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TODAY

Thursday, December 12

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Pucks in Five

Halfway Point
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Bi-polar Winter Break
When Pucks in Five last checked in on the Blackhawks, the team was reeling through a sluggish start to December, having gone 1-6 the first half of the month, as the offense struggled with garnering goals. Closing out the month with four of their five games at home, the Hawks found their scoring touch, averaging 3.8 goals a game and going 4-0-1, the lone loss coming in overtime to the Kings Dec. 30. In that stretch, the team earned a solid come from behind victory over a top team in Ottawa, as well as two victories over division rival Nashville. Their efforts in the second half of the month enabled the team to finish a respectable 5-6-1 for December and remedy a horrible start.

Unfortunately, 2008 hasn't been as kind to the Blackhawks, as they have gone 0-4 in January, including a demoralizing 2-9 loss in Los Angeles New Year's Day, and their first loss to the rival Red Wings Sunday. The offensive woes have returned, coupled with shaky goaltending and a desperate defense, but the reason for the Hawks' recent slide has been a severe bout of the injury bug, as detailed in point two below.

With 41 games complete, the Hawks are officially at the halfway point of the season. Last season the team was 17-19-5 for 39 points at the midway mark, while this year's edition stands at 19-19-3, good for 41 points. On paper, there doesn't appear to be much difference, but the team's off-season maneuvers and the emergence of rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews has given them a more balanced offensive attack. At this point a year ago, the Hawks were averaging a little over 2.5 goals a game; this season their goals-per-game stands at a healthier 2.85, currently good for eighth in the NHL. Likewise, while last year's power play was in the NHL basement the majority of the year, this year's edition is connecting at a 17.5 percent clip, placing them 18th in the league.

The 2006-7 Hawks went 2-8-2 in January, all but ending their hopes at reaching the postseason. Already 0-4, this year's Blackhawks team needs to find a way to not repeat last season's January swoon.

Two: Walking Wounded Woes
It's not surprising the team's recent slide has happened, given the number of Hawks players currently on the shelf. While forward Jason Williams has been sidelined with a groin injury since late November, the Hawks were particularly hard hit the past two weeks. On Dec. 23 against the Oilers, the team lost newly acquired forward Ben Eager to a concussion and Dave Bolland to a broken finger. Three days later against Nashville, defensemen Brent Sopel and James Wisniewski went down with a broken finger and a sprained knee, respectively. Then in the first period on New Year's Day, Jonathon Toews also hurt his knee, becoming the eighth Hawk on IR. Winger Martin Havlat returned on Sunday after missing six games to reduce the number to seven, but several key players are still MIA. With the number of injuries, the Blackhawks have needed to call up nearly two full lines from their AHL Rockford team, making an already green team even greener. Many of the players brought up are well-regarded prospects, but are showing that they are not yet ready for the Big Show.

Likewise, the defense is sorely missing Sopel and Wisniewski, requiring Savard to play Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith extended minutes because of a weakened third pairing, putting extra strain on the D and goalie Nicolai Khabibulin, who hasn't risen to the challenge.

With only four home games remaining in January, and only seven of their next 24 at the United Center, the Hawks enter a crucial stretch of the season. Most of the players on IR aren't expected back for several more weeks, so the team will need to find a way to tread water and stay within striking distance of the eighth conference spot, or their postseason hopes will be sunk.

Three: Return of the Roar
While the team's fortunes the past few weeks have been up and down, the attendance and buzz at the United Center has reached a high unseen on Madison in years. The team usually gets a spike in attendance over winter break, as kids are out of school and families take extra holiday vacation, but never to the extent seen this year. Following Sunday's standing room only crowd of 21,869 (capacity is 20,500) against Detroit, the Hawks have had three consecutive sellouts and four straight games with attendance over 20,000, dating back to December 23rd against the Oilers.

The Hawks acknowledged the role the crowd played in victories over Edmonton and Nashville, saluting the crowd and basking in the cheers after the game while giving away sticks as souvenirs.

As the only winning team currently in town (albeit at .500), the Blackhawks have started to become a talking point in Chicago once again, bringing both new and old fans into the stadium and gaining positive press. Whether this upward trend continues remains to be seen, but tomorrow's game against Dallas will be a test of the surge's staying power, a weeknight game with kids back in school. Attendance is bound to slip from the sold-out ranks, but a healthy crowd throughout the rest of the season will be a welcome sight to management that the team is heading in the right direction.

Four: Wolves Wrap-Up
Meanwhile, in the two weeks since we last checked in on the Chicago Wolves, not much has changed in Rosemont. The Wolves continued their offensive barrage and their winning ways. The Wolves won four of five to close out December, with Jason Krog and Darren Haydar contributing nine points combined in a 7-4 victory over Peoria Dec. 19. Brett Sterling scored two straight overtime game-winners to defeat Grand Rapids and Rockford Dec. 22 and 27, and defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski become the first defenseman in franchise history to record a hat trick in a 4-3 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals Dec. 28. Playing their third game in three nights, however, Chicago couldn't muster a victory to close 2007, losing 2-5 to the Quad City Flames.

The first week of 2001 saw the Wolves finish 2-1, earning a pair of victories over the Milwaukee Admirals split by a 4-5 loss in Rockford to the Icehogs. The Wolves are still atop the Western Division, and second in the Western Conference to the Toronto Marlies, who they battle for the first time this season Saturday at the Allstate Arena. The week also sees the Wolves playing host to the Iowa Stars tomorrow before traveling to the Quad Cities to face the Flames on Friday.

Five: Piling Up Points
As was the case last year, the Wolves' scoring depth is powering their impressive season. Chicago leads the AHL with an average of 3.91 goals per game, and forward Jason Krog has posted 28 points in his last 12 games, giving him a league-leading 54. Krog also leads the league with 38 assists and his 12-game point streak is currently the longest in the AHL. Krog's play also earned him the AHL player of the week award for Dec. 23.

Since their return to the Wolves from the parent Atlanta Thrashers earlier in the season, Darren Haydar and Brett Sterling have continued their record-setting performance from last year as well. Haydar notched a hat trick in Saturday's 6-3 victory over Milwaukee, and has 17 points in the 12 games he's suited up in; meanwhile, Sterling continues to tickle the twine to the tune of 21 goals, good for third in the AHL, despite having played in only 27 of the team's 35 games.

Bulls in Five

Not Worst
by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

One: We're number 4
Bulls are 13-19 as of Monday January 7, 2007. We are not the worst in Central — the Bucks are at 13-20. Bulls and Bucks each won one of our two encounters this year.

Two: Congratulations Boylan
Jim Boylan is now 4-2 as head coach of the Bulls. This is truly wonderful. Keep it up, we're rooting for you.

Three: Wallace Clutch Play
Ben Wallace sank a free throw with 3.2 seconds left in the Sacramento Kings game — his only point of the game — then blocked a Brad Miller shot as the clock ran out to help the Bulls to a 94-93 victory. Boylan said he didn't want anymore overtime games so he sent his best free throw player in. Sacramento had won 15 of the 16 previous games against the Bulls.

Four: Scottie Comeback
Pippen still wants the coaching job. Reuters reports of Pippen today, "I've shown some interest. I just have to wait and see." I give it better odds than the Bulls making .500 by the All-Star game.

Five: Good (3) Point, Mike
Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald makes a poignant observation: "Right now, the Bulls' most glaring needs are better 3-point shooting (they rank 28th in the league) and more reliable scorers. Teams that have beaten the Bulls in recent days — Portland, Orlando, San Antonio — have had waves of contributors, while the Bulls usually have to count on a few players to carry the load."

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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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