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Wednesday, November 14

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Pucks in Five

Breaking the Streak
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Finally!
After a maddening start to 2008, the Blackhawks finally cracked the win column Sunday in a 3-2 shootout victory at Nashville. The team's eight-game losing streak had dropped them to near the bottom of the conference standings and made the playoffs become a continually shrinking possibility. While the single victory doesn't change their long-range fortunes, the Hawks got the monkey off their back and earned a necessary two points.

Not coincidentally, Martin Havlat and Brent Sopel, who both returned from injury in the past week, helped lead the team to their first victory since Dec. 26. Havlat added two assists, while Sopel chipped in with an assist and solid play in the defensive end.

Last season's team went 2-8-2 in January, a slump that essentially ended their playoff hopes. Despite the eight-game losing streak and the Hawks' current 14th place standing in the conference, the team is only seven points out of a playoff spot. As the team gets back to full strength, a prolonged win streak could get them right back in the chase.

Two: Wall Coming Down
One reason the losses have been piling up has been the spotty play in the net by Nicolai Khabibulin recently. While the team's offense has struggled, Habby hasn't been the best net minder on the ice at any time the past two weeks. It's frustrating watching Khabibulin in net — he'll make some difficult saves, only to let in a soft goal at the most inopportune time. In Wednesday's game against Dallas, Khabibulin made 27 tough stops, only to give up the short-handed game winner on a slapshot from the blue line that he misplayed. Friday against Minnesota, the Blackhawks outshot the Wild 43-16, but Habby allowed five goals off the 16 shots for a miserable .733 save percentage, while Minnesota backup Josh Harding stopped all but two.

Khabibulin has had some decent games during the losing streak, and clearly the Hawks offense is also to blame for the slump, but there are times when a franchise goalie needs to step up and lead the team. Players can get demoralized if the netminder doesn't instill confidence behind them, and at this point, The Bulin Wall is reaching the tipping point. There's a noticeable change in how the team plays with Habby in net, especially after the opposing team scores. Not coincidentally, Patrick Lalime was in net when the Hawks beat Nashville Sunday, and the team seemed to play more inspired in front of him. Lalime isn't a long-term answer either, but if the Hawks are going to have any chance of making the playoffs, Khabibulin needs to find his game quickly, or the team needs to find another option.

Three: Defensive Dealings
Last week saw two small but significant deals made regarding members of the Hawks' blue line. Before returning to the ice from a broken finger, Brent Sopel signed a three-year extension with the team, then scored a goal on his first shift on the ice in Friday's 5-2 loss to Minnesota. Sopel was brought in at the beginning of the year to provide some veteran depth, and has proved an invaluable steadying influence among the crop of young D-men the team is grooming, while being able to jump into the offensive play on occasion. It's no coincidence that the team's losing streak began when Sopel was knocked out of action. Having him in the Indianhead for another three years to help groom Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Cam Barker will make the Hawks' defense better every year.

Meanwhile, on the flip side, 34-year-old rookie defenseman Magnus Johannson was dealt to the Florida Panthers for a seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft. Johannson came to the Blackhawks after playing his entire career in Sweden, before deciding to give the NHL a try. He showed flashes of good play, but the physical nature and smaller rinks of the North American game gave him trouble, and he became a healthy scratch more often than not, before being shipped to Rockford. Although the Hawks have needed defensive help, Johannson was not the answer.

There are rumors swirling that the team is on the verge of trading for a vet defenseman, but with the number of names being bandied about in speculation, there's no point in mentioning gossip until something more definite comes into the picture. Needless to say, a steadying source on the blue line would do the Hawks wonders, as Keith and Seabrook have logged huge minutes trying to make up for the injuries and deficiencies the team has faced.

Four: All-Star Accolades
In his third year in the league, defenseman Duncan Keith was named as the lone Blackhawks representative to the NHL All-Star game Jan. 27 in Atlanta. Keith has continued his maturation from last year, becoming stronger defensively while still providing offensive punch with five goals and 12 assists. More importantly, Keith leads the Hawks with a +14 rating, a sign that he's become more solid bringing the puck out of his own end and cutting down on giveaways, something he struggled with last year. Keith has played well, and has been one of the Hawks most consistent players, and the All-Star accolade is well-deserved.

However, just as deserving is forward Patrick Sharp, who is in the midst of a career year with the team. Sharp leads the team with 21 goals, including an NHL-leading seven shorthanded, and has been one of the Blackhawks' most consistent offensive threats, no matter who he's been paired with. Sharp's 21 goals are a career high, and his 34 points leave him one short of his career best with three months to add to his totals. While Sharp didn't get the All-Star call, his play this season and chemistry with rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews shows he should be a valuable member of the Hawks for years to come, and the team is expected to sign him to an extension.

Five: Wolves Keep Winning
While the Blackhawks were losing, the Wolves continued piling up the victories. The team is currently on a four-game winning streak, including a victory over the North Division leading Toronto Marlies 5-4, and has won 10 of their last 12 games. The Wolves currently sit in second in the conference with 57 points to Rockford's 58, but have four games in hand, making them the de facto top team. With four games in five nights this week, the Wolves will be challenged to extend their win streak through the week, as they face rivals Milwaukee and Quad City, along with Grand Rapids and Manchester. Three of the four games are at Allstate Arena, where the team is 15-4, tops in the league.

Also, for the second year in a row, the Wolves send three players to the AHL All-Star Game. Brett Sterling will make a return trip after earning MVP honors last season, starting for the PlanetUSA team, while Jason Krog and Joel Kwiatkowski will suit up for the Canadian team. The All-Star honor is a nice one for the individual players, and well-earned with their seasons, but the real games begin as the team nears the playoffs in a few months. After losing to Hamilton in the Conference Finals last season, nothing less than a Calder Cup winning season will satiate the team.

Bulls in Five

Next Steps
by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

One: Getting to the Point
After the excitement of getting their coach fired and settling on a new one, the Bulls are back into their accustomed middling mediocrity. If you think this team is going anywhere, you're crazy. They may win more games than they lose from here on out — hell, they may even make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. But don't fool yourself. These guys are through. Time for a reset.

Two: The Weak in Review
The Bulls let the Knicks come back on them on Tuesday (perhaps the only more mentally scarred team in the league), beat the 76ers on Friday, and got embarrassed by the Atlanta Hawks 105-84 on Sunday. It was the first time they lost to the Hawks since April 9, 2004.

Three: Noah Punished, Noah Punished
Joakim Noah was benched for Sunday's 105-84 loss to the Atlanta Hawks — by his teammates. They held their own meeting to mete out a second one-game suspension to the rookie from Florida who was involved in a confrontation with assistant coach Ron Adams in practice before Friday's game at Philadelphia. "They just told me what I did was unacceptable and I'm just going to move on from here," Noah said before the game. Steve Rosenbloom calls it what it is — a completely undercut of Coach Boylan, who had already suspended the kid for one game. Boylan's done. Mariotti says basically the same thing.

Four: Busy Bulls
Five games this week: A swing through Florida, Giuliani-style, against Orlando on Tuesday and Miami on Wednesday. Then back home for the Golden State Warriors (Friday) then the Pistons (Saturday), and then the traditional MLK Day Matinee in Memphis at the FedEx Forum, which is six blocks from the Lorraine Hotel.

Five: Trade
The trading deadline is fast approaching. You've gotta believe that Paxson is ready to deal. McGrady?

Fire in Five

Fire Offseason Update
by Steve Gillies

Since it's been quite a tumultuous offseason for the Fire, I thought I'd come out of my hibernation to give an update on everything. I'll start with the good news first, since there hasn't been that much of it.

One: The Fire Has a Uniform Sponsor
And no, I don't mean some bar to pay for their uniforms, like my recreational league team needs. Best Buy is ponying up a sizable fee to get their name printed across the front of the Fire uniforms. The deal makes the Fire the seventh team in the league to get a uniform sponsor (it's standard in international soccer) and it means at least a few million extra dollars for the Fire. That's a good thing. Also it should be mentioned that Blanco's presence played a significant factor in the deal, as Best Buy plans to expand into Mexico.

Two: And the Bad News
The Juan Carlos Osorio era turned out to be nothing more than a giant cocktease. The Fire coach, a few months after coming in and reinvigorating the team, promptly quit the Fire to join Eastern Conference rivals, the New York Red Bulls. Osorio sited the fact that he felt financially slighted after finding out how much former Red Bull coach Bruce Arena made, as well as more important private family concerns. The real twist of the knife came before Osorio made his desire to leave public, when he allowed Ivan Guerrero to be drafted by the expansion San Jose Earthquakes, saying he wanted to keep his younger players like Calen Carr and Chad Barrett protected so he could continue to develop them. He had to know he was leaving by that point and his actions resulted in significantly weakening a Fire team he'll be competing against next year. Fans are having a tough time deciding who to be mad at: Osorio for leaving in the manner he did or John Guppy for hiring him in the first place (not to mention the longstanding grudge most Fire fans have against Guppy for not being Peter Wilt).

Three: The Coaching Search Fiasco
When Dave Sarachan got fired, the coaching search was a quick and painless process. This time around, not so much. Drawn out over the holiday period, the Fire interviewed 12 people for the position. When they finally chose ex-Chelsea player and current Houston Dynamo assistant coach John Spencer, he very publicly turned the Fire down, saying the offer was too low. So the Fire then went with the man they passed over, both when Osorio got the job and then after he quit the job: Denis Hamlett. It's not a very inspiring hire given that he's clearly the third choice and that he's spent the last 10 years as an assistant coach when so many others have moved on.

Four: The Bright Side
That's not to say Hamlett's appointment is doomed. He has a couple things going for him. For one, he clearly won't be leaving after a couple of successful months. Also, to the large contingent (all?) of Fire fans who don't think Guppy can do anything right, by not picking Hamlett the first two times, could that possibly make him the best man for the job? On a more serious note, former GM Peter Wilt mentioned a few encouraging tidbits about Hamlett on his blog. First, Hamlett brought Ivan Guerrero, who turned out to be the most consistent player for the Fire over the past five years, and he tried to keep them from leaving Ivan unprotected in the expansion draft. Also, based on what he knew about Paulo Wanchope's knee, he spoke up against bringing him in. We all know how that turned out. Most importantly, Hamlett was the one guy at the Media Game that fouled me worse than Osorio. Although he actually got called for it by the player who was acting as ref, so he might want to work on putting a bit more fear into his playing staff...

Five: The Worrying Stuff
There is an increasing feeling that something is drastically wrong with the Fire as an organization. As I've said, blaming John Guppy for everything including the weather has become a pastime, but it goes deeper than that. During the coaching search fiasco, the man that the Fire chose for the job got low-balled. That has to come down to owner Andrew Hauptman. There are worrying signs that starting goalie Matt Pickens also won't be offered enough money to stick around, with Norwich City in England interested in acquiring his services. While in addition to playing extremely well, Cuahtemoc Blanco's done a great job off the field bringing in fans and sponsors; it's not going to be worth much in the long run if the Fire don't put their resources into creating a real soccer club around him. Not spending the money on Spencer or Pickens shows a lack of concern for the whole picture. The Fire needs rebuilding not just as a team, but as an organization, because right now, between Marcelo Salas last spring and Juan Carlos Osorio and John Spencer this winter, the Fire are an organization that people don't have trouble turning down.

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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, whenever possible, the minor-league Wolves.) Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

Patrick O'Neil is a Chicago designer and software developer. His second Bull's championship celebration was marred by a cordon of riot police at North, Milwaukee and Damen. Daniel X. O'Neil is Chicago writer and old skool Bulls fan. See more of him here. Send comments to bulls@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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