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Xavier tries to dig out from nightmarish offseason

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Xavier tries to dig out from nightmarish offseason

CINCINNATI (AP) Nobody's had a worse offseason than Xavier.

The bad news started a month after the Musketeers' latest appearance in the NCAA tournament's round of 16. Returning senior guard Mark Lyons didn't see eye-to-eye with coach Chris Mack, who wanted him to become more of a team player this season. Lyons was gone.

A few months later, forward Dez Wells - the only returning starter - was expelled from the school for violating its code of student conduct. Just like that, the school that has dominated the Atlantic 10 found itself in an unaccustomed tough spot.

``It seemed like every week, personnel was changing,'' senior guard Brad Redford said. ``There was a new story for us to deal with. We had workouts and stuff to do, so we just tried to keep it in focus and take care of what we can as individuals.''

It was tough to see a team with high expectations come apart so quickly.

``I think part of it is discouraging,'' Redford said. ``Anytime you get news one of your teammates may have to leave the team or the school, you care about that guy, care about him, you've been in practice with him day after day. You're saying goodbye to a good friend.

``It's a matter of sticking together.''

What's left of the Musketeers is trying to hold on for what shapes up as Xavier's most challenging season in a long time.

The Musketeers won five straight A-10 regular season titles, a streak that ended last season when they finished third with a 23-13 record overall. They played their best at the end of a tough season that included a brawl against crosstown rival Cincinnati, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons before losing to Baylor.

Point guard Tu Holloway, center Kenny Frease and forward Andre Walker graduated, costing the Musketeers their top scorers on the perimeter and inside. When Lyons and Wells left, it was a complete sweep.

Xavier is picked to finish ninth in the A-10 because of the lack of experience and depth. The Musketeers opened the season with only eight scholarship players - in more bad news, freshmen Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds were ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Also, junior forward Isaiah Philmore has to miss the first three games because of a paperwork problem in his transfer from Towson.

There were so few Musketeers at the start of the season that Mack had to scale back on practice.

``We don't have a lot of scholarship bodies now,'' Mack said. ``For us to try to grind it out for three hours every day would be foolish. We want to be at our best when the season matters most. It's a fine line as a coach. You have to compete every day, you have to get players in game condition but at the same time, we're not trying to wear our kids down as the season goes along.

``That's been the biggest challenge, to practice efficiently to meet our objectives.''

Xavier expects a lot from its three seniors - forward Jeff Robinson (3.6 points per game), forward Travis Taylor (4.5 points) and Redford (3.2 points), a 3-point specialist off the bench who will be another year removed from reconstructive knee surgery. Sophomore Dee Davis, who averaged 11 minutes and 1.9 points last season, takes over for Holloway at the point. Freshman Semaj Christon is expected to start at shooting guard.

``We lost a lot of guys from last year that played a ton of minutes and played huge roles for us,'' Redford said. ``All the guys are figuring out our roles on this team, where we can help.''

Whenever the Musketeers needed a clutch basket last season, they could count on Holloway to take the shot or feed the ball inside for a basket. It'll be more of a collective effort this season instead of an offense that relies on its guards.

``In terms of production, I'd like to think we'll be a more balanced team than we have in the last couple of years,'' Mack said.

One other significant change: Mack expects to play a lot more zone defense because of his short-handed roster.

Mack has reminded his inexperienced players about Xavier's tradition of winning.

``You don't want to see yourself (picked) in ninth, 10th, wherever they have us ranked,'' Redford said. ``Here at Xavier, we've been at the top of the A-10. Every year I've been here, we've been first for the most part. Right now for this group, it's about taking it day by day.''

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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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