Wizards

Super Bowl favorites? All guesses are under review

201212021833668053398-p2.jpeg

Super Bowl favorites? All guesses are under review

Unless you're part of the Manning family and hoping for a hometown reunion with Eli, Peyton and their teams in New Orleans, there's little reason now to make Super Bowl reservations.

With a quarter of the schedule remaining, there's no way to pick a favorite for the Lombardi Trophy. Not even the two teams with 11-1 records, the Falcons and Texans, or Eli Manning's Giants or Peyton's Broncos.

While there has been significant separation between the haves and the have-nots in the NFL - three division races are over and only the NFC North has no odds-on choice among the undecided sectors - none of the top teams presents overwhelming credentials for winning it all.

Several teams are trending upward, most notably the Broncos with a seven-game winning streak and the Patriots, who always begin peaking in November and December. Atlanta just about has home-field advantage in the NFC, and Houston would pretty much secure it in the AFC if it wins at New England next Monday night.

So that makes them the top contenders, right?

Not necessarily.

``Well, there's different championships,'' Broncos coach John Fox said. ``Your division is obviously one, everybody aspires to be in the conference championship, but at the end of the day, everybody is looking for that world championship.

``It's a great accomplishment, a tribute to the staff and coaches in that locker room. They did a fantastic job. We still have a whole quarter of the season left. We'll see what happens.''

What has been happening in Denver is encouraging because the Broncos (9-3) have been winning in a variety of ways. Yes, Manning remains the key to a first Super Bowl trip since his current boss, John Elway, retired after the 1998 title season. Throughout his remarkable comeback year after missing 2011 because of neck surgery, Manning has become more comfortable and familiar with his targets, his blockers and his running backs. That bodes well for the winter rush toward the Big Easy.

So does having a solid, physically imposing defense with a dynamic, big-play leader (linebacker Von Miller) and other playmakers.

Throw in strong special teams and it's a nice mixture.

But the Broncos also are a developing team, a much improved one since the beginning of the season, yet still a work in progress. Getting that work done in the next two months could be a rush job.

New England was 5-3 in 2011, then won eight in a row, two playoff games at home, and lost to the Giants for the championship. The Patriots (9-3) are on another roll and it would surprise nobody if they run the table, even though they have Houston and San Francisco coming up.

Tom Brady, the only quarterback with 10 division crowns, is in the MVP conversation again. He has a formidable running game for once, and even with standout tight end Rob Gronkowski injured, Brady doesn't lack for receivers.

Any Patriots issues center on a defense that has been exceedingly inconsistent and, at times, patchwork. New England survived it a year ago, but the other AFC contenders generally are better offensively now than last season.

``As a coach I think we're always going to sit here and tell you that we're trying to improve every week and that's our goal,'' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, noting his units have gotten stingier. ``Certainly as the season goes on and people play together longer and are out there with each other longer then hopefully that's what's taking place.''

Houston revived its dominant, ball-hawking defense Sunday at Tennessee and has more balance than any AFC team. It also has little postseason experience, some injury concerns that have tested its depth and very little behind Andre Johnson at wide receiver. Defenses often can shut down one brilliant receiver in the playoffs with double and even triple coverage.

Baltimore (9-3) probably will hold on in the AFC North, but its warts have shown for a while, especially the last two weeks in a tight escape over San Diego and a home loss to undermanned Pittsburgh.

Many pegged San Francisco (8-3-1) as most likely to emerge from the NFC after the Niners manhandled the Bears and outplayed New Orleans with second-year QB Colin Kaepernick emerging. Then they stumbled against the Rams, a team that also outplayed the 49ers in a tie last month.

That powerhouse defense is impressive, but might not be enough to carry San Francisco all the way. Coach Jim Harbaugh has placed his chips on Kaepernick over Alex Smith, hoping the addition of big-play potential and fast feet will complement a nasty D.

With the road to the Super Bowl almost certainly heading through Atlanta, which is 6-0 at home, the Falcons might look like a good bet. Remember, however, that they went 13-3 and were the conference's top seed two years ago, yet went out meekly against Green Bay in their first playoff game.

Until QB Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and a previously questionable defense come through in the postseason, there will be serious doubts about the Falcons.

The Packers and Bears need to get healthy to have any shot, but instead they keep seeing more players head to the infirmary. Green Bay has enough passing offense, Chicago has enough rugged defense. As for their other units, who knows? Particularly with so many injuries.

That leaves the juicy prospect that if Peyton Manning can get there, younger brother Eli and the Giants will be waiting. The Giants sprang to life even later in 2011 - in the final two weeks of the season - and have the key elements every contender desires: a winner at quarterback, strong pass rushers, a variety of playmakers and experience.

Then again, with no clear favorites in what has been an unusual NFL season, leave open the unprecedented possibility of two wild-card teams making their way to the Superdome in February.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

usatsi_9843815.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

Before meeting with local basketball media following his pre-draft workout with the Washington Wizards on Thursday at Capital One Arena, George Washington forward Yuta Watanabe first addressed a swath of reporters from his home country of Japan. Then, while he talked to the American contingent, cameras from Japanese news outlets trailed him from a distance, documenting even the media part of his experience.

Watanabe, who played four years for the Colonials in Foggy Bottom, is now chasing an NBA dream with an entire country's hope on his shoulders. He is aiming to become just the second Japanese-born player to reach basketball's pinnacle.

It's a responsibility he carries with pride.

"I know there was only one Japanese player who played in the NBA like a long time ago, so he was the only one," Watanabe said. "If I can make it, I know that’s a really big thing in Japan. That would make young guys come to the U.S. and play basketball in the U.S. I want to be one of the pioneers for younger guys."

The only player to make the NBA from Japan in the history of the league was Yuta Tabuse, who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 season. Four games, that's it. If Watanabe can carve out an extended career in the NBA, it would be a first for Japan, which like many countries outside of the United States has begun to produce more basketball talent in recent decades as the game has expanded globally.

Watanabe grew up in Miki, Kagawa, a town in the southwest of Japan. He had American basketball idols growing up, including Kobe Bryant who was the NBA's biggest star when Watanabe was a kid.

Now, as Watanabe has set his sights on the NBA, he has focused on others to model his game after. He said he watches film of Jazz forward Joe Ingles because he sees similarities in their game.

"I see myself trying to be like him. He’s a lefty, a great shooter and a great defender. I’ve been watching his tape a lot," Watanabe said.

Watanabe has also been consulting with Hawks forward Joe Cavanaugh, his former teammate at George Washington. Cavanaugh went undrafted last summer, but caught on in Atlanta and appeared in 39 games as a rookie.

Watanabe's best bet may be a similar path. He is currently not projected to be drafted, but there are many avenues to the NBA, as Cavanaugh has shown. He was signed for 2017 training camp by the Hawks, then cut. Then, he inked a two-way contract which was later converted to a regular contract.

Along the way, Cavanaugh spent much of his time with the Erie Bayhawks of the G-League. Watanabe may have to go that route to make the NBA. For now, he's trying to prove what he's capable of and that has not been easy. The Wizards were his second workout and Watanabe isn't happy with his performance thus far.

He is dealing with an ankle injury that has affected his conditioning, he said, and his shots haven't been falling.

"To be honest, I didn’t shoot well. I didn’t really do well in the 1-on-1s or 3-on-3. I know I have to do better on that if I want to make an NBA team," he said.

Watanabe, who stands at 6-foot-9, said he also needs to get stronger. If defense is going to be his calling card, he can't be pushed around by bigger players in the NBA.

"I know I can defend one through four. Today, I didn’t shoot well but I know I can shoot and I can handle the ball, I can pass. I think versatility is one of my strengths," he said.

The Wizards could use depth at the small forward position and will be in the market for a host of undrafted guys to fill out their summer league team and new G-League team. Perhaps Watanabe will land in one of those spots.

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Quick Links

Stanley Cup Final 2018: The ultimate Capitals-Golden Knights preview

Stanley Cup Final 2018: The ultimate Capitals-Golden Knights preview

It is perhaps the most surprising Stanley Cup Final matchup in league history.

Just when you thought the championship window was closed, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally exorcised their playoff demons to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the final. They will be playing the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team in its very first year in existence that did not even have a roster just one year ago.

Who could have seen this one coming back in September?

The Golden Knights continue to shock the hockey community with every series win. They swept the Los Angeles Kings, dispatched San Jose in six and needed only five games to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets, a team with the second-best record in the regular season who had just eliminated the first place Nashville Predators.

In their very first postseason, Vegas has carried the momentum of a spectacular regular season into a 12-3 record up to the Stanley Cup Final.

But while they may have momentum, the Caps have an air of destiny about them. Not only did they rally from a 2-0 series deficit to win four straight against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they also defeated their archnemesis and the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Against a heavily favored Tampa Bay Lightning squad, the Caps won three out of four road games including an emphatic 4-0 Game 7 win, thus erasing another playoff stigma for the franchise.

These two teams share some common history despite Vegas being in its inaugural season. Though general manager Brian MacLellan has certainly put his own touches on the Caps' roster and molded them into a champion, the core of Washington was still built by George McPhee. Now the Caps will take on a roster completely built from the ground up by McPhee as the general manager of the Golden Knights.

Will Vegas complete its Cinderella season or will the Caps hoist their first ever Cup at the expense of their former GM?

Stanley Cup Final: Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Schedule

Game 1: Capitals at Golden Knights. Monday, 5/28 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 2: Capitals at Golden Knights. Wednesday, 5/30 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 3: Golden Knights at Capitals. Saturday, 6/2 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 4: Golden Knights at Capitals. Monday, 6/4 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 5 (if necessary): Capitals at Golden Knights. Thursday, 6/7 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 6 (if necessary): Golden Knights at Capitals. Sunday, 6/10 (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 7 (If Necessary): Capitals at Golden Knights. Wednesday, 6/13 (Broadcast on NBC)

View full detailed schedule here.

2017-18 Team stats

Washington Capitals

  • 49-26-7, 105 points, first in the Metropolitan Division
  • 3.12 goals per game (9th)
  • 2.90 goals against per game (16th)
  • 22.5-percent power play percentage (7th)
  • 80.3 penalty kill percentage (15th)
     

Vegas Golden Knights

  • 51-24-7, 109 points, first in the Pacific Division
  • 3.27 goals per game (5th)
  • 2.74 goals against per game (8th)
  • 21.4 power play percentage (9th)
  • 81.4 penalty kill percentage (11th)

Top Performers

Washington

Goals

Regular season
  1. Alex Ovechkin – 49
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 27
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 21
Playoffs
  1. Alex Ovechkin - 12
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 11
  3. T.J. Oshie - 7

Assists

Regular season
  1. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 56
  2. John Carlson – 53
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 50
Playoffs
  1. John Carlson - 13
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov -13
  3. Nicklas Backstrom - 12

Points

Regular season
  1. Alex Ovechkin – 87
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 83
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 71
Playoffs
  1. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 24
  2. Alex Ovechkin - 22
  3. John Carlson - 16
  4. Nicklas Backstrom - 16

Vegas

Goals

Regular season
  1. William Karlsson - 43
  2. Erik Haula - 29
  3. Jonathan Marchessault - 27
Playoffs
  1. Jonathan Marchessault - 8
  2. Alex Tuch - 6
  3. William Karlsson - 6

Assists

Regular season
  1. David Perron - 50
  2. Jonathan Marchessault - 48
  3. Reilly Smith - 38
Playoffs
  1. Reilly Smith - 14
  2. Jonathan Marchessault - 10
  3. David Perron - 7
  4. William Karlsson - 7

Points

Regular season
  1. William Karlsson - 78
  2. Jonathan Marchessault - 75
  3. David Perron - 66
Playoffs
  1. Jonathan Marchessault - 18
  2. Reilly Smith - 16
  3. William Karlsson - 13

Goaltending

Washington

Regular season

Braden Holtby: 54 GP, 34-16-4 record, .907 save percentage, 2.99 GAA, 0 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 35 GP, 15-10-3 record, .923 save percentage, 2.35 GAA, 3 shutouts

Playoffs

Braden Holtby: 18 GP, 12-6 record, .923 save percentage, 2.04 GAA, 2 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 2 GP, 0-1 record, .837 save percentage, 4.55 GAA, 0 shutouts

Vegas

Regular season

March-Andre Fleury: 46 GP, 29-13-4 record, .927 save percentage, 2.24 GAA, 4 shutouts
Malcolm Subban: 22 GP, 13-4-2 record, .910 save percentage, 2.68 GAA, 0 shutouts
Maxime Legace: 16 GP, 6-7-1 record, .867 save percentage, 3.92 GAA, 0 shutouts
Oscar Dansk: 4 GP, 3-0-0 record, .946 save percentage, 1.78 GAA, 1 shutout
Dylan Ferguson: 1 GP, 0-0-0 record, .500 save percentage, 6.50 GAA, 0 shutouts

Playoffs

Marc-Andre Fleury: 15 GP, 12-3 record, .947 save percentage, 1.68 GAA, 4 shutouts

Head-to-head record

Capitals finished with a 0-2-0 record against Vegas

Dec. 23: 3-0 Vegas win

The Caps' first trip to Vegas was a rough one. Washington was taken complete surprise by the speed and forecheck of the Golden Knights who built a 3-0 lead in the first period and ride that all the way to the finish line.

Feb. 4: 4-3 Vegas win

This game was part of a season-defining stretch for the Caps. Just 10 days prior, Washington was blown out by the Nashville Predators and again by the Colorado Avalanche two days after that. The Caps would rebound by winning eight of their next 10 games. A back-to-back against the Lightning, who had the best record in the NHL at the time, and the Toronto Maple Leafs looked like a daunting stretch. Philipp Grubauer got the start and was brilliant for Washington and Jay Beagle led the offense with a goal and an assist.

X-Factors

Coming on Friday!

Players to watch

Coming on Saturday!

Keys to the series

Coming on Sunday!

Expert picks

Joe Beninati, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals play-by-play announcer: Capitals in 6
Ryan Billie, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals senior TV producer: Capitals in 7
Tarik El-Bashir, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals Insider: Capitals in 7
Rob Carlin, NBC Sports Washington on-air host of Capitals GameTime and Capitals Extra: Capitals in 6
Al Koken, NBC Sports Washington Capitals on-ice reporter:  Capitals in 6
Courtney Laughlin, Caps FaceOff and Caps Overtime panelist: Capitals in 6
Craig Laughlin, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals color commentator: Capitals in 6
Alan May, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals analyst: Capitals in 6
Grant Paulsen, host of Caps FaceOff and Caps Overtime: Golden Knights in 6
JJ Regan, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals Digital Producer: Capitals in 6

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS: