As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Monday, June 24

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

Fire in Five

Advantage Fire, Barely
by Steve Gillies

The Fire kicked off their 2006 playoff campaign on Sunday with a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution thanks to a Justin Mapp freekick. Now they have to travel to New England on Saturday, with the aggregate score determining the series winner. I've been reading in the papers that people find this concept confusing and they helpfully tell readers that they can think of the series as one really long game, and this is halftime.

One: If This is Halftime, Does that Mean We're Defending for 90 Minutes on Saturday?
Going into Saturday's game with a one goal lead, the big question is how we approach the second game. The Fire have had a habit on trying to sit on leads for too long, which cost them a lot of games early in the season. The defense has tightened up since then, but I still don't feel good going into the game with a bunker mentality. A tie will get us through to the next round, and if we've got a tie with 15 minutes left there's no reason to throw players into the attack. But I worry if we start the game too conservatively and let New England come at us, it will backfire.

Two: Whoever Gets Through This Series Has a Real Shot at the Title
Going into the playoffs, these were the two hottest teams playing in MLS. The Fire have been pretty phenomenal over the second half of the season. New England struggled through injuries and national team callups, but look like they're getting back to the kind of soccer that made them such a dominant team last year and doing it at just the right time. Sunday's game was by no means pretty from a purist standpoint, but it featured two teams that were hugely competitive in the midfield and enough moments of magic (like Mapp's free kick) that I think whoever wins will be a handful any team in the league. I definitely get the feeling that this series is only going to be decided by one goal and whoever wins it will have cleared a giant hurdle on the way to the finals.

Three: This Could Be Our Last Shot for a While
The Fire's formula for success this season has been to blend the very good group of young players they've developed over the last two years with an extremely experienced core of veterans. While players like Tony Sanneh, Diego Gutierrez, C.J. Brown and Chris Armas have really stepped up over the last couple of months and shown some of the best form of their careers, I do have to wonder how many more games they've got in their legs. As good as the young players have been over the past two years, I don't see them making a real impact in the league without the veterans stepping up the way they have this season. So I get the feeling that it's now or never for this group of players.

Four: If They Get a Freekick, Somebody Better Stand in Front of the Ball
A lot of people like to talk about matchups in big games like this, and there are plenty of intriguing contests: Justin Mapp vs. Shalrie Joseph; Ivan Guerrero vs. Steve Ralston (hopefully Gutierrez is fit enough that we can move Ivan back out to the left, because Ralston looked like he had fill-in Gonzalo Segares' number); CJ Brown vs. Taylor Twellman; Armas vs. Dempsey if Dempsey isn't injured and New England has the sense to move him back in the midfield. Really though, it will be a tight game no matter what and it's going to come down to which team does the little things. Last season we got knocked out by New England because five minutes into the game New England took a quick freekick from midfield while the Fire were still getting organized defensively. Sunday, I noticed a couple of times when New England got a freekick in midfield the closest Fire player would stand in front of the ball, making New England wait until the ref backed him off and letting the rest of the Fire get themselves set. I also noticed a couple times they didn't do this. If they're going to get through on Sunday, every single player has got to concentrate and do all the little things like that for 90 minutes. Last season proved that switching off mentally, even if it's for just a second, could end the season.

Five: There is No Fifth Point This Week
I was going to write here about whether it would be better to play DC (away) or the Red Bulls (at home) in the next round, and who I'd like to see the Fire play in the final. But soccer writers are a superstitious and cowardly lot. I'm not thinking about anything except Saturday.

Pucks in Five

Fortnight of Fear
by Jeremy Piniak

While the debut Chicago Hounds opened their season 2-1, and the Wolves rolled out to a 4-2 start themselves, the big hockey news of the past week was the wild weekend the Blackhawks endured — one that, it turns out, may have long-lasting ramifications on their season.

One: Leaving the Door Ajar
After a 2-1 win against Montreal last Wednesday, the Hawks entered the weekend facing their first real test Friday at the 5 and 1 Dallas Stars, a perennial playoff team off to a solid start. Chicago had pulled ahead to a 3-1 lead at the end of the second period, and killed off a crucial 5-on-3 early in the third when Dallas scored two quick goals to tie the game. Then, following a Martin Lapointe goal to regain the lead, the Blackhawks gave up 2 more goals in the final 1:15, giving up what looked to be an impressive victory in the process. Then, the next night, the Hawks returned to the United Center to face the Blues, jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead before allowing St. Louis to regain the lead 3-2 in the second, and ultimately falling 4-3.

Two two-goal leads. Two losses. Even worse, all four games the team has lost have been games where they have given up two-goal leads, including two losses to the lowly Blues. While a by-product of the high-scoring new NHL is ensuring that no lead is safe, it's a troubling trend that the Blackhawks are lacking a killer instinct to put teams away. Whether it's relaxing after taking a lead or having gotten a bit of luck to earn the lead in the first place, if the Hawks hope to be successful this year, they need to find a way to finish what they start.

Two: Hawks Rent Entire Wing of Hospital
As if the back-to-back losses weren't enough, a trio of injuries over the weekend has put the Blackhawks postseason aspirations in jeopardy. First, and by far the worst, center Michael Handzus is out for the season after tearing his ACL late in the third period against the Blues. Also on Saturday, goalie Nicolai Khabibulin suffered a broken finger on his blocker hand during the loss, and is expected to miss roughly two weeks. During Friday's game at Dallas, forward Martin Havlat suffered a high ankle sprain in the middle of the third, an injury that can be notoriously difficult to heal properly. He's estimated to be out 2-3 weeks, but may not be 100 percent upon returning.

Handzus and Havlat were the team's premier off-season acquisitions brought in to provide a spark to a dormant offense, and up through this weekend they had done just that, with Havlat competing for the league lead in scoring, and Handzus third-highest in points on the Hawks. Adding in Tuomo Ruutu's preseason injury, the Blackhawks are now without their entire top offensive line and starting goaltender for at least the next two weeks, best case scenario. Every team suffers through some bad luck injuries throughout the year, but few deal with the loss of so much star power so early in the year, and how the team responds the next few weeks will be a huge factor in their season.

Three: Calling Up the Cavalry
The first response to the injury news by the team was to call up center Dave Bolland and right-winger Michael Blunden from Norfolk, along with goaltender Sebastian Caron.

Bolland and Blunden were the Hawks' second-round draft picks in 2004 and 2005, respectively, and while both youngsters had solid training camps, they began the season at Norfolk to gain experience and ice-time. Bolland was a surprising call-up, given that he just played his first game for the Admirals Saturday night after a shoulder injury, while Bluden put up a goal and two assists in five games on the farm. Now the rookies will get a chance to prove themselves in the NHL, and how they play will determine both their playing time and the Hawks' fortunes until Havlat and Ruutu return. Caron was a free-agent signing from Pittsburgh in the off-season, and was one of the final players sent down in the preseason after the Blackhawks signed Brian Boucher to replace injured backup Patrick Lalime. Now Boucher is the ostensible starter until Habby returns, though Caron will get his chances as well.

Four: Cullimore Claims a Seat On the Bench
Also called up over the weekend was defenseman Danny Richmond, answering the prayers of many Hawks fans on how to handle the disappointing play of Jassen Cullimore. Cullimore was -3 with a lone assist, but it was his 19 penalty minutes and lackluster play in the defensive end that had fans calling for his benching. The problem was the Hawks had only kept six defensemen to start the season, leaving no one to take his place. After Friday's game against Dallas, where Cullimore got tangled behind the net with goalie Brian Boucher for one goal, and was beat to the net by Dallas' Mike Ribiero on the tying goal in the third, coach Trent Yawney had seen enough. Richmond was a +1 Saturday, with two blocked shots — and more importantly, he wasn't directly responsible for any of the Blues' scores. Cullimore was not the only villain on a weak blue line this season, and the call-up serves notice to the rest of the defense that mediocrity will not tolerated.

Five: Fortnight Fortune-Telling
With Havlat and Khabibulin expected out for at least the next two week, and Ruutu scheduled to return sometime within the next few weeks as well, what are the Hawks chances of staying at .500 in the interim? This week Chicago hosts 5-3-1 Vancouver and first place Anaheim. The Ducks are one of the top teams in the West, and the Blackhawks would have a tough time against them at full strength, and the Canucks are a perennial playoff contender.

Following a two-game, two-night road trip starting Monday against cellar-dwelling Philadelphia and the overachieving Islanders, the Hawks return home Nov. 3 to battle the archrival Detroit Red Wings. Breaking it down, I see one sure win against the Flyers, who are in their own state of turmoil, and home losses to Anaheim and Detroit. The Canucks game should be competitive, and for the sake of optimism and the spark of the new call-ups, I will give the Blackhawks a surprise win. The Islanders are similar to Chicago, predicted to go nowhere but playing competitively, and I give them the edge with the Hawks finishing the back-end of the trip.

That leaves the Hawks at best 2-3, which given the weekend they've just suffered through, they would be glad to have. More importantly, it would keep them in the thick of the Central division hunt. Following the Detroit game, the Blackhawks have six days off before heading to New Jersey, giving the wounded Hawks extra time to heal.

Bears in Five

...has a bye week.
by Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon & friends

GB store
 

About the Author(s)

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15