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Sunday, May 26

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Pucks in Five

A Little More, Too Late
by Jeremy Piniak

An eventful week for Blackhawks new and old, and the Wolves continue their charge toward the playoffs with a key new acquisition in this week's Pucks in Five.

One: Hollow Victories
This week saw some of the strongest hockey the Blackhawks have played all season, picking up a pair of victories, 3-0 over the Los Angeles Kings and a 7-5 barnburner at Phoenix. Combined with last Sunday's 4-3 come-from-behind win against Ottawa, Chicago tied their season-best win streak at three. With a tough game at San Jose tonight, it's possible the streak will end, but the team's play the past few games has picked up considerably, despite notching the victories against the Western Conference cellar-dwellers in L.A. and Phoenix. The Hawks have four games left on this road trip, also making stops in Anaheim, L.A. and Columbus, before closing out the season with seven of their last 10 games at the United Center. Finishing the road trip on a positive note could provide momentum for the Hawks to make a run for respectability at home in the rest of March.

Two: Kung-fu Fighting from Koci
One player you couldn't help but notice in the Hawks game against Phoenix was Norfolk call-up Dave Koci. In only 2:31 of ice time, Koci got into a pair of fights with Coyotes tough-guy Josh Gratton, and a third fight with Nick Boynton after Koci caught Bill Thomas with his head down, leaving him unconscious and bloodied with a hard open-ice hit. Koci picked up a 5-minute major for charging on the hit, as well as a double misconduct for the hit and ensuing fight, ending his night with 42 penalty minutes. The charging call was questionable — Koci didn't stride into Thomas or hit him late, though Phoenix obviously took exception to it — but it's possible the NHL will suspend him for it nonetheless. Koci was brought up specifically to provide a physical presence and police the game, especially after the Kings took numerous runs at Hawks players last week. He obviously did what he was asked to do, but his actions will also have him labeled a goon and a headhunter by detractors.

A lot of debate has been bandied about regarding the need for "enforcers" in the new NHL. Fighting, while down, is always going to be a part of the game, and it has a time and place, protecting star players and goalies and standing up for teammates. Actions like Chris Simon's two-handed stick to the face of a Rangers player last week is another black-eye for the league, and a disgraceful act. Koci's dropping the gloves is fine, but he needs to have the talent to be a regular player as well to deserve a spot on the roster.

Three: Shoutout for a Shutout
Finally, after 99 games as a Blackhawk, star goalie Nicolai Khabibulin notched his first shutout last week, turning away 26 shots from the Kings for the 3-0 victory. After struggling with injuries last year, Khabby has responded with a 22-20-5 record this year while lowering his goals against average to 2.83 from 3.34, and he's looking more like the player he was during his time in Tampa Bay. Though any goalie would be happy with a win and a strong performance, getting the monkey off his back in Chicago has to be extra sweet for a player the Hawks signed with the expectation of such game-changing performances night after night.

Four: Wolves Weather the Storm
Entering the stretch run of the regular season, the Chicago Wolves find themselves in the same place they've been for much of the year: first place in the West Division. However, after going 4-6 in their last 10, and briefly losing the top spot, they current have a three point lead over the second place Omaha Ak-Sar Ben Knights (Yes, that is their real name. Unfortunately.) Also, the Manitoba Moose have tied the Wolves for the overall conference lead, leaving the remaining 14 games crucial in terms of playoff home ice advantage. The past week saw the Wolves earn a 4-1 win over Houston Wednesday and a 4-2 defeat of Peoria Sunday afternoon, but drop a 6-4 game to the Milwaukee Admirals Saturday after jumping out to a three point first period lead. Games like Saturday's are the kind of games the Wolves need to hang onto as a point could be the difference. This week the Wolves host return battles against Peoria and Milwaukee Wednesday and Saturday, with a key road game versus Omaha Friday night too. While it's cliché to say every game is important, with only four points separating the first and fourth seeds, there's little margin for error.

Five: Niko's Net Gains
Notching three goals and two assists in his first three games with the Wolves, recent pickup Niko Dimitrakos is showing the Wolves made a shrewd move. Dimitrakos was acquired on loan from the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers on March 1st in exchange for center Jared Ross as the Wolves looked to add some extra firepower for the postseason. Dimitrakos has played 158 career regular-season NHL games and 20 playoff tilts with Philadelphia and San Jose, and his experience and scoring ability will provide offensive depth for the Wolves Calder Cup run. Since Dimitrakos is still property of the Flyers, his tenure with the club will be short-lived, but his NHL experience will be a great presence in the locker room for young stars Darren Haydar and Brett Sterling's futures, as well as the Wolves present.

Hoops in Five

The Best Week in Buckets
by Jason Maslanka

One: The Field is Set
The NCAA tournament field is set, but the question on everyone's mind is if it was set by a monkey. The Drexel Dragons, who won 22 games and barely played at home all year, didn't make the big dance. Syracuse became the first team from a major conference to win 22 games and not make the tournament, and then Kansas State became the second. Stanford, with its RPI (computer rating) of 65, was invited despite winning only 18 games and having an RPI worse than 18 teams who didn't get that invite. The number one seeds are Florida, Kansas, North Carolina and Ohio State. Not giving a top seed to UCLA seems strange, but it's hard to argue the merit of those selected.

Two: In Local News...
One of the other big head scratchers involved the Illini. They have a solid 23 wins, and did so despite the adversity of teamates leaving their peers for dead in car wrecks, but their 4-9 record against the RPI top 50 is the worst among that group. They don't have a quality road win to speak of, but they were probably the last team selected, netting a 12 seed. They'll meet an overrated Virginia Tech team in the first round. As predicted, no other locals were invited to the dance, but Southern Illinois did receive its highest seed ever, a four. In one of those "coincidental" scheduling happenings, if both Illinois and SIU win their first round games, they'll meet in the second round. Notre Dame netted a six seed and will play an incredibly dangerous Winthrop team in the first round in Spokane, Washington. They better leave today.

Threeeeee: Consolation Prize
The National Invitation Tournament, which claims to select the next 40 best teams for its "small" dance, also announced its field on Sunday. It is, of course, headlined by NCAA snubs like Drexel and Syracuse, but has local representation as well. Depaul received a three seed and will play a real home game in Lincoln Park against Hofstra. McGrath Arena on the campus probably holds about 300 people, so get your tickets now. The NIT doesn't really mean much most years, but it would be most impressive for a mostly young DePaul squad to make its way to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden. The Blue Demons finished the season strong with wins in five of their last seven, including Marquette and Notre Dame. Further downstate, Peoria's very own Bradley will host Providence in a 4-5 matchup.

Four: Prediction Time
Locally, SIU, Illinois and Notre Dame all have difficult first round match-ups. Southern Illinois has the best chance to play in week two, however. Holy Cross is not the same team that nearly beat Marquette in 2003 and SIU has been really impressive. Illinois is undermanned and should lose to Virginia Tech. As for Notre Dame, Winthrop is dangerous, but beatable. Oregon, on the other hand, is not. The Ducks are the fastest team I've seen all year. Notre Dame may very well be one and done this year. On a national front, I'm taking UCLA, Memphis, Florida and UNC to the Final Four. UCLA has tremendous talent, Memphis hasn't lost since prior to Christmas, Florida has an amazing ability to "turn it on," and for UNC Tyler Hansborough is some kind of machine. I know that isn't going too far out on a limb, but this is: Wisconsin won't be a Sweet 16 team.

Five: Gettin' Paid
As for the professionals, as always they take a back seat this week for the insanity that is the NCAA tournament. The Bulls have won two in a row after beating up on the hopeless Boston Celtics. They continue to sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, but play their easiest stretch of the season this week. The Celtics, 76ers and Grizzlies (this week's opponents) are a combined 71 games under .500. If we're not talking about a Bulls' five-game winning streak next Monday, there's a problem.

For the first time ever, if you'd like to join another March Madness pool, submit your picks to the Gapers Block pool. It's managed by ESPN. To do so, follow this link: http://games.espn.go.com/tcmen/group?groupID=118782&password=infive and fill out the bracket. I'll announce the winner on the site, and while it's all for fun and bragging rights, I'm sure I can find a moderately exciting prize for the very best picker. I make no guarantee that my picks above will be reflected in the bracket I fill out for the pool. The picks above are a function of my thoughts on Monday evening. Tuesday afternoon usually proves very different.

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About the Author(s)

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks fan who, inexplicably, still has hope that Bill Wirtz will once again provide Chicago with a championship hockey team and broadcast home games on TV, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium. Every week he'll bring you five talking points on the state of hockey in Chicago (including, when possible, the minor-league Wolves and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he executes a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions and arguments to bulls@gapersblock.com.

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