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Thursday, April 25

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Pucks in Five

Committing to the Indian
by Jeremy Piniak

In this week's edition of Pucks in Five, we focus on five talking points concerning the Blackhawks' and Wolves' past two weeks on ice and their upcoming challenges.

One: Commit to the Indian
Last Thursday may become the statement game of the season — but the action wasn't on the ice, it was in the post-game press conference with coach Denis Savard. Savvy lashed out at his players' lack of heart and lackadaisical effort in the penultimate game before the All Star Break, a dismal 1-0 loss in which Columbus goalie Pascal Leclaire was never tested and the 16,000 plus in attendance booed mercilessly at the Hawks' failure to mount any offense. Frustrated by the team's phoned in performance, Savard's questioned the team's loyalty to hard work and grittiness and stated constantly the effort was "unacceptable."

"If you don't want to battle you won't play here. You won't play. Period," Savard stated. "To gain an inch in this league, you got to want to do it. You got to want to work. It's gonna be tough, you might get a cut, you might get bruised, so what? Last time I checked they're getting pretty good money to do it, you got to want to do it."

Noting that loyalty is a two way street, Savvy continued to question whether players are focused on bettering the team or bettering their wallets, obviously calling out some of the veterans and stars the team has acquired the past few years.

"We committed to them, some of them, we committed to them for two years, three years, They got to commit to us; they got to commit to the Indian. They don't want to commit to the Indian, we'll go upstairs, we'll get them out of here," said Savvy.

Savard has had his struggles as a first-time head coach and dealt with a number of injuries to key players, but there's never been a doubt that he's focused on making the Blackhawks Stanley Cup contenders. While he refused to name names, he's always had a reputation as a player's coach, and to see him finally fed up with some players' lack of consistent effort is heartening. GM Dale Tallon backed up Savard's tirade, but noted that the team is already stretched thin and there's little in roster moves that can be done, which means not much will change short-term other than hopefully the team's attitude.

One thing is certain. Yesterday's practice needs to demonstrate that actions speak louder than words for that to take place. Otherwise, all that will come of Savvy's speech is a snazzy marketing slogan.

Two: May the Best Man Win
After suffering through an eight game losing streak, the Blackhawks finally broke back into the win column with a 6-1 victory over St. Louis Jan. 16, with backup Patrick Lalime playing well in net. During his post game press conference, Savard stated the team would play the hot hand in Lalime until he lost, and Lalime made the most of the opportunity, winning his next four starts before the Hawks lost 3-1 to San Jose last Tuesday. The loss was not on Lalime, who had a strong game but couldn't overcome poor special teams play in front of him.

Nonetheless, Nicolai Khabibulin was back in net last Thursday against Columbus, and while he was on his game, the team fell 1-0 to the Bluejackets, leaving the question of who ends up between the pipes tomorrow against Colorado. Savvy has given Khabibulin a long leash to battle through slumps before, but made it clear during the losing streak that his tendency to let in soft goals couldn't be tolerated. Savard's comments pointed toward the concept of "playing until you lose," which seems to dictate that Lalime would get the nod, but the Hawks have money and time invested in Habby being a starter. Lalime played his best hockey of the season during his win streak, and even without a start tomorrow, the competition may be exactly what Khabibulin needs to find his game once again.

Three: Road Test
With the seven games on the road before finally returning home February 17th, the Blackhawks face a critical juncture in their playoff hopes. After the team's eight-game losing streak dropped them to 14th in the 15-team conference, the Hawks won four of their next five, but still sit in second-to-last. However, with only eight points separating the sixth through 14th seeds, a successful road trip can position the Hawks to make a late-season charge when injured players like Jonathon Toews and Jason Williams return in a few weeks.

Making the trip all the more important, the Hawks face teams currently sitting in sixth through 10th place — Calgary, Vancouver, Colorado, Columbus and Nashville — giving the team five chances to directly impact their positioning. Rounding out the trip is Pacific division-leading San Jose, who the Hawks played tough last Tuesday in a 3-1 loss, and Edmonton. While the team hasn't often fared well on these extended West Coast swings, it's imperative the team returns to the United Center with a winning record, or playoff talk can be shelved until next year.

Four: Wolves Rewind
In the past two weeks, the Wolves' hot start to 2008 has cooled. After winning five of their first six games in January, Chicago went 3-3 the past two weeks, including home losses to Milwaukee and Grand Rapids and a loss in Rockford to the IceHogs. The team exacted revenge on Grand Rapids Saturday with a 5-3 win to enter the All-Star break on a winning note. Despite the team's recent slip, the Wolves still lead the Western Conference in wins (with 31) and are only three points behind Rockford with four games in hand, keeping them well-positioned for the division title race. As last year, the Wolves are succeeding through their offensive potency, leading the AHL with 172 goals. Meanwhile, the team's power play ranks second, clicking along at 22.5 percent. Following last night's All-Star game, the Wolves will travel to Milwaukee Friday to face the Admirals, before playing host to Rockford Saturday.

Five: Rockford Rivalry
While one of the Wolves' biggest rivals has always been the Milwaukee Admirals, a new enemy has surfaced this season. In their first year in the league, the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks AHL affiliate, have emerged as tough competition for the Wolves. The Wolves welcome Rockford to the Allstate Arena Saturday in their sixth meeting this season. The Wolves lead the season series 3-2, with each team earning their W's on home ice, a sign that bodes well for Chicago Saturday.

Four of the five games have been one-goal affairs, including two that went to overtime; the lone exception being an 8-3 shellacking the Wolves laid on the IceHogs Thanksgiving weekend. With the two teams battling for the division lead, every game can mean the difference between first and second, but clearly victories will not come easily for Chicago. Following Saturday's game, Chicago will have two games in Rockford's Metroplex Feb. 16th and March 28th, before finishing the season battling the IceHogs in two of their last three games before a finale against Peoria. If the two teams' rivalry continues to intensify, it's no stretch to imagine the final two home-and-home games deciding who walks away as the West Division champ.

Bulls in Five

Poorly
by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

One: Weakly Recap
The Bulls got shot down in Memphis on Monday, beat the Pacers 108-95, lost 90-77 to the Bobcats, lost on Sunday to the Suns, 88-77. One win, three losses for the week. Going nowhere. 4-6 in the last 10 games, still in the basement of the Central Division.

Two: Wire Lesson
So watching "The Wire" last night (spoiler alert: plot line, including a killing, coming up), it occurred to me what's bugging me so damn much about this team. When Chris has the gun on Prop Joe, and Marlowe soothes him before the bullet comes, Prop Joe just closes his eyes and lets out a deep breath. He knows it's over. He was a chief among men, a leader and teacher, a ruthless killer, and now it's his turn to die. And he goes. That concept has played out again and again in this show — it's OK to get caught in the hallway with your keys, outplayed by teams with bona fide superstars on the roster, have your whereabouts sold to a rival so he can kill you. Just don't go down flailing like a bitch.

Three: Quiet, Please
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has taken to saying that former Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles basically fired himself, supposedly telling GM John Paxson that the team needed "a new voice." Jay Mariotti says he doubts it. Me, too. The team said from jump street that Skiles was fired, and now they're going back on it. For no reason. It's not like there are people with torches and pitchforks demanding that Skiles come back. Dumb.

Four: Skip It
Mike McGraw over at the Daily Herald says don't hold your breath on a significant Paxson move before the Feb. 21 trading deadline. Might turn blue.

Five: Looking Ahead
The Bulls have a home'n'away Tuesday and Wednesday against the Minnesota Wolves, then start off a five-game Western swing against Sacramento and Seattle. Don't worry about United Center revenue, though — they've got High School Musical on Ice.

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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.

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