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Wildcats steadily building momentum

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Wildcats steadily building momentum

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) No. 8 Arizona rolled through the opening part of its schedule before facing a bit of adversity this week against Southern Miss.

Now the schedule is about to get tougher: A road game against Clemson on Saturday and No. 6 Florida a week later at the McKale Center.

This bump in competition couldn't have come at a better time for Wildcats coach Sean Miller.

With a team that relies on freshmen at key positions, Miller likes the idea of building up their confidence before throwing them into the ring against heavyweights.

``I think we'll learn a lot about our team in the next two games,'' Miller said. ``I don't think it's the defining moment of our season, but I do think we'll have a team that will be ready for both.''

The Wildcats have been ready for whatever opponents throw at them so far this season.

Living up to the hype of a team that has a talented group of veterans and another stellar recruiting class by Miller, Arizona (6-0) raced through the first five games of its schedule, scoring 85 points per game while winning by an average of 25 points.

The Wildcats faced their first test against Southern Miss on Tuesday night at McKale Center.

Struggling against the Golden Eagles' shifting zone, Arizona sped up on offense and spent most of the night throwing passes that were easily picked off or sailed out of bounds.

The Wildcats finished with 27 turnovers, doubling their season average, but pulled out a 63-55 win behind their defense, which prevented Southern Miss from making any of its eight 3-point attempts while forcing 17 turnovers in the second half.

It was ugly, but it was a win that could be a lesson Arizona's young players can look back on when things get tough later in the season.

``This allows us to have a little more confidence if we're in a game situation like this in the future,'' freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski. ``It just puts that under our belt.''

The game against Southern Miss also was an example of why the Wildcats are so dangerous.

Miller's latest recruiting class included three of the best incoming big men in the country: Tarczewski, a 7-foot center, 6-10 forward Grant Jarrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley.

They've played well at times early in the season and should get better as the season progresses.

But the key to Arizona's success lies in its veteran leadership.

When the Wildcats had a hard time shaking Charleston Southern in their season opener, Miller stuck almost exclusively with his veteran players down the stretch.

Same thing against Southern Miss.

With the ball flying all over the court and the game a little too close for comfort, Miller turned to his older guys down the stretch to pull Arizona through.

Guard Nick Johnson, a confident and heady sophomore, led the defensive charge at the top of Arizona's defense and finished with 23 points in 37 minutes.

Senior Kevin Parrom came off the bench in the first half, but started the second and played 30 minutes. He scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half and used his passing ability to give the Wildcats a much-needed release valve at the center of Southern Miss' zone.

Senior Solomon Hill hit the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer in front of Arizona's bench with just under 2 minutes left, and again filled up the stat sheet.

The talented freshmen have a chance to be something special, but Miller can always count on his veteran players, three of whom - with junior point guard Jordin Mayes - reached the regional final of the NCAA tournament two years ago.

``As you guys have asked about this year's team, the gift isn't just our size or our youth and talent, it's also that a lot of different players have been through a lot,'' Miller said.

And there's plenty more for the Wildcats to go through, starting on Saturday at Clemson.

The Tigers are young but athletic and should be the toughest defensive team Arizona has faced so far. After that, the Wildcats face a marquee matchup in the desert the following Saturday against Florida, which beat them in overtime a year ago in Gainesville.

The two-game stretch will be a tough test, but the Wildcats should be ready after backing up all those easy early-season wins with the gut-check victory over Southern Miss.

``To be 6-0 matters to our team,'' Miller said. ``You may say, `Of course it matters,' but you would be surprised how sometimes when things don't go well for you, it's not about the 6-0, it's about you. I like that collective thinking with our team.''

It's worked so far. Now it's time for the Wildcats to see if they can keep it going against stiffer competition.

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2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs opponent set: How Capitals fared vs. ex-coach Barry Trotz and Islanders

2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs opponent set: How Capitals fared vs. ex-coach Barry Trotz and Islanders

Nearly 10 months after the Washington Capitals began their 2019-20 season, we finally know their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round opponent.

After defeating the Boston Bruins 2-1 on Sunday afternoon, Washington has earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and will face the New York Islanders in the first round.

The Islanders are a familiar foe for the Capitals. New York coach Barry Trotz led Washington to a Stanley Cup title in 2018. The two sides have faced one another seven times in the postseason, with the Islanders emerging victorious in five of those series. They have been chock full of famous moments from the Eastern Epic in 1987 to Dale Hunter's infamous hit on Pierre Turgeon in 1993 to a classic seven-game series in 2015. 

The 2020 matchup will be the first time the two teams have met in the playoffs since that 2015 series, when Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a late goal in Game 7 at Capital One Arena to win it for Washington in Trotz's first year as head coach. The storylines in this one are endless as Trotz's former assistant, Todd Reirden, looks for his first playoff series win behind the bench.  

So, how have the Caps fared against the Islanders this season? Let's take a look...

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Capitals vs. Islanders: Season Series 2-2

Oct. 4, 2019: Capitals defeat Islanders, 2-1

Both T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana excelled for Washington, each notching a goal. Braden Holtby was stellar in net, too, allowing just one goal on the night as the Capitals held on to for a 2-1 road victory in the first matchup between the two sides this season.

Dec. 31, 2019: Islanders defeat Capitals, 4-3

The celebrations came a little early on New Year's Eve, as both the Caps and Isles each scored a pair of goals in the first period. However, New York would follow with another two-goal period, while the Caps would find the back of the net just once more on the day. Holtby struggled in net, allowing four goals and finishing with just 18 saves.

Jan. 18, 2020: Capitals defeat Islanders, 6-4

This game was arguably Washington's best victory of the entire 2020 season. Trailing 4-1 entering the third period, the Capitals answered with five (!!) goals in the final frame to knock off the Islanders, 6-4. Alex Ovechkin continued his incredible hot streak, finishing the game with another hat trick.

Feb. 10, 2020: Islanders defeat Capitals, 5-3

The final contest between these two teams was not a pretty one for netminder Ilya Samsonov. The rookie goaltender allowed five goals within the first two periods and was eventually replaced by Holtby after just a .750 save percentage. Bad news for New York, however, as Samsonov will miss the entire postseason due to injury.

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Caps claim round robin finale over Bruins to secure a first-round matchup with the Islanders

Caps claim round robin finale over Bruins to secure a first-round matchup with the Islanders

The Capitals are winless in the 2020 postseason no more. Washington defeated the Boston Bruins 2-0 on Sunday for their lone win in the round robin off of goals from T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson. The win secures third place for Washington and a first-round matchup with the New York Islanders.

Here is why the Caps won.

The penalty kill

The penalty kill was not tested nearly as much on Sunday as it was in Washington's game on Thursday, but it remained perfect as it killed off both of the Bruins' power plays on the day while allowing only one shot on goal.

In what has been largely a lackluster showing for Washington through the round robin, the penalty kill has been among the few bright spots and was a perfect 8 for 8 through three games.

Braden Holtby

Washington's best player through the round robin has been its netminder and that remained the case on Sunday. Holtby turned aside 30 of the 31 shots he faced for another strong performance in net. He was beaten only by Jake DeBrusk who caught Holtby by surprise by some fancy footwork to adjust to fire a quick shot on net.

Boston had a golden opportunity to tie the game at 1 in the second period as Charlie McAvoy cut through the middle for a 1-on-1 chance, but Holtby calmly stared him down and plucked the wrister out of the air with the glove.

RELATED: T.J. OSHIE'S REBOUND GOAL GETS THE CAPS ON THE BOARD VERSUS THE BRUINS

Team defense

Offensively, this was not a great game for the Caps. The team managed only two shots on goal through the first period. The offense was better as the game went along, finishing with 25 for the game, but there was not much to speak of early on. Still, it wasn't as if the Bruins were skating circles around them either.

Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers was a pretty bad one in terms of team defense. The Flyers scored one goal off a turnover and two more off of defensive breakdowns. Washington's team defense was much improved on Sunday in what was a very conservative game.

Now, obviously the team has to find more of a balance -- you can't fire only two shots on goal in a period and hope to win many of those games -- but with defense being one of the team's major weaknesses heading into the playoffs, Sunday's game was certainly a step in the right direction.

Oshie's redemption

Washington's performance in the first period was not encouraging. The team had only one shot on goal late in the period, but Oshie had a golden opportunity late with a nice steal from McAvoy. Oshie saw McAvoy pinch in the offensive zone so he charged, chipped away the puck and launched a 2-on-1 in the other direction. Oshie carried the puck and called his own number, but missed the shot badly. It looked like he was trying to hit the corner, but missed by a good foot.

Oshie redeemed himself later in the period, however, as he beat Zdeno Chara to the puck on the doorstep and shot it home to give Washington the 1-0 lead. It was the Caps' second shot on goal of the period and it came in the final minute.

Wilson justifies Pastrnak's tweet

On July 28, David Pastrnak sent out a bizarre tweet declaring that Wilson was the best scorer in the league. I don't know about the entire league, but he was the best goal-scorer on Sunday with his insurance tally in the third period.

As Ilya Kovalchuk cleared the puck out of the defensive zone, Wilson sprinted down the ice to beat two Bruins and he claimed the puck behind the defense. He pulled the puck backhand to forehand and fired a quick shot off the post and into the top shelf. Goalie Tuukka Rask probably wishes he came out of the net to collect that puck, but he didn't and Wilson took advantage with a really nice looking goal.

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