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Stanford players rally around Powell in tough time

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Stanford players rally around Powell in tough time

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) One of the most important road trips the Stanford men's basketball team will have made this season never shows up on the schedule, in the team's record or total miles traveled.

In September, the Cardinal gathered around to support one of their own after junior forward Dwight Powell lost his mother. The coaches and several players flew to Toronto for the funeral.

Jacqueline Weir died on Sept. 13 in Boston after a short fight with cancer, three months shy of her 54th birthday. Powell's coaches visited the hospital in the Boston area, where Weir worked and lived. And Stanford received permission from the NCAA to fly the players from Powell's recruiting class to Canada to be there for him at the memorial.

``It was important, for sure,'' Powell said. ``My friends in my life are my family. The team is my family, so it meant a lot for them to come out there. I have a really good support group in Toronto as well, some guys I played with in high school.''

Coach Johnny Dawkins realizes the importance of everyone supporting Powell, an only child attending college so far from home. Dawkins already had a close-knit group on the reigning NIT champions, who hope last season's special run is only a preview of bigger things for the program this March in the NCAA tournament. Stanford hasn't been since 2008, and not yet under fifth-year coach Dawkins.

Powell will be an integral part in getting Stanford there. Keeping him in the right frame of mind as he continues to mourn his mother has been a joint effort.

Dawkins considers the trip to Toronto one that showed Powell just how much support - and how many brothers - he has within his own locker room, and on campus.

``Absolutely,'' Dawkins said. ``That's what it's about. It was very unfortunate what happened to his mom, and very sudden. It really puts it in perspective when something happens to a young man and a family. The players understand that. His teammates and his coaches are a big part of his life. It's important to rally around him.''

The Cardinal (6-3) are finishing up their annual two-week break for final exams before returning to the court to host UC Davis on Saturday, the first of four remaining nonconference games ahead of Pac-12 play. Stanford is picked fourth in the conference.

Powell has led Stanford in scoring three times already, including going off for a career-high 29 points in a 71-58 victory against Denver on Dec. 2. He is averaging 14.2 points per game, second to Chasson Randle's 14.7, while also pulling down 6.9 rebounds.

``This is the best place for me to be right now. First of all, it's a different country, so I don't even have too much family except for the team,'' Powell said. ``I can't really think of anyone else I'd rather lean on right now than my teammates. Regardless of what goes on, they can take my mind off things. They can put my mind on the things I need to think about sometimes and help me talk things out, just be there.

``I feel very lucky to have the team that I have, just for that reason. It also translates onto the court, that closeness, that trust.''

The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Powell always felt comfortable on The Farm and in the Bay Area. He chose Stanford over Harvard and Georgia Tech.

Yet Powell was a late bloomer when it came to basketball, first playing volleyball and competing in the high jump in track. Once Powell picked up hoops, he moved to Florida at age 16 to attend the IMG Academy and prepare for college.

He emerged as an impact player late last season for Stanford, averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds during the Cardinal's five-game NIT title run while shooting 65.4 percent from the field. He started just 11 times but played in 35 games and averaged 5.8 points and 4.6 rebounds overall.

Powell's biggest challenge so far with an increased role and more responsibility has been keeping his emotions in check. In a 70-62 loss to Belmont at home in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 18, Powell fouled out in only seven minutes - sitting down for good early in the second half.

``He's playing with a heightened focus,'' Dawkins said. ``He's just so focused right now that my biggest thing is that he stays level and doesn't get too emotional. I talk to him a lot about it and how you approach the game - never get too high or too low.''

Powell attended Canada Basketball's senior men's national team training camp in late August in Toronto. By the time he returned to Boston to see his mom, she was hospitalized and deteriorating quickly. The breast cancer had spread to her liver.

``I think she had a feeling for a couple of months but she didn't want to burden me,'' Powell said. ``She kind of left it unattended.''

Teammate and roommate Josh Huestis was the one to tell Powell he would have dear friends coming to Canada to help him in the grieving process.

``We're all really close with Dwight. He's one of my best friends,'' Huestis said. ``Our coaches talked to us and proposed that we go out there for the funeral. All the guys thought it was a great idea. I can't imagine what he was going through. It was the right move. He was in Toronto and I had been talking to him. I told him we would be coming out there and he was really thankful for that, just to have some familiar faces around, especially in such a hard time.''

It's no surprise that before and after each practice Stanford's players gather for a cheer of ``Family!'' These guys truly consider themselves brothers.

That Toronto trip only helped cement the bond.

``The fact we were able to go out there just brings us so much closer together,'' Huestis said. ``It shows we're not just a team but a family, too.''

The Cardinal were thrilled to capture a national championship and get the taste of winning their final game, but both Powell and Huestis called it ``bittersweet.''

There have been many important messages for this bunch over the past year.

Earlier this season, Stanford shot a video in the locker room after practice and sent it to NFL star Ray Lewis, who paid the team a surprise visit at Madison Square Garden and delivered a spirited speech before the NIT semifinal game against Massachusetts. The Cardinal players wanted to encourage the injured Ravens linebacker and spiritual leader in his rehab from a torn triceps after he did so much to pump them up before a key game. Stanford went on for a commanding win against Minnesota in the championship game.

Not that Powell needs much to inspire him at the moment. Huestis sure won't question his teammate's motivation.

``The passing of his mom put everything in perspective for him. Nothing's given in life, nothing guaranteed,'' Huestis said. ``Obviously his mom is in the forefront of his mind.''

Exactly, Powell said.

``Everything I do is in her memory,'' he said, ``absolutely.''

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

It seems so simple. The Capitals have one of the best goal-scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin and on the power play, he’s almost always in the same spot. He sets up in the “office,” the faceoff circle on the left side of the ice, and waits for one-timers. Everyone knows the Caps are trying to get him the puck, everyone knows the shot is coming.

But nobody can stop it.

“It’s still pretty unique,” Matt Niskanen said after the game. “Basic logic tells you it’d be easy to stop, but it’s not.”

Even Ovechkin has no explanation. “It’s all about luck,” he said.

New York Rangers head coach David Quinn had another word for it.

“Sickening.”

Quinn’s Rangers were the latest victims of a power play that has been among the league’s best units for several years. Since 2005, no team in the NHL has a better power play percentage than the Capitals’ 20.8-percent. They once again look lethal this season with the unit currently clicking at an incredible 39.1-percent.

Ovechkin tallied two power play goals Wednesday, both from the office, to help power the Caps to a 4-3 win over New York. Both of Ovechkin’s goals looked pretty similar with John Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office for the one-timer.

Ovechkin obviously is what powers the team’s power play. With him on the ice, other teams need to account for him at all times.

But the real key to the Caps’ success with the extra man is not Ovechkin, but the other weapons around him.

“In order to completely take [Ovechkin] away other guys are just too open and they’re good enough to score,” Niskanen said. “Are you gonna leave [T.J. Oshie] open in the slot from the hash marks to cover [Ovechkin]? Our power play is set up well with what hands guys are and their skill sets so we have a lot of different options. Guys are good at reading what’s open. It’s pretty lethal.”

“Nobody knows who's going to take a shot when we play like that,” Ovechkin said. “And it's fun to play like that, to be honest with you. When [Nicklas Backstrom] and when [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeling the puck well, they can find you in the right time and the right place -- same as [Carlson]."

With so many weapons on the power play, teams are forced to choose between playing Ovechkin tight and leaving other players like Kuznetsov and Oshie wide open, or trying to play a traditional penalty kill and risk giving Ovechkin too much room for the one-timer.

The Rangers chose the latter on Wednesday and they suffered the consequences.

“I don't think many teams have played him like they did tonight,” Carlson said. “They gave him a lot more space.”

And Carlson certainly took advantage as well.

Washington’s power play seems to have found a new gear now with the emergence of Carlson. He took his game to a new level last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. On Wednesday, as part of a three-point night for him, Carlson provided two brilliant setups for Ovechkin on the power play.

“He dominates the game, I think,” Niskanen said of Carlson. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch. Big shot. He’s a good player.”

For many years, it looked like the only thing missing from the Caps’ power play was Mike Green. Carlson has always been good, but no one was able to setup Ovechkin quite as well as Green was in the height of the “young guns” era of the Caps. Now that Carlson seems to be coming into his own as a superstar blueliner who can both score and feed Ovechkin with the best of them, that makes an already dominant Caps’ power play even more lethal.

That was certainly on display Wednesday as the Caps fired eight shots on goal with the extra man. Ovechkin’s two goals tie him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list with Dino Ciccarelli at 232.

Even with Ovechkin now 33 years old and after several years of dominance with the extra man, the Caps’ power play may be better than ever.

“They don’t get rattled,” Quinn said. “There’s a confidence to them and a swagger to them, which they should have.  They’ve been playing together a long time and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should play with a swagger.”

 

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5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

The Caps gave up a 2-1 and 3-2 lead, but ultimately came away victorious on Wednesday in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers thanks to an overtime goal from Matt Niskanen.

Here are five reasons why the Caps won.

1. Djoos saves a goal

With the Caps already trailing 1-0 in the first period, they were about an inch away from going down by two. Luckily, Christian Djoos was there to make the save.

Yes, Djoos, not Braden Holtby.

A diving Jesper Fast got to a loose puck before any of the Caps defenders and beat Holtby with the shot. Djoos, however, was there to sweep the puck off the goal line and out, saving a goal.

That play turned out to be a two-goal swing as less than two minutes later, the Caps scored to tie the game at 1.

2. Carlson off the faceoff

The Caps emphasized the importance of the faceoff this week and worked on it specifically in practice on Tuesday. That practice turned out to be very prescient as Washington’s first goal of the night came right off the faceoff.

Nicklas Backstrom beat Ryan Spooner on the draw cleanly in the offensive zone, feeding the puck back to John Carlson. With the players all bunched up off the draw, Carlson benefitted from Brady Skjei standing right in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Carlson teed up the slap shot and beat Lundqvist who never saw the puck.

Of the five combined goals scored in the game, three were directly set up off a faceoff.

3. Hand-eye coordination

With the Caps on the power play, Fast tipped a pass meant for Carlson that looked like it was headed out of the offensive zone. Carlson reacted to the puck then stretched the stick and somehow managed to control the bouncing puck and keep it in the zone.

Fast charged Carlson at the blue line so he chipped the puck to Ovechkin in the office. Ovechkin managed to hit the puck just as it hit the ice and somehow beat Lundqvist with the shot.

Ovechkin was by the boards at the very edge of the circle. It was an amazing shot and it was set up by the great hustle play from Carlson. Both showed tremendous hand-eye coordination to control that puck.

4. Braden Holtby

Lundqvist entered this game with a 1.99 GAA and .939 save percentage, but he was outplayed by his counterpart from Washington.

Holtby had himself a night. He was particularly strong down low with the pads as he made a number of key pad saves throughout the game, particularly in the second period when he recorded 17 saves including a shorthanded breakaway save on Kevin Hayes as time expired.

Of the three goals Holtby allowed, the first he made a great save on Chris Kreider who looked like he had an empty net to shoot at. Mike Zibanejad would score on the rebound. The second goal came as a shot deflected off Devante Smith-Pelly and went right to Jimmy Vesey for an easy tap-in. The third was a deflection goal from Kreider to redirect a shot that was going wide.

Can’t blame Holtby for those.

5. Working from the office

The Caps had three power play opportunities on the night. They scored on two of them and those two goals looked pretty darn similar.

There was the one described above in which a hustle play by Carlson at the point kept the puck alive and he fed to Ovechkin in the office. The second goal came with Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office.

Those two goals give Ovechkin 232 power play goals for his career, tying him with Dino Ciccarelli for ninth on the NHL’s all-time list.

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