should the Trojans win both of those, they would win the South and earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 20.

``They can control the rest of their season,'' USC coach Lane Kiffin said. ``There's a lot of teams in the country that can't after everything that's happened. After screwing games up, we're fortunate to be in that situation.''

UCLA is coming off a somewhat unexpected 66-10 rout over Arizona and is a two touchdown favorite over Mike Leach's Cougars on Saturday.

It gets a little tougher after that.

Despite its two straight losses and problems on defense, USC still has one of the nation's most prolific offenses and it will be a rivalry game, where almost anything can and usually does happen.

After that, the Bruins have to gather themselves for another difficult game, facing Stanford and its power running game in the season finale on Nov. 24.

UCLA won the South last season because USC was ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, but will have to earn it this season. That starts with avoiding a letdown against Washington State.

``They haven't been distracted up to this point,'' Mora said. ``They've done a tremendous job of focusing on the here-and-now, the goal that's directly in front of them.''

One goal, at least for three teams, is still to win the Pac-12 South.

That could change this weekend - and probably will.

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

It's almost here.

After a lengthy break between the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals, the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights are set to meet on Monday for Game 1.

Who will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup?

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir give their keys to the series and their predictions for the Stanley Cup Final. Plus, JJ speaks with several member from the local media to get their insights and predictions.

Check out their latest episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.