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Rudolph, Smith pass concussion tests for Vikings

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Rudolph, Smith pass concussion tests for Vikings

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Pride wasn't the only thing smarting in Minnesota after the Vikings were beat down by the Chicago Bears last weekend.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph and safety Harrison Smith were knocked out of the game with concussions, and star receiver Percy Harvin missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle that still made it difficult for him to walk. The injuries to key players cast a pall over a team that is facing a brutal stretch of games as it tries to chase down a playoff berth.

Just a few days later, things are starting to look a little better. Rudolph and Smith have passed concussion tests, clearing the way for them to be available for a pivotal game at Green Bay (7-4) on Sunday, and Harvin has returned to the practice field.

Harvin was still limping noticeably while running routes during the portion of practice that was open to the media on Wednesday, leaving his availability for the game in question. Rudolph watched practice nursing a shoulder injury, but it appears that he and Smith will be ready for the Packers.

``To know that Kyle and Harrison have been cleared, that's a big deal,'' coach Leslie Frazier said. ``They are two keys to our football team. The fact that Percy's going to attempt to do something today, that's encouraging. It's just a matter of how far he can go. That's a big deal to have those guys out there practicing.''

The Vikings (6-5) sure needed some good news after getting thumped by the Bears. They play at Green Bay this weekend, then host the Bears and finish the season at St. Louis, at Houston and home against Green Bay. So if they're going to make the postseason in what most expected to be a rebuilding year, they're going to need all hands on deck to do it.

Rudolph said his shoulder shouldn't keep him from playing this weekend, meaning up-and-down quarterback Christian Ponder should have one of his favorite targets on the field. It's the second concussion of the year for Rudolph, who also suffered one in the preseason. He said the latest concussion wasn't nearly as difficult to overcome.

``The other one was more of an equilibrium, balance type thing,'' he said. ``I didn't have any of that during this one. Two completely different circumstances.''

Smith said he had a mild concussion in 2008 while playing at Notre Dame, but was able to play the next week. He'll be needed on Sunday against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' pass-heavy offense.

``Once I got into the locker room I felt pretty normal,'' Smith said. ``Even the tests we did there, I passed. But they just didn't want to run the risk of putting me back in the field.''

The biggest concern remains Harvin, who is the linchpin of the Vikings passing game. The Vikings have struggled mightily to form a consistent air game all season long, even when they have the versatile Harvin on the field. Without him, Frazier said the looks they got from opposing defenses were noticeably different.

``Percy, for coordinators, can be a nightmare,'' Frazier said. ``Yes they do approach us differently. They don't have to double our slot receiver like they do when he's out there. You don't approach our kickoff return team like you do when he's out there. It definitely makes a difference.''

The rest of the receivers have been had a very difficult time making big plays in his absence. To make matters worse, the receiver corps had a rash of drops on Sunday in Chicago, including three by Jerome Simpson. Both Ponder and receivers coach George Stewart had conversations with Simpson to try and bolster his shaken confidence this week.

``I'm obviously down because I'm used to making those plays, but you've just got to be resilient in this game,'' Simpson said. ``You've just got to be able to bounce back and refocus.''

Simpson said he needs to do a better job of getting his hands out in front to bring the ball in.

``I let the ball get too close to my body,'' he said. ``It bounced off my pads, and I'm not used to just catching it. I've just got to trust in myself.''

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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.”

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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.

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