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Sugar Bowl victory vindicates Cardinals' season

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Sugar Bowl victory vindicates Cardinals' season

Louisville's success this season shocked everybody except the No. 22 Cardinals.

That won't be the case next year, not after Louisville upset No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl Wednesday night. Expectations will be high heading into next season.

That's fine with the Cardinals, whose 33-23 victory over the heavily favored Gators brought a huge measure of vindication in a season in which they struggled for respect. After starting 9-0 but remaining outside the Bowl Championship Series title discussion, Louisville earned its second BCS bowl berth.

The landmark win against the Gators raises the bar higher for the Cardinals (11-2). Louisville returns 10 starters on offense and defense. The Cardinals could begin next fall as a top-10 team with coach Charlie Strong returning along with star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who figures to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Strong and the Cardinals are savoring the moment but they're also thinking about how to build on it.

``We know we still have a long ways to go,'' said Strong, who last month spurned an offer to be Tennessee's head coach to remain at Louisville. ``You look at the teams that we beat this season. We played well, but we had to play well like that all season.

``We were not a consistent team this season. We struggled, had to come from behind seven games. ... I don't want to say where we would be, but we could continue to get better.''

Fans greeted the Cardinals at their team complex on their return home Thursday from New Orleans. Athletic department spokesman Kenny Klein said no formal celebration was planned for the team.

Still, the outlook is good reason Louisville to party.

The Cardinals improved to 2-0 in BCS games with the Sugar Bowl win. They led Florida from start to finish, something Louisville hadn't done since Sept. 15 when they beat North Carolina 39-34 in the Cardinals' third game of the season. Louisville's strength of schedule was a constant issue for the Cardinals, who managed to put answer the questions about whether they were legitimate or not with their bowl performance.

The next step is seeing how their 41 freshmen, 31 sophomores and 28 juniors mature next season.

``This is a team that can handle adversity,'' Strong said. ``We've been through a lot. We've been able to grow, and once you grow from adversity, it just makes you stronger. That's what this football team has done. It's grown so much.''

Defensively, Louisville must replace cornerback Adrian Bushell and linebacker Daniel Brown. The offense loses left tackle Alex Kupper, center Mario Benavides and wide receiver Andrell Smith.

Louisville's ground game could be deep again with second-leading rusher Senorise Perry (705 yards, 11 touchdowns) expected back after tearing his right ACL on Nov. 10. The junior will rejoin a backfield including redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb and juniors Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright, who rushed for 84 yards and a TD in the bowl win.

However, Sugar Bowl MVP Bridgewater will command most of the attention, especially after his performance on center stage in the nationally televised game against a Southeastern Conference opponent. Bridgewater is the main reason the Cardinals will likely enter next season with the respect they craved this year.

``I've been saying it all year: He's one of the best quarterbacks and best player in the nation,'' Cardinals safety Calvin Pryor said of Bridgewater. ``They look at Louisville, don't give us any credit, but he's one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.''

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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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Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

The Florida Panthers played over half of Friday’s game with five defensemen after a hit from Alex Ovechkin ultimately knocked Mark Pysyk out of the game.

Early in the second period, Ovechkin attempted to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but it was swept away at the blue line back to Pysyk. Pysyk quickly chipped the puck away and then was on the receiving end of a hit from Ovechkin.

In real time, the hit did not appear to be a big one. It wasn't even the biggest hit Ovechkin delivered in the game, as in the third period he sent Aleksander Barkov flying with a shoulder hit. But Pysyk went down to the ice after the hit and left the game soon after.

After the game, Florida head coach Bob Boughner did not mince words.

“Pysyk got a high hit to the head,” he said.

When asked if he thought the league should review the hit, Boughner said, “I hope they do because if you see the replay, it's high. It's a head shot. And the league's trying to clamp down on that. Whether there's no call, I don't blame the refs. Maybe they missed it. That happens. But those are the kind of plays that need to be reviewed.”

Based on the replay, it is hard to determine if the principal point of contact was the head. Ovechkin does not launch himself, but does appear to take an upward trajectory into Pysyk. Still, it seems like a hard sell to say Ovechkin was targeting the head.

But the hit did send Pysyk out of the game, and in today’s NHL, when head hits are a big topic of conversation and when a player is injured on a play, the NHL has shown it takes those plays more seriously.

Pysyk returned to the game for one more shift after receiving the hit, but left the game after and did not return.

“Right now we're still getting him checked out, but we'll see more in the morning,” Boughner said.

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