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Saturday, December 9

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Bears in Five

Home of the 2006 NFC North Division Champions
by Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon & Friends

The Bears wrapped up their second straight division title with their win over the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field on Sunday. It sure seems pretty early in the season for this sort of thing. But think about this: with a little bit of help, they can clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs next week with a win in St. Louis against the Rams. The defense has allowed the fewest points in the league to date. And the offense is fourth in points scored. It's a pretty remarkable feat for a team that's playing without a quarterback right now. Well, not literally anyway. Any questions? No? Good.

One: Rex Grossman
What else can be said about the city's favorite, or least favorite, quarterback that hasn't already been said? Or written? Or even thought? Let's all just keep our fingers crossed and hope Rexy gets this figured out before the playoffs start. Unfortunately all we can do is wait this out. Unless... no, we can't write this, can we? Brian Griese?

Two: They're Back.
After a couple of weeks full of uninspired play, the defensive front four came out full throttle. Just ask the Vikings quarterbacks. Provided their jaws aren't wired shut from the punishment they took. OK, no one's jaw was wired shut. But Brooks Bollinger did hurt his shoulder. That's got to count for something.

Three: 192 yards?
That number isn't imaginary, but it is slightly alarming. The Bears allowed 192 rushing yards during the victory. The Vikings were able to consistently chew up the field and time, which is something they desperately needed to do. With quarterback play that rivaled the Bears, they were able to stick around into the fourth quarter because of their ground game. Fortunately the Bears seem to have the answer for everything, defensively at least. Create turnovers and lots of them. As long as we keep getting four to five takeaways a game, go ahead and let teams run. Just continue to stop them from scoring.

Four: Cedric Benson
Ran hard.
Ran strong.
Ran right into the end zone on a fourth and 1.

Five: Devin Hester
Returned a punt for a touchdown.
Business as usual.
Drafting a special teams player in the second round looks smarter and smarter. And we already thought it was a good idea.

Pucks in Five

A Savvy Turn-around
by Jeremy Piniak

Although the weather's turned frigid, the past week has seen the Blackhawks heating up following the promoting of Hall-of-Famer Denis Savard to head coach. Savard promised a more up-tempo style of play, and with three straight wins he has delivered a small dash of hope for the holidays.

One: Savoir Faire Returns
Denis Savard spent much of his career electrifying Chicago Stadium denizens. Although the roar has yet to return to a half-capacity United Center, Savard is bringing some much-needed optimism following his 3-0 debut as coach. Although the Blackhawks have still looked like a team in transition, a combination of an improved offensive scheme, a bit of luck and some strong goaltending has kept Savvy undefeated.

Opening last Wednesday against Dallas, the seeds of change had been planted, and though the team was getting more shots on net, the Stars were still controlling the game until Tuomo Ruutu's breakaway game winner. Friday the Hawks jumped to a quick 2-0 lead over the Blues, but the inconsistencies from Wednesday continued and St. Louis controlled and pulled to within one goal before the Blackhawks iced the 5-2 victory with two empty netters.

Saturday the Hawks traveled to Central Division-leading Nashville, a team they've beaten twice already, and though playing a strong game, found themselves trailing by one with time running out. A cross pass by Radim Vrbata found Jeff Hamilton alone on the weakside, and he roofed the tying goal with 34 seconds left. In overtime it took Hamilton all of a minute to score the game-winner and give the Hawks their first three-game winning streak of the season.

The firing of coach Trent Yawney provided a much-needed jolt to the team's lethargy, and while Savard has the team playing passionately, there is still a lot of season left and a ways to go before the playoffs can be a realistic possibility. However, for the best start for a Hawks coach in more than 50 years, Savard deserves a round of applause for performing a spin-o-rama on the Blackhawks fortunes for this week.

Two: Sami, Hammy Bring Home the Bacon
One of the main conflicts between Yawney and GM Dale Tallon was the coach's employment of the defensive trap after injuries to the Hawks top scoring line. Tallon was unhappy with the lack of ice time for some of the more offensive-minded players still healthy. With Savard at the helm, these players are getting a chance to shine, and none have stepped up more than speedy winger Tony Salmelainen and sniper Jeff Hamilton. Salmo was considered one of the best players in Europe last season, and is exactly the kind of player who should thrive in the new finesse style of the NHL. But he struggled at the start and found himself getting little ice-time due to Yawney's focus on defense and a shoulder injury. Since Savard took over, Salmo has found himself getting increased ice time and lit the lamp in all three games last week for his first NHL goals.

Likewise, Hamilton was signed primarily for the power play and the scoring ability he showed during the preseason, when he lead the team in points, but he also struggled to get minutes. Hammy picked up his first goal since Oct. 12 on Friday, then followed with his first career NHL hat trick Saturday against Nashville, scoring both the tying and winning goal. With winger Martin Havlat slated to return any day now, a consistent supporting cast is crucial for the Hawks offense to continue to gain momentum.

Three: 'Bulin Wall is Rebuilt, Save by Save
Although the offense is showing signs of prowess, goalie Nicolai Khabibulin has also stood up to the challenge of leading the Hawks to victory. Habby earned the NHL's second star of the week for his performance, winning all three games with a 2.00 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Khabibulin missed nine games last month with a broken finger, but since his return he's been playing well and made a number of spectacular saves in last week's victories. Savard has said he expects Khabibulin to get the majority of starts, even in back-to-back contests like last weekend, and his play last week justifies that mentality. Nicolai was signed two years ago to be a franchise goalie, and though he will never be worth the $6 million a year he makes, if he continues his solid play and stays healthy, he will be a key building block to the Hawks' resurgence.

Four: Same players, so what's different?
So what is different about the Hawks' style of play? First and foremost, gone is the dreaded trap, an altogether boring scheme, and one that was ultimately ineffective with the team's young defensemen. In its place is a more aggressive offensive system, involving two forecheckers applying pressure to the opposing team's breakout. When the Hawks transition, they are relying more on crisp passing and cutting through lanes to carry the puck into the zone rather than dumping and chasing, long a stalwart of the Blackhawks offense.

Likewise, the defense is more involved in pressing and attacking, relying on teammates to shift and cover position when necessary. During the Dallas game, defenseman Duncan Keith was behind the Stars' net battling for the puck, something altogether unheard of in previous years. The strategy has resulted in an increased number of shots on net and despite pushing the offensive pressure, the maneuvering has also seen the Hawks clamping down on opposing shots as well. Although there have been long stretches where the Blackhawks haven't controlled the flow of the game, the defensive positioning has been such that prime scoring opportunities are not as commonplace as they were previously.

Five: Wither the Wolves?
Last time Pucks in Five checked in at the Allstate Arena, the Chicago Wolves had jumped to a strong 8-3-1 start and had the AHL's leading scorer in Jason Krog. In the past month, the Wolves have continued at the same pace, going 8-3 and vaulting from third to first in the division. The strong start has also placed the Wolves in a tie for first in the conference with the Rochester Americans.

Likewise, on the individual front, Krog has continued tallying the score sheet, with 19 goals and 28 assists in 22 games. He's not alone at the top, as teammates Darren Haydar and Brent Sterling are second and third in the league with 44 and 34 points, respectively. The Wolves' strong start earned them a number of accolades for the month of November. Sterling earned rookie of the month honors for his unbelievable start, in which he broke the Wolves rookie goal record in a scant 19 games. Krog also earned the Milestone of the Month award for his seven-point performance Nov. 4 against Peoria, where he netted a hat trick along with four encores.

The Wolves look to continue their winning ways when they battle rival Iowa tonight at home ahead of a three-game road trip starting this weekend. Pucks in Five has been a little preoccupied with the Blackhawks topsy-turvy season so far, but the more successful hockey teams in the Chicagoland area, the better.

Bulls in Five

Look Out Above
by Jason Maslanka

During last night's Bulls-Celtics broadcast on Comcast SportsNet, Stacy King noted that December was the time for the Bulls to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. The upcoming schedule and recent success could make a prophet out of the former center.

One: Knicks = Rx
It was the morning of November 25th and the Bulls had played and lost the first six games of their seven game circus road trip. Ben Wallace was about to start a controversy about headbands and the Bulls were 3-9. As the story continues, the Bulls took a trip to the world's self-proclaimed most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, and beat up on the Knicks. A few days later, the Knicks took the return trip to Chicago and lost handily. Suddenly, a 5-9 Bulls team had their first winning streak of the year and the season had new light.

Two: A Real Streak
While a two-game winning streak is better than the opposite, it's not a real streak. Now, five in a row? That's a real streak, and that's what the Bulls have right now. Not only have the Bulls won five in a row, they've destroyed their last two opponents, the Wizards and Celtics. With a slew of mediocre teams on the December slate, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bulls with one of the best records in the league come New Year's Day.

Threeeeee: Noc & Lu
Well, the "threeeeee" might only apply to Andres Nocioni, who's got back his touch from behind the arc from early last season, but the tandem has definitely got it going. The Bulls' two-headed small forward monster is just that, a monster leading the team to victory after victory. Their versatility has been the key to their success. Nocioni is tough inside and has amazing touch as a three-point shooter. Luol Deng is hitting 18-foot jumpers like they're lay-ups and slashing to the lane with tremendous success. Between Deng and Nocioni, the team seems to have found the consistent scoring they were looking for from Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich.

Four: Costly Throws?
Getting real, everything with the team isn't roses, just yet. They're still under .500 at 8-9, and foul shooting has been abysmal. The Bulls are shooting just over 70 percent from the charity stripe, which is good for 27th in the NBA. In last night's contest against the Celtics, the team shot better but Hinrich missed two and Deng clanked three of his five tries off the rim. A team that can sometimes lack consistent scoring needs every point it can get and the free ones should come a lot easier than the non-free ones.

Five: Food For A Cause
Prior to the December 9th home contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Bulls will be hosting the 2006 incarnation of their annual holiday food drive. They're asking fans attending the game to bring non-perishable food items or cash to any of the gates of the United Center. All donations will go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Fans not attending the game can make donations via the web. Information on both ways to donate can be found on the official Bulls' site here.

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anthony S / December 5, 2006 8:16 PM

With Rex behind the center I'll look to the hot stove for all my excitement this winter.

Jason / December 6, 2006 9:16 AM

Anthony, how does what you're saying make any sense? You're honestly telling us that because Rex is the quarterback, the 10-2 Bears are not exciting to you? Devin Hester? The Defense's spectacular turnovers? Watching week in and week out to see if the offense improves? Cedric Benson?

I'm totally confused by your comment. What about Brian Griese makes people think he's any good? In his last 20 or so starts, he was averaging 2 turnovers a game. I'm not sure what about that is so appealing.

George Halas Rules / December 6, 2006 6:50 PM

I see Anthony's point. If the Bears continue to go with Rex Grossman, then we are headed in the exact same direction as we were last year (playoff loss).

Our defense is playing well, our special teams are playing well and I love our coaching staff.

Rex has played horrible, and we are 10-2. We canít take that away. There is a reason people are saying we are a weak 10-2 teamÖand it is because of HOW we have won.

In the past few games it seems that whenever Rex passes the ball he is trying to go deep instead of going through his progressions.

I thought it was HILARIOUS when Darryl Johnston (the Fox commentator for the game), in numerous parts of the game, pointed out the underneath passes Grossman passed up to go deep (WR over the middle, RB open in the flat, TE hook). Johnston, a former FULLBACK, is pointing out the QBís progression that Grossman missed. He was pointing it out the entire game. Hilarious!!

I love the Bears but I donít have an answer and Iím not going to go as far to say that we should replace GrossmanÖbut there is validity in a Bears fan saying the excitement is going to be demolished in January if Grossman continues to play the way he has played.

Stat of the dayÖRex Grossman ended the day with a QB rating of 1.3. I donít even play in the NFL, and his QB rating is only 1.3 points better than mine!!

Go Bears!!!

anthony / December 7, 2006 1:01 PM

Thank you, Mr Halas for your wonderful introduction.

Let me open by saying I'm not a believer in Griese being the savior but I do believe that Greise can better manage this offense. With Grossman chucking the ball to the other team on a regular basis the Bears defense is forced to spend an inordinate time on the field. This causes fatigue that is evidenced by the fact that opponents are pounding their run defense. If and when the Bears face an oppenent with a well-balanced offensive attack they may be in for some trouble.
Secondly, the Bears coaching staff does not impress me one bit. Their offensive game-planning has been awful lately. Rather than controlling the flow of the game/field position and letting the defense put them over the top as they did superbly in the Jets contest, the Bears offensive plan seems to have no relation to an overall strategy for winning. Also, any coaching staff that cannot realize this late in the season that Benson deserves more carries Jones, that Grossman's passing bravado is not an asset and that kicking a field goal late in a game when your down seven on the road is the wrong play is a bit shaky in my book.
Exciting? Yes. Glory bound? I'm not holding my breath.


About the Author(s)

Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends are not really friends but rather fierce competitors on the fantasy gridiron. They meet weekly to embarass each other with random football trivia at the Noble Street League HQ. This is where they write their column. Craig knows where every professional athlete went to college, and in some cases the names of their roommates. Creepy. Send comments to

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

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he executes a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions and arguments to

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