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Thursday, July 18

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Pucks in Five

Fizzling Out
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Lack of Discipline Leads to 3-0 Deficit
As the series shifted to Hamilton for the next three games, the Wolves found themselves staring at a tough 0-2 deficit in the series and needing to turn things around. A lack of focus and too many penalties stifled the Wolves' attack, as the Bulldogs took advantage of the miscues to escape with a 2-1 victory. Chicago jumped to a 1-0 lead in the first on Jordan LaVallee's goal, but Hamilton tied the game four minutes into the second period. Then, as the Wolves were whistled for six straight penalties to close out the second, the Bulldogs powerplay converted a rebound scramble on a 5-on-3 for a 2-1 lead, and the score held up despite the Wolves' pressuring throughout the third period, outshooting Hamilton 13-3 in the final stanza. Earning a second straight start was goalie Fred Brathwaite, who replaced regular netminder Michael Garnett after his shaky performance in Game 1. Brathwaite made 23 saves, but was left hanging as the team was constantly shorthanded and gave the Bulldogs one chance too many.

Two: One On the Road
After Game 3, the backup goalie took matters into his own hands in Game 4. Despite eight Bulldog powerplays and the Wolves only managing 14 shots on net, Brathwaite blocked all 37 shots he faced for a 1-0 shutout victory. The win earned Chicago a reprieve, keeping the series alive despite a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit. After killing off six straight penalties to start the game, the Wolves earned their first powerplay off a holding penalty by Hamilton. Niko Dimitrakos corralled a misfired shot by center Jason Krog and lifted the puck over Bulldog goalie Carey Price for the lone goal of the game. The Wolves got the win despite a non-existent offense and too many penalties, but with a 24-hour turnaround to Game 5, they could look to capitalize and correct their errors and hopefully extend the series back to Chicago.

Three: Wolves Offense Fizzles in Series Loss
Following their dismal outing in Game 4, Chicago's offense came out firing in Saturday's Game 5 contest against Hamilton, outshooting the Bulldogs 13-6 in the first period and 33-24 in the game, but couldn't find the net as Hamilton won the game and series with a 3-1 victory. The Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead in the first as a shot deflected off a Wolves defenseman past Fred Brathwaite, and padded their lead as Mikhail Grabovski beat the defense and fired a shot past the challenging Braithwaite to put the Bulldogs up 2-0. The Wolves' lone goal came at 16:41 of the second, when defenseman Trevor Byrne came off the bench, skated to the puck and fired a one-timer past Hamilton goalie Carey Price to bring the Wolves within 1. Chicago's offense fought to tie up the score throughout the third, but Price made 10 of his 32 saves in the final frame, and Hamilton added an empty net goal to seal the victory with a minute left.

Four: Wolves Wrap-up
The Wolves offense had a year to remember, setting franchise and league records both as a team and via individual players. Entering the playoffs, the main question was the defense. As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. Through the first two rounds, the defense played solidly, but could also rely on offensive firepower, as the Wolves were averaging four goals a game entering the conference finals. Game 1 was a 6-5 shootout where Chicago's defense was unable to stop Hamilton's attack. Throughout the rest of the series, the Wolves' blueliners and penalty kill held their own, but the offense sputtered when it was needed most, ending the season a series short of the ultimate goal. The Wolves should be proud of their season, returning to the playoffs after missing the postseason entirely last year. If the Wolves' young stars return for another season, Chicago should be favored to go deep into the playoffs once again next year.

Five: Pucks in Five Postscripts
Wrapping up the first season of Pucks in Five, I've had an enjoyable time covering Chicagoland hockey for Gapers Block. Unfortunately, my optimism for the Blackhawks at the beginning of the year didn't pan out, and the Wolves' successful season sputtered to an unsatisfying finish. Although I may have sounded like a broken record at times (Blackhawks offense sucks! Wolves offense stupendous!), I tried to provide insightful commentary and player profiles rather than strictly recap the week's games, and I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing. Any comments, criticisms and suggestions can be directed to pucks@gapersblock.com, and I'll do my best to fine-tune the column for next season. I know hockey is not much more than a niche sport in the United States and Chicago these days, but the hockey fans I do know are deeply passionate and enthusiastic about the game. Here's hoping more people come to appreciate what is one of the most exciting and fastest games in the world.

Cubs in Five

by Jeff Webber

...has the week off. Just like the Cubs.

Sox in Five

All Poised for a June Swoon?
by Steve Gozdecki

Coming off back-to-back games of downright uninspiring Chicago White Sox baseball, even stout Samwise Gamgee would have trouble finding any bright spots to mention. Here at the one-third point of the season, we have a pretty good idea of what this Sox team has (veteran starting pitching and sluggers) and what it needs (guys who get on base, relief pitchers, outfielders, perhaps a few infielders). But with so many holes to fill and so few positions of strength from which to deal, it's hard to imagine this team undertaking any useful trade activity short of a late-July fire sale that would see vets moved for prospects. Time will tell, but this squad appears poised to swoon this June, though the fairly easy schedule next month (featuring Toronto, the Yankees, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Florida, the Cubs, Tampa Bay and Kansas City) may help keep the team above .500. (As always, any budding Sam Smith types are encouraged to throw out trade ideas or other thoughts in the comments.)

One: These Guys Couldn't Hit Water if They Fell Out of a Boat
A few weeks back, we looked at the putrid state of the Chicago White Sox offense which, like a fish, has been rotting from the head on down all season. Of course, back then Jim Thome was still on the disabled list, but now that he's back everything is better, right? Sadly, no. Despite the brief outburst of scoring that marked his return to the batting order last Monday, this Sox team is still subpar in every offensive skill except home-run hitting. Still last in the major leagues in hitting despite the DH rule, second to last in runs scored, last in total bases... Hell, the team is even last in triples, for what little that's worth.

Two: Speed Kills
Most importantly, the White Sox are last in baseball in on-base percentage with a .312 mark. Remember that tiny number whenever you hear how much this lineup misses the speed of leftfielder Scott Podsednik — because it's not his speed that is missed so much now as his on-base percentage, which was far and away the best among any regular not named Jim Thome before he hit the disabled list and far better than the .326 mark of the current (and, according to Ozzie, future) leadoff man, Darin Erstad. It's not the inability to run the bases well that is killing this Sox team, but its inability to get anyone on base in the first place. Look to this year's edition of the Boston Red Sox for inspiration — they may look like a bunch of softball players, but they get on base and score runs in droves without any magical grindy sacrificing and base-stealing.

Three: Uh oh, Pablo!
Cancel the playoffs for your Chicago White Sox, as lovable mascot Pablo Ozuna may well be lost for the season after fracturing a bone (the fibula, to be precise) and tearing a ligament (the right deltoid, if you must know) in his right leg while rounding first base on the way to a double Sunday against Tampa Bay. Though Ozuna doesn't do anything especially useful with the bat (a .244 average, .280 on-base percentage and three extra-base hits in 78 at bats this year) or the glove (he's real bad in left field, adequate on the left side of the infield), the lamentations have been pouring in from all corners of the team, or at least from manager Ozzie Guillen and closer Bobby Jenks. "It's a shame. He's real valuable to a manager. No matter who we bring up, he won't replace Pablo," Ozzie was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times, which also captured Jenks making the claim that Ozuna is a "great player." Replacing Ozuna on the roster (but certainly not in our, er, their hearts) will be utility man Andy Gonzalez, who you may recall from previous 2007 AAA callups like "Alex Cintron is on the bereavement list" and "Alex Cintron is back on the bereavement list." Hopefully, Ozzie and Jenks won't have to miss any time grieving Ozuna, who had ligament surgery yesterday at Rush University Medical Center and is expected to miss some three months.

Four: Precious Little Relief
The stench that emanated from the Sox bullpen all throughout this month finally claimed its first casualty, as hard-throwing lefthander Andy Sisco was demoted to AAA Charlotte and replaced by AA flamethrower Dewon Day. It's hard to get excited about Day, a 26-year-old who never pitched higher than A ball until this year, though it appears he's something of a strikeout artist, with 48 Ks in 25 innings this season at Birmingham courtesy of his mid-90s fastball and power slider. Sisco and his 8.36 ERA certainly earned his demotion, a move that was strongly hinted at just a few days ago when Don Cooper was quoted by the Sun-Times saying, "You know, if you throw strikes, we can use you. You don't throw strikes, we have to get someone who will." Of course, with 12 walks in 24 innings pitched this season down in the sticks, it's questionable whether Day will be capable of throwing strikes for the White Sox, though he certainly grooved a few to the Twins hitters he faced yesterday afternoon in his uninspiring major league debut (one inning pitched, four hits allowed, two earned runs scored). Between David Aardsma and Mike MacDougal, there's a lot more bad Sox bullpen pitching for us all to be worrying about.

Five: The Kids Are Alright. Not Great, But Alright.
While I shake my head and wonder why we continue to march the likes of Darin Erstad, Rob Mackowiak and Luis "Not a Prospect" Terrero out to left and center field day after day, a glimpse down at AAA Charlotte's roster shows that our outfield prospects aren't exactly setting the world on fire. Jerry Owens is looking decent as a leadoff guy, with a .374 on-base percentage offset a bit by a 75 percent success rate on his stolen base attempts (a number you would expect to drop at least 10 points in the bigs, though I don't actually have any data on this). Once-and-future major league centerfielder Brian Anderson is coming around a bit, taking some walks and putting up a .276 batting average with three homers in just under 100 at bats, but you get the feeling that as long as Ozzie is managing the club Anderson will not be wearing a Chicago jersey anytime soon. The two brightest offensive hopes on the team, third baseman/potential left fielder Josh Fields and right fielder Ryan Sweeney, are diverging a bit, with Fields getting hot hot hot with the bat lately and posting a .901 OPS (which would look pretty good on your official Chicago White Sox scorecard right about now), while Sweeney is only hitting .269 with a disappointing .423 slugging percentage. With yesterday's signing of veteran first baseman-outfielder (and onetime catcher) Craig Wilson (a longtime Pittsburgh Pirate who was released by the Atlanta Braves a few weeks back), all of these guys may be bypassed the next time Kenny Williams comes looking to AAA for some offensive help.

Fire in Five

We've Got Issues
by Steve Gillies

This week saw the Fire get spanked 3-0 by New York on Thursday in a game that was basically over after the Fire gave up two goals in the first three minutes. They followed that up with a 0-0 tie with league bottom-dwellers Real Salt Lake. It's hard to find redeemable features about any of this, so this week I'm going dust off my notes from the Psych 101 class I took 10 years ago in college, delve deep into the psyche of the team and try to figure out what's going wrong.

One: Dave Sarachan Has a Foot Fetish
A left foot fetish. New Fire signing Willian Oliveira looked promising playing as an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward during his debut in the Real Salt Lake game. But it was this line in the player's bio has caused quite a few wry chuckles: "Oliveira is expected to add depth on the left side of the midfield." By my count the Fire is eight players deep on the left side of midfield and they have absolutely nobody on the team who's first-choice position would be right midfield. (The very left footed, and very promising Brian Plotkin has been the latest to fill in at right mid. He's done well, but it's pretty clear he'd do a much better job in the center or left side of midfield). Thursday's spanking at New York gave us a look at what might have been. Dane Richards, New York's young right midfielder, absolutely tormented the Fire. Richards was available when the Fire had draft picks this year, but became the latest in a long line of successful players we passed over in favor of adding more depth to the left side of midfield or pick up someone who could start at defensive mid in the reserve league.

This kind of silliness is just part of what's led to Section 8 holding up a giant "Can the Chan" sign before Sunday's game at Real Salt Lake. Calling for his firing is premature. The Fire had a similarly awful run last season, but managed to turn things around under Sarachan. Also, he should at least be given a chance to work with Blanco. He's on thin ice with fans and justifiably so. But for now I'd say give him until the All-Star Break before it's time to think about a change.

Two: Chad Barrett Has Emotional Problems
One of the main features of the Fire's "attack" over the past few weeks has been Chad Barrett moping around the field like a 3-year-old about to throw a temper tantrum. Barrett's frustration at not being able to put away more chances has led to some awful decision making. A prime example came in injury time of the Salt Lake game, when Barrett decided to take a shot from no angle rather than play the ball across the box to an open teammate for the tap-in. He basically placed his need to score a goal in front of the team's need to win the game.

What's worse has been the lack of work rate off the ball from Barrett. Chad's often compared to English striker Wayne Rooney because of their similar appearance. But when Rooney went through a similar barren spell, he worked his ass off closing down the other team's defenders and making runs to open up space for teammates. He made himself valuable to his team, even when the goals weren't coming. Barrett hasn't shown the same willingness to work his way through the slump, preferring instead to spend the majority of games holding his hand in his head over a chance he missed five minutes ago. It makes me wonder if, despite the obvious talent, he's got the mental strength to be a real, grown up professional soccer player.

Three: Our Attack Has Co-Dependency Issues
Chad Barett's obviously not the only striker struggling. Losing Andy Herron and Nate Jaqua in the offseason, and with Cuahtemoc Blanco not due to arrive until July, the attack was always going to depend on Chris Rolfe. Rolfe has never let the team down on the field, but he's too injury prone and too likely to be called up to the national team. Relying on him as much as we have is unhealthy. I'm really curious who the Fire coaching staff thought was going to score all the goals this season if Rolfe went out a few weeks with, say, a sprained ankle or something. Logan... Pause?

Four: Our Defense Has Abandonment Issues
One of the things that became painfully evident in both the Toronto FC and New York games is that Jim Curtin and CJ Brown don't have the pace to play together in the center of the defense. It's a tough decision to make because both are still good players, good leaders and have given a ton to the club over the years. Benching either would feel disloyal, so we've been stuck with two slow, aging center backs in a three man backline.

Sarachan made the tough decision before the Salt Lake game, though, and replaced the Brown/Curtin partnership with... uh, another Brown/Curtin partnership. Only this time the Curtin was Jeff, Jim's younger brother. Jeff basically played like a younger, less experienced version of his older brother. He did a lot right, but also played some very nervy passes in the back that were probably a result of the first-start jitters. It's pretty hard to get excited about a new defender based on a performance against a poor team that's clearly going for a 0-0 tie, though. What I'd really like to see is for us to let go of the Curtin/Brown partnership altogether, and play Dasan Robinson in the middle of a back four with either Jim Curtin or Brown.

Five: Our League Has Abandonment Issues Too
The July 1st game against Colorado will feature a lot of disappointed Mexican fans at Toyota Park. The game was billed by the ticket office as Cuahtemoc Blanco's debut for the Fire, but that's been delayed thanks to his inclusion in Mexico's Copa America squad. That's small potatoes compared to the fact that the league rearranged schedules so David Beckham would visit every market, and sold out a ton of stadiums based on promoting his appearance. Now that his strong play for Real Madrid has earned him an England recall, several markets will miss out on a Beckham appearance this year.

The MLS PR department will spin this as good for the league. After all, these show MLS is not a retirement league for has-beens. But selling tickets to people based on the promise of seeing star players that don't show up is not a good thing. You can't blame Blanco and Beckham, either. Both were up front about their desire to still play for their national teams. Beckham actually told a reporter he would walk across the Atlantic Ocean to play again for England. What this really shows is that if MLS wants to be involved with big time international soccer players, they need to start going by a big time international soccer calendar. That means no playing games when there are international tournaments like the Copa America, Gold Cup, The European or World Cup Qualifiers. Not to mention World Cups. For God's sake, they better have this straightened out by 2010.

Sky in Five

A Win!
by Anne Elizabeth Moore

One: The Most Important Thing You Will Read This Week
Thursday night at the UIC Pavilion there will be a game of wits like none you have ever witnessed before. No, it will not be between The Connecticut Sun's 7'2", 9-year WNBA veteran Margo Dydek and our very own, um, 6'3" rookie Carla Thomas: it will be a showdown between you and your own two eyes, which you will not be able to believe when halftime act Quick Change comes on. Yes, I've said it many times, and I will say it again many times in the future, but the speed at which these people change clothes is magic. OK, you always say when I tell you this, a magic act where people change clothes really fast? And then I go, Seriously. They change them really fast. And you go, whatever. And I go: watch this video if you don't believe me, and not even the part where they change their clothes fast, watch the part where the esteemed hosts of the television program "America's Got Talent" lose their shit over how fast these people change clothes. And not only do they change clothes, but at one point she becomes a totally different woman! Super fast!

Two: All It's Cracked Up to Be
Finally, an in-season win! As if suffering a flashback to last season, on Friday the Sky watched a 17-point third-quarter lead dwindle to two, but brought it back full-force against Minnesota for an 82-77 win. Candice Dupree shot 12-of-15 for 25 points (she's now brought home 41 total on the season), Stacey Dales had 15 with six assists (she's up to 37), and new girl Chastity Melvin — more on her in a moment — snagged five. So in terms of being undefeated in something related to basketball, we are finally back in the black: We are totally undefeated in that one game we played last Friday in Minnesota. Sweet!

Three: Out with the Monique; In with the Chastity
Starting Forward Monique Currie (last season averages: 10 PPG and 3.9 RPG) was traded to the Washington Mystics for WNBA 8-year veteran center Chasity Melvin. The 6'3" center started pro ball after North Caroline State University and has gained a career average 11 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, with a 47 percent field goal percentage. Perhaps most important as we look forward to whatever's going on when those people aren't changing their clothes really fast on Thursday: Melvin scored 22 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in the Mystics' May 19 game against the Connecticut Sun. (The Mystics ultimately lost anyway, although clearly not for Melvin's lack of trying.)

Four: "She's a great player; she could play every position on the floor."
Last Tuesday's home game had Bo Overton gushing over the LA Sparks' Chamique Holdsclaw, who really is a great player. Beat his own team 64-81, of course, leaving him with little to say on that except, "Are there things we need to fix? Yeah." True, the game was a bit of a struggle all the way down the line. Dales was shooting three-pointers OK, but with Armintie Price looking befuddled by the action more than once, the Sky Guy on stilts (come on, does his swagger need to be exaggeratedly masculine? Isn't plain old masculine enough?) and more than a few fans gathered behind a "Rubino" sign, the home opener seemed more formality than opportunity: eight down at the half and the Sky couldn't ever quite recover. Even a deflated Dales admitted after the game, "We've got to be more aggressive."

Five: If Only Changing Clothes Superfast were a Competitive Sport
I am talented in many arenas of modern life — mainly soup and pie — but not really sports writing. I have, however, always been very good at changing my clothes really fast. Also things related to changing clothes really fast: getting ready to go out, using the rest room, trying on pants. So I think I'm starting to discern Overton's strategy here, what with the letting go of all the extra-strong players and concentrating on building a basketball team from the merely pretty good ones: obviously he's making all the good ones switch teams so they can get in some practice at changing clothes really fast, because he's building a secret sports franchise of quick-changers. And then I will become the most devoted and passionate sports writer in the world!

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Comments

Steve Gillies / May 29, 2007 2:13 PM

Anne,
I totally enjoy your coverage of the Sky and their quick-changing halftime acts, but your bio this week was a painful reminder that none of my mini-comics (Skybeard 1-3, Pro Wrestling is Not Gay, Pro Wrestling Was Never Gay --available in finer Chicagoland comic stores!)
ever get nominated for awards.

 

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.

Anne Elizabeth Moore didn't go to professional blogging school or anything like some of these sports writers today, but she's been nominated for more comics awards. That's gotta mean something.

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