Capitals

Tide's kid stars Yeldon, Cooper prep for huge game

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Tide's kid stars Yeldon, Cooper prep for huge game

MIAMI (AP) T.J. Yeldon opened his Alabama career by rolling through Michigan's defense for 111 yards, and fellow freshman Amari Cooper took note.

Performing in the face of huge crowds and big, fast college defenders wasn't so hard after all, he figured. It's still football.

``He was like, `Oh, this is easy,''' Cooper said. ``I didn't have a big game that day, but I could see it was easy.''

Cooper didn't break out as a freshman star until later for the Crimson Tide. But both have shined this season and get their biggest opportunity on Monday - against the terrific defense of top-ranked Notre Dame with a BCS championship on the line.

The tailback Yeldon and receiver Cooper have already put up nice numbers and plays that helped put the Tide into this position.

Alabama beat LSU on Yeldon's 28-yard screen pass in the last minute. Cooper's late 45-yard touchdown catch was the final score of a 32-28 win over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship, when Yeldon ran for a season-high 153 yards.

Kids today.

It's nothing unusual for Nick Saban to call on the youngsters to play pivotal roles. Yeldon follows 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and 2011 finalist Trent Richardson in a string of quick-learning tailbacks.

And Cooper is challenging Julio Jones' freshman receiving records for Alabama.

``Coach Saban always says, `If you're good enough, you're old enough,''' Cooper said. ``If you're good enough to play and you show the maturity, then they'll allow you to do that.''

Their freshman finale will be the biggest test to their maturity.

Yeldon has run for 1,000 yards as Eddie Lacy's backfield-mate even though he hasn't started a game. Together, they lead a running game that has produced 35 touchdowns and 225 yards a game.

They'll face a sturdy front seven on a defense that has yielded just two rushing touchdowns in 12 games.

Both freshmen spoke to reporters for the first time this season at Saturday's BCS media day because Saban doesn't allow freshmen to do interviews - title game rules force them to be available. Their abilities have been on display all season, though.

Lacy, a junior, has worked through nagging early-season injuries to rush for 1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns. Alongside him, Yeldon's 6.5-yard average per carry is tops among the SEC's 15 leading rushers.

Both Yeldon and Cooper enrolled a year ago and went through spring practice. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Yeldon capped it with an MVP performance in the spring game that didn't just impress fans but teammates.

``I didn't really know much about him because he hadn't really been running much with the (starters) in the spring,'' Alabama center Barrett Jones said. ``I was just kind of like, `Who is this guy?' T.J. is just such a freak specimen.''

Surrounded by cameras and tape recorders, Yeldon acknowledged that he's ``not really a people person.''

``I don't even like talking,'' Yeldon said, meaning Saban's policy probably came as a relief.

As for playing before millions for college football's biggest prize, he doesn't offer much insight.

``It's very exciting, but I don't know how to explain it,'' said Yeldon, who has received occasional postgame counsel from both Richardson and Ingram. ``It's pretty fun.''

Cooper lets his excitement show a little more. He said he's spent time this week envisioning himself making big plays, but added he always does that before a game.

``It's a great opportunity,'' Cooper said. ``That's what we've worked so hard for all our lives. It's a great opportunity and I'm happy to be able to showcase it here in Miami for the national championship.''

He has 53 catches for 895 yards and a school freshman record nine touchdown catches. Cooper needs five receptions and 29 yards to break Jones' marks set in 2008, and the Atlanta Falcons receiver is a fan.

``He's a great player,'' Jones said on Friday. ``He's just got to stay focused and continue to do what he's doing. Stay humble, stay humble and keep working. The sky's the limit, especially coming from a program like Alabama because you know he's going to be coached great there and (know) how to handle success.''

After all, Ingram won the Heisman as a sophomore. If Lacy leaves for the NFL - he said Saturday he will make up his mind after the game - Yeldon would be the lead man with whoever takes over his ``backup'' role.

Cooper will be joined by fellow freshman Chris Black, who was a little more highly rated but missed the season with an injury.

``It's going to be pretty scary for the defenses that are going to be defending us,'' Yeldon said.

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AP Sports Writer George Henry in Flowery Branch, Ga., contributed to this report.

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A first period to forget, a strong night for Holtby and hope for the third line

A first period to forget, a strong night for Holtby and hope for the third line

 

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals returned home only to have their six-game winning streak snapped by a Columbus Blue Jackets team that had lost its last four.

Check out the recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

The first period is in the running for worst of the season

Washington was outshot 20-6, could not get possession and could not get the puck out of the defensive zone. Things were getting comically bad as Michal Kempny accidentally shot the puck on his own net which forced a save from Braden Holtby and then a trip as he tried to keep Pierre-Luc Dubois from getting to the loose puck. Later in the period, Gustav Nyquist got a breakaway chance when Jakub Vrana basically passed the puck right to him.

Why was it so bad? Maybe it was the jet lag, maybe the Caps came into this one thinking they would have an easy time against a bad team or maybe it was just one of those nights. Regardless, it was bad. While Washington played better as the game went along, that first period really set the tone for the entire 60 minutes.

Holtby was the only reason the Caps were in this game

The Caps will likely have to choose between Holtby and Ilya Samsonov in the offseason as their goalie of the future. Because of that, some fans are already drawing lines in the sand and declaring themselves for Team Holtby or Team Samsonov. Those Holtby detractors take every opportunity to declare every bad game as Holtby’s fault, but that was just not the case on Monday.

Holtby was the only thing, the only thing keeping Washington in this game.

Holtby made 33 saves for the game, 19 of which came in just the first period alone. The third goal Holtby allowed was soft as he showed Riley Nash too much daylight off the post allowing Nash to bank the puck off him and in, but besides that, it was a really strong game for the Caps' netminder overall.

The third line showed signs of life but remains a work in progress

Coming into this game, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, and Richard Panik had played less than 24 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. Having a full lineup back, Reirden was able to utilize this line and the results were good. They ultimately did not produce any points, but the line looked very good to start and it looks like there is potential there.

"They did some good things," Reirden said. "I thought early on they were probably one of our better lines to start the game. They were the group that was giving us some offense and giving us some possession time and I thought executing at probably the highest level."

Look, I know many fans out there are done with Panik already, but give him time to actually play on the line he was signed to play with. The Caps have banked a ton of points and sit first in the entire NHL. They have the flexibility to experiment with the third line and see if that trio can build some chemistry together.

Keep an eye on the home record

The loss drops Washington's home record to 8-3-4 for the season. Not terrible, but not great either especially when compared to their 14-2-1 record on the road. I'm not ready to think there is something wrong with theCaps at home yet, but this is something that is worth monitoring.

Turning point

The Caps had nothing going for them through 40 minutes, but it would not be the first time they were able to rally from a multi-goal deficit in the third period to get the win. Heck, I'm not sure people would even be surprised by it anymore. When Alex Ovechkin scored less than a minute into the third, my gut reaction was OK, here we go. Here comes the rally.

Nash's goal put an end to all of that when he was able to bank the puck in off of Holtby from behind the goal line. At that point, you knew the game was over.

Play of the game

On the first period breakaway Nyquist received courtesy of Vrana, Nyquist tried to beat Holtby with the backhand through the 5-hole. The Caps' netminder recovered well and swept out the pads to deny him the goal. Had Washington come back to make a game of this one, this save would have been one of the pivotal moments of the game.

Stat of the game

Congratulations to Craig "Woody" Leydig!

Quote of the game

Reirden on what went wrong in the first period:

"There wasn't a whole lot going right. That was, to me, one of our worst two periods of the year."

Fan predictions

You got the score right, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom both had one goal and one assist. I'm pretty sure you meant that the Caps were going to win though so you didn't nail this one as much as it looks like you did.

Umm...just a narrow miss there.

Go home Mike, you're drunk.

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Caps finally lay an egg to end six-game winning streak

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Caps finally lay an egg to end six-game winning streak

WASHINGTON - Put it away. 

Honestly, what else can the Capitals say after a 5-2 loss to the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday at Capital One Arena. 

They had won six games in a row. They had just swept a four-game road trip to Detroit and the three California teams (San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim). Things were going great. That's always dangerous in the NHL.  

Use any excuse you want - a trap game before playing the powerhouse Bruins visit in two days, a letdown coming home for the first time since Nov. 29, a sleepy Monday night crowd in early December - but the Capitals were having none of it. 

"Even if you had a winning streak like this, I think it's important - when you lose, there's no easy games in this league, that's for sure,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You’ve just got to bounce back right away. We have a good test on Wednesday against Boston. I think, right?"

Forgive Backstrom if he wasn’t quite certain that a showdown loomed with the Bruins, who have the second-most points in the NHL behind Washington (22-5-5). It’s a tough time of year for players and the calendar gets away from them.

But after eight games out of the lineup with an upper-body injury, Backstrom was just happy to be back on the ice. He even scored a goal late in the third period to cut the Columbus lead to 4-2 before an empty-netter put things away. 

Up in Ottawa, the Bruins (20-5-6) were also losing a game you wouldn’t expect: 5-2 to Ottawa. Combine the Blue Jackets and Senators have just 55 points. That’s barely more than Washington (49) and Boston (46) on their own, but in the NHL there’s too much parity to take any game for granted.

“You've got to be on top of your game or you're susceptible to ending up on the wrong end of things,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “We’ve been really consistent, obviously, through 30-plus games of doing that. Tonight, we weren't. Had a bad start to the game. It cost us.”

Consider it a humbling lesson. Just like when the New York Islanders won a game at Tampa Bay on Monday night and the lead in the Metropolitan Division is seven points for the Capitals. No reason to panic, no reason to do anything other than start a new streak against a top-level opponent on Wednesday that should give both Washington and Boston a good sense of where their game is.

Take the good and toss the bad: Backstrom is back and scored. The penalty kill, with Lars Eller playing a bigger role, was solid again at 5-for-5 and the third line of Eller. Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik played as a unit for the first time since early October. 

Braden Holtby (33 saves, 37 shots) had a great first period in goal, but gave up an ugly bad-angle shot in the third to Riley Nash just a few minutes after Alex Ovechkin had cut the lead to 2-1 in the first minute of the third period with his 21st goal. But Columbus scored three times in the third - once on an empty net. A game Washington was chasing almost the entire way turned into a deserved Blue Jackets win. Things have gone so well so far in 2019-20. Time to flush it fast. The Bruins await.  

“We were lucky it was only a 1-0 game because of the way [Holtby] played,” Hagelin said. “We started getting better and better as the game went on, but it wasn’t enough. That’s one of those games where you have to forget about it and move on.” 

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