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TODAY

Monday, July 15

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Airbags

Pucks in Five

Fighting for a Spot
by Jeremy Piniak

One: A special night at the UC
Friday saw the past and future merge into the present at the United Center, as the Blackhawks officially welcomed Hall-of-Famers Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita back to roles in the organization. In the moving pregame ceremony, teammates from throughout their careers were introduced, and team chairman Rocky Wirtz and president John McDonough made speeches before the guests of honor were brought onto the ice in a red and white '57 convertible to a prolonged ovation from the 21,908 in attendance.

Seeing the happiness of Hull and Mikita being back in front of the Hawks faithful, and hearing them express gratitude at being involved with the organization they poured their heart into for so many years was a truly moving moment. It's sad that the parties have been estranged for decades, or that a ceremony was even needed to welcome the duo back into the fold, but the moment was the pinnacle of the changes that have taken place to the franchise this year. Seeing a Wirtz given a standing ovation was something that never would have happened a year ago, nor would Hawks fans have been able to see it happen, as the home telecast was pointed out more than once in the proceedings.

Regardless of the results on ice this season, the amount of goodwill and respect the organization has reestablished with the fanbase has been unbelievable. For a season that will go down in history, Friday's festivities finally felt like everything was, for once, right.

Two: Strong Start to the Week Fizzles at Finish
With four games on the schedule this week, three of them against playoff-bound teams, the Blackhawks faced a critical test in their playoff aspirations, needing to pick up some wins and close some ground. The Hawks picked up quality victories Tuesday and Wednesday over the Wild and the Ducks. The 4-2 game in Minnesota was the team's first victory there since 2002, and after being stymied by Anaheim all season, the Blackhawks got gritty and played a tough game, shutting down the Ducks 3-0.

Despite the energy in the building Friday, the Hawks lost a close 3-2 game to San Jose, with a game-tying Rene Bourque goal being waived off in the final seconds after the puck was knocked in off his glove; while Sunday saw the team pick up a point but lose a heartbreaking 6-5 barnburner to the Edmonton Oilers. Overall, the Hawks' play pulled them to within five points of the final playoff spot, and the defeats of Minnesota and Anaheim were, in a word, huge.

Dropping a game to Edmonton, one of the few teams behind the Blackhawks in the standings, takes away some of the luster and could come back to haunt them in a few weeks. But a five point week against some of their toughest competition left shows the team will go down fighting. They just need to equal or surpass that effort the rest of the season to move into postseason contention.

Three: Do It Again, Do It Again
Friday is big in a week of big games, as the Blackhawks welcome the Columbus Bluejackets to the United Center, before battling Calgary in a Sunday matinee. The Hawks are currently tied with the Jackets at 73 points (along with Phoenix), so the chance to gain two points on an opponent currently neck-and-neck can't be missed. The team has two more games against Columbus this season, so while a loss isn't critical, the momentum from a victory Friday could go a long way toward making future games irrelevant. Likewise, while Calgary sits sixth in the conference currently, their 80 points leave them dangerously close to falling out of the penthouse with a losing streak.

The team also travels to NHL top team Detroit tonight, before returning home tomorrow for a battle against the Southeast division leading Carolina Hurricanes. The Hawks have owned Detroit this season, going 4-1 against their top rival, but while the Wings are struggling with injuries, they are still a tough challenge.

Despite being an Eastern Conference team, familiarity will be the case Wednesday against Carolina, as the two teams have been frequent trading partners the past few years. Ex-Hurricanes Kevin and Craig Adams and Andrew Ladd have all been acquired by the Hawks this past year, while Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov flew south in separate deals. Carolina plays an uptempo game, and the result may hinge on which team can stick to their style longer. Picking up at least another five points this week would be a boon to the team's postseason hopes, but at the least, victories over Columbus and Calgary would keep the team positioned to strike for another week.

Four: Kudos to Crawford
Facing the defending Stanley Cup champions is always a good measuring stick, and when you factor in the Anaheim Ducks were 11-1 in their previous 12 games, making only your second NHL start looks to be a daunting task. Rookie netminder Corey Crawford was willing, and it turns out, very able, turning away 19 shots for his first NHL shutout and win in a 3-0 victory. Crawford showed good positioning and control in earning the win, and was aided by a selfless and stifling Chicago defense that blocked 14 shots. Crawford has long been touted as the goalie of the future for the Blackhawks, but has only seen action in a handful of NHL games while biding his time in the minors. Crawford is expected to get another start tomorrow against Carolina while Nicolai Khabibulin is still recuperating from an injured back, and a second strong start will do wonders for the 23-year-old's confidence. Whether the prospect pans out won't be discovered while Khabibulin is still under contract, but for this week, Crawford is deserving of a gold star for his play.

Five: Keys to the City
Warm milk and apple pie. The Cubs and losing. Me and beer. Some things just are meant to go together, like the Blackhawks and... Ministry? Turns out Uncle Al's a bit of a hockey fan, as Mr. Jourgensen wrote and delivered the Hawks fight song "Keys to the City" to the organization in December. In a show of appreciation, last Wednesday's game against Anaheim was the "official" unveiling of the song, and Al himself was brought out to compete in the puck shoot competition during the second intermission. To make the event more surreal, also competing was fellow rocker Rick Nielsen for Cheap Trick.

As for the song itself? Head over to the official Myspace page at http://www.myspace.com/chicagoblackhawksmusic and take a listen, or purchase the track on Itunes, with all proceeds going to Chicago Blackhawk Charities. As a sports anthem, it's decent... but as a Ministry track? Well... it's a sports anthem.

Bulls in Five

by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

...have the week off.

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About the Author(s)

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks fan who, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium, is committed to the Indian. 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

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