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Will game live up to hype in BCS championship?

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Will game live up to hype in BCS championship?

MIAMI (AP) Sometimes, the buildup to a game can overwhelm what actually happens on the field.

Certainly, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama would have to play nothing less than a classic to live up to all the hype for Monday night's BCS championship.

Before either team stepped on the field in balmy South Florida, this was shaping up as one of the most anticipated games in years, a throwback to the era when Keith Jackson & Co. called one game a week, when it was a big deal for teams from different parts of the country to meet in a bowl game, when everyone took sides based on where they happened to live.

North vs. South. Rockne vs. Bear. Rudy vs. Forrest Gump.

The Fighting Irish vs. the Crimson Tide.

College football's two most storied programs, glorified in movie and song, facing off for the biggest prize.

``It's definitely not any other game,'' said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.

For the Crimson Tide (12-1), this is a chance to be remembered as a full-fledged dynasty. Alabama will be trying to claim its third national championship in four years and become the first school to win back-to-back BCS titles, a remarkable achievement given the ever-increasing parity of the college game and having to replace five players from last year's title team who were picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

``To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,'' coach Nick Saban said Sunday. ``If you look at all the players we lost last year, the leadership that we lost ... I'm really proud of what this team was able to accomplish.''

That said, it's not a huge surprise to find Alabama playing for another title. That's not the case when it comes to Notre Dame.

Despite their impressive legacy, the Fighting Irish (12-0) weren't even ranked at the start of the season. But overtime wins against Stanford and Pittsburgh, combined with three other victories by a touchdown or less, gave Notre Dame a shot at its first national title since 1988.

After so many lost years, the golden dome has reclaimed its luster in coach Brian Kelly's third season.

``It starts with setting a clear goal for the program,'' Kelly said. ``Really, what is it? Are we here to get to a bowl game, or are we here to win national championships? So the charge immediately was to play for championships and win a national championship.''

Both Notre Dame and Alabama have won eight Associated Press national titles, more than any other school. They are the bluest of the blue bloods, the programs that have long set the bar for everyone else even while enduring some droughts along the way.

ESPN executives were hopeful of getting the highest ratings of the BCS era. Tickets were certainly at a premium, with a seat in one of the executive suites going for a staggering $60,000 on StubHub the day before the game, and even a less-than-prime spot in the corner of the upper deck requiring a payout of more than $900.

``This is, to me, the ultimate match-up in college football,'' said Brent Musberger, the lead announcer for ESPN.

Kelly molded Notre Dame using largely the same formula that has worked so well for Saban in Tuscaloosa: a bruising running game and a stout defense, led by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o.

``It's a little bit old fashioned in the sense that this is about the big fellows up front,'' Kelly said. ``It's not about the crazy receiving numbers or passing yards or rushing yards. This is about the big fellas, and this game will unquestionably be decided up front.''

While points figure to be at a premium given the quality of both defenses, Alabama appears to have a clear edge on offense. The Tide has the nation's highest-rated passer (AJ McCarron), two 1,000-yard rushers (Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon), a dynamic freshman receiver (Amari Cooper), and three linemen who made the AP All-America team (first-teamers Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, plus second-teamer D.J. Fluker).

``That's football at its finest,'' said Te'o, who heads a defense that has given up just two rushing touchdowns. ``It's going to be a great challenge, and a challenge that we look forward to.''

The Crimson Tide had gone 15 years without a national title when Saban arrived in 2007, the school's fifth coach in less than a decade (including one, Mike Price, who didn't even made it to his first game in Tuscaloosa). Finally, Alabama got it right.

In 2008, Saban landed one of the greatest recruiting classes in school history, a group that has already produced eight NFL draft picks and likely will send at least three more players to the pros (including Jones). The following year, the coach guided Alabama to a perfect season, beating Texas in the title game at Pasadena.

Last season, the Tide fortuitously got a shot at another BCS crown despite losing to LSU during the regular season and failing to even win its division in the Southeastern Conference. In a rematch against the Tigers, Alabama romped to a 21-0 victory at the Superdome.

The all-SEC matchup gave the league an unprecedented six straight national champions, hastening the end of the BCS. It will last one more season before giving way to a four-team playoff in 2014, an arrangement that was undoubtedly pushed along by one conference hoarding all the titles under the current system.

``Let's be honest, people are probably getting tired of us,'' Jones said. ``We don't really mind. We enjoy being the top dog and enjoy kind of having that target on our back, and we love our conference. Obviously, we'd rather not be a part of any other conference.''

This title game certainly has a different feel than last year's.

``That was really kind of a weird national championship because it was a team we already played,'' Jones remembered. ``It was kind of another SEC game. It was in the South, and it just had a very SEC feel to it obviously. This year is much more like the 2009 game (against Texas) for me. We're playing an opponent that not only we have not played them, but no one we have played has played them (except for Michigan). So you don't really have an exact measuring stick.''

In fact, these schools have played only six times, and not since 1987, but the first of their meetings is still remembered as one of the landmark games in college football history. Bear Bryant had one of his best teams at the 1973 Sugar Bowl, but Ara Parseghian and the Fighting Irish claimed the national title by knocking off top-ranked Alabama 24-23.

If you're a long-time Notre Dame fan, you still remember Parseghian's gutty call to throw the ball out of the end zone for a game-clinching first down. If you were rooting for the Tide, you haven't forgotten a missed extra point that turned out to be the losing margin.

Of course, these Alabama players aren't concerned about what happened nearly four decades ago.

For the most part, all they know is winning.

``There's a lot of tradition that goes into Alabama football,'' Mosley said, ``and our plan is to keep that tradition alive.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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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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