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Pucks in Five

Blackhawks Down, Wolves In the Hunt
by Jeremy Piniak

In this week's Pucks in Five, the Blackhawks wrap up their season and we look ahead to the off-season — namely, what changes to expect from the Sadhouse on Madison. Also, the Wolves continue their push toward the playoffs while their young stars receive yet another honor.

One: Should They Stay or Should They Go?
Now that the Blackhawks regular season has ended, the focus turns to the off-season; specifically, what changes need to be made to a team that finished with a 31-42-9 record, good for 13th in the Western Conference. Blackhawks coach Denis Savard has said he wouldn't be surprised if 10-12 players have played their last game in the Indianhead sweater on Sunday. Let's take a look at who has earned a return ticket.

First, looking between the pipes, Nicolai Khabibulin stepped up his play in the second year of his tenure in Chicago. Habby will never earn his $6 million a year salary, but is still a top goalie when he's on his game. Patrick Lalime is an able experienced backup and should also return. Defensively the Hawks are stacked with youth and talent, with little change needed as their youngsters mature. The two players who need to be shown the door are also the vets of the blue line, Jassen Cullimore and captain Adrian Aucoin. Cullimore can possibly be moved, but with Aucoin's contract owing him $4 million over the next two years, few teams will be willing to take on that salary. Aucoin needs to be let go, no matter the cost to buy him out. Regarding forwards, the bigger question isn't who should depart, but what few players have earned the right to stay, as the offense and power play have been the biggest disappointment for the team. Chicago was second to last in the league in goals scored with 195, and last on the power play for the second consecutive year.

The only player who's a lock to return is Martin Havlat, who led the team with 57 points despite injuries limiting him to 56 games. The longest-tenured Hawk, Tuomo Ruutu, is also likely to return, but with his injury history and unfulfilled expectations, could be a trade candidate. One of the few players who puts forth the effort and provides a physical top-line presence, Ruutu should be given one more chance in Chicago. Other players deserving of a roster spot are Patrick Sharp, the team's second leading goal scorer, surprise free agent Jeff Hamilton, and Rene Bourque, who suffered an injury-plagued season after a promising rookie debut. Jason Williams, acquired from Detroit this season, will also most likely return for a full season, though his 19 games in a Hawk uniform provided little positive. The rest of the forwards have either been busts or maddeningly inconsistent, and while some will stay in Chicago for another season, any changes that can better the team with these players needs to be done to create a new culture at the United Center.

Two: Final Week Fast Facts
With four games in the final week, the Blackhawks were busy, but left with little to play for other than pride and playing the role of spoiler. Despite Havlat's injury in the first period, the Hawks battled to a 3-2 shootout win over Nashville Tuesday, extending the Predator's slide and effectively ended their hopes at winning the Central Division. In the final home game at the United Center Thursday, it was Detroit's turn, as Chicago defeated the Red Wings 3-2 in another shootout. The win gave the Hawks a four-game win streak, their longest since March 2003, and Khabibulin was incredible in turning away 56 shots. The Wings exacted revenge with a 7-2 drubbing in Detroit Saturday, but due to the Thursday loss, missed out on a chance to earn the President's Trophy for the best overall record in the NHL; that went to Buffalo. In the Sunday finale, the Hawks played a tough game in Dallas, losing to the playoff-bound Stars 3-2.

Three: Advantage, for One Round
Earning 5-4 and 5-3 wins over Milwaukee and Grand Rapids this weekend, the Wolves ensured themselves home-ice advantage in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, which begin next week. The Wolves currently stand in the third seed in the conference, and with three games left, can technically finish anywhere from the first to the fourth seed. As things stand currently, Chicago would match up with Milwaukee in the first round. The Admirals have had the Wolves' number this year, winning seven of eight before Friday, and making home-ice advantage mean little for Chicago. It's safe to say that the Wolves' plan for the playoffs is to avoid Milwaukee at all costs, though the victory Friday should provide a confidence boost should the two meet in the postseason.

Four: Three to Go, Where They Finish, They Don't Know
If the Wolves hope to avoid Milwaukee, the final three games of the season this season will be critical. Friday the team has a return engagement with the Admirals at the Bradley Center, followed by two home games against the Iowa Stars and Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights. Omaha is currently a point ahead of the Wolves in the standings, with one game in hand, but a victory over the Knights in the season finale could have direct seeding implications. Likewise, the game Friday at Milwaukee may have a lot to do with whether the Wolves face the Admirals in the first round of the playoffs. The Admirals stand in sixth, but are only two points away from passing Rochester for the fourth seed. Western Conference-leading Manitoba is only three points ahead of Chicago, but has one fewer game, and the Wolves hold an outside chance of earning home-ice throughout the conference playoffs if the team can close the season on a winning streak.

Five: All-Team Awards
Continuing the yearlong trend of Wolves players receiving personal accolades, right wing Darren Haydar and left wing Brett Sterling were named to the AHL's First All-Star team, the second time a pair of Wolves teammates has earned the honor in the same season. The dynamic duo's exploits have been mentioned more than once in this column and their first team status is definitely deserved. As of this writing, Haydar has netted 116 points, leading the league and a healthy 21 points ahead of his nearest competition, and Sterling is tops in goals with 52, while earning 93 total points, good for fourth in the league. Also earning honors was defenseman Nathan Oystrick, who was selected for the Second All-Star team. Oystrick is third in scoring in the league for all defensemen, with 15 goals and 32 assists. On top of the All-Star honors, Sterling and Oystrick also were named to the All-Rookie team last week. While the trio should be honored by the personal achievements, the players have their eyes on a bigger prize, looking ahead to the Wolves' Calder Cup chase.

Bulls in Five

by Jason Maslanka

...Is gearing up for the playoffs. Back next week.

Cubs in Five

by Jeff Webber

...Really does return next week. We promise.

Sox in Five

Welcome to the Grindhouse
by Steve Gozdecki

Grinder schminder: with a home run apiece, our plucky Pods and Erstad are already showing Jermaine Dye who's wielding the big bats in the outfield. Oh how the first few weeks of the season can make it seem like down is up and up is down! And with that random thought out and about, let's make like Craig Grebeck, get down for the upstroke and do this thing Sox in Five, short-and-sweet edition!

One: Maybe We Should Just Take the Mulligan?
It would be egotism of the highest order to suggest that the other AL Central teams noticed that the White Sox have long suffered against left-handed starting pitchers and deliberately loaded up on them. Still, the fact is that the White Sox play in a division that features a plethora of good lefties, and so far this year the team is 0-2 against them after the opening day loss to C.C. Sabathia and Sunday's futility fest against the mighty Johan! Santana. Tomorrow the Sox draw Oakland A's lefty Joe Kennedy and Sunday brings Sabathia again, but the rest of the week should turn out to be smooth sailing for the hometown heroes as they face the back of the Oakland and Cleveland rotations.

Two: This Power Bullpen Thing? It's Kinda Cool.
The White Sox seem to have discovered a nice recipe for success on days when the starting pitching doesn't go all kaplooey: get out to a lead, get six innings or so from the starter, bring in Mike MacDougal or Matt Thornton for the seventh, bring in the one who didn't pitch in the seventh to throw in the eighth, and then close things out with Big Bobby Jenks. Considering that nary a Sox starter has much more than an average fastball, bringing on a trio of flame throwers for the final third of the game catches the other team offguard even when they know what's coming: heat, heat and more heat. And on days when we're losing? Let's keep the fires burning with the wicked-fast-and-wild stuff that Nick Masset, Dave Aardsma and Andy Sisco bring.

Three: Welcome to the Show, Kid
John. Danks. Plain and simple, the rookie lefthander pitched far better in his major league debut on Sunday than just about anyone besides his parents expected. Two long, potentially frustrating innings to start the game, but nary a run given up. After that the kid settled into a groove and ended up going six strong, keeping the Sox in the game by giving up only three runs. Sucks that he had to face Johan!, who really should be forced to throw slow with his right arm against the Sox, but someone had to take one for the team. With Mark Buehrle's ability to pitch still a bit up in the air after the vicious shot he took to his left arm last week, it was mighty encouraging to see something out of the rook.

Four: You See Something New Every Day
After nearly 37 years of watching baseball, I've finally seen it: Darin Erstad made that stupid dive into first base even though anyone who knows anything about the game will tell you that it takes longer to do so than just continuing to run full out would take — but the thing worked last night. Granted, he did it to avoid getting tagged out after bouncing a weak grinder, er, grounder to the first baseman, but it was still a thing of joy to behold. And something tells me that our Darin won't be afraid to do it again this year even when there isn't the threat of a tagout in the air.

Five: Oh Thank Heaven
So, 7-11, how's that whole sponsorship of the start time for White Sox night games working out for you? Not so good so far? You say that the only 7:11 start time scheduled for the year's first homestand was called on account of cold? Ah well, we've always been more of a White Hen Pantry town anyways...

Fire in Five

Early Season Questions
by Steve Gillies

One: The Captain's Last Season
With all the hype of the Blanco signing, an incredibly important story got mostly overlooked this week. Fire captain Chris Armas quietly mentioned that he was most likely retiring at the end of the season. He's never been the kind of player to make the highlight reels, but over the past decade nobody has put in more effort week in, week out for his club and country than Armas. It will always be one of the great shames that injuries knocked him out of two World Cups and an Olympics. A lot of fans, both of the Fire and of soccer in general, would love to see him finish his career by lifting the MLS cup.

Two: Meet the New Team, Same as the Old Team
In Saturday's opener against New England, this year's Fire looked a lot like last year's Fire. That had a lot to do with the fact that they didn't field any new players, but also their approach to the game had a familiar feeling. They started well, got a lead, and then proceeded to do little other than cling to it for dear life for over an hour. Fortunately, things looked a lot more like the second half of last season than the first because the lead actually held up. So it's an OK start, but let's not kid ourselves. New England had a disastrous offseason. In addition to losing their star player in Clint Dempsey, they lost one captain due to a "leave of absence" to deal with "personal matters." Then the guy they chose as a replacement captain promptly announced that he didn't want the armband, and in fact wanted to be traded due to a contractual dispute. So this was clearly a team in turmoil. Still, the Fire had to rely on a missed sitter, a hit crossbar, and a ridiculous save from Matt Pickens to preserve the lead. They definitely left a lot of room for improvement.

Three: The Midfield Question
Much of that improvement will have to come in the middle of the field. Coach Dave Sarachan, as he's always likely to do, went with two primarily defensive-minded central midfielders in Chris Armas and Diego Gutierrez. Both are extremely smart, hard-working, experienced players that are good at covering for the attacking players. But both are getting older, and the passing and possession in the midfield was not nearly as good as it needs to be, especially if you're trying to impress new fans who will be coming to watch Blanco. With two similar players out there together, people will be wondering if one of them can be replaced by someone that offers a little bit more on the ball. It's not entirely fair to judge the tandem on Saturday night's performance since Armas suffered a Brian McBride-esque cut to the eye early on and, of course, played the full 90 anyway.

Four: The Mapp/Blanco Question
The positive side of playing two defensive midfielders is that it allows Justin Mapp the freedom to roam to either wing without worrying about any defensive responsibililties. For the first 20 minutes or so, it worked to perfection with Mapp popping up all over the field to create chances, one of which led to the goal. Will the Fire's setup be able to afford Mapp the same freedom when Blanco, a guy they aren't bringing in to hustle and track back, shows up in July? It's a question that sums up a key issue in the league's development this year: the desire to gain more attention by signing international stars vs. the goal of fostering young American talent. Of course, the key to success for both the league in general and the Fire specifically is finding a way to do both. So, you know, stay tuned this season and we'll see how it plays out.

Five: The Answer to Where the Goals Will Come From
After losing both Nate Jaqua and Andy Herron in the offseason, a lot of fans were wondering exactly who was going to score the goals this season. Well, just four minutes into the game, they got their answer: Logan... Pause.

Just kidding. Pause scored his first MLS goal, five years into his career. While it's great to see a guy who quietly goes about his job get a moment of glory, that job is never going to involve leading the team in scoring.

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Comments

Jeff / April 10, 2007 12:24 PM

Thanks for the Grebeck reference -- I had totally forgotten about him. Here are my 4 favorite Grebeck facts (thanks to BaseballReference.com and wikipedia):

1) Nicknamed "The Little Hurt" by Chicago White Sox announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson.

2) Currently the hitting coach for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.

3) Hit .261 in 752 major league games.

4) His first MLB home run was off of Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan -- who hit Grebeck in the ribs upon his very next at-bat, breaking a rib.

Now that is what I call grinderball. Who is more blue-collar baseball than that?

Go Sox.

Steve / April 10, 2007 3:48 PM

5) Filled in for Ozzie Guillen as White Sox shortstop for most of the '92 season after Rock Raines rocked Ozzie's knee to pieces in a collision. And his .720-ish OPS put the Ozz-a-roo to shame!

Jeff / April 10, 2007 6:21 PM

I'll totally do "Cubs in Five" every week (or every other week) if the current columnist is too busy. Plus, my initials are the same as his, so there will be no continuity problems. Or something like that.

-Jeff

Andrew / April 10, 2007 9:14 PM

Jeff, it's not that he's too busy; he's been in Romania with his fiancée for the past couple weeks. He really will be back next week. :)

Jeff / April 11, 2007 1:53 PM

Congrats to the new Mr. and Mrs.!

 

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

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies has been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com.

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