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TODAY

Tuesday, July 16

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Pucks in Five

Postmortem Exam
by Jeremy Piniak

This week's edition of Pucks in Five is Blackhawk specific, and focuses on the body. Who's got heart, who's not healthy, and what fresh faces have joined the team since last week's trade deadline are all touched upon. Over the next month, with the Blackhawks out of playoff contention, we'll begin to focus more on the Wolves' postseason hopes, while still covering some basic talking points on the Hawks' final month and off-season speculation.

One: Embarrassment on Ice
With the Hawks left to play out the last 16 games with no playoff hopes, there still are reasons to lace up the skates, such as cementing your position on next year's team, personal incentives and goals, and pride. The first three games of the week saw the majority of the Blackhawks playing with little heart, dropping a pair of games to Detroit, 4-1 and 6-2, with a 6-1 loss to Colorado sandwiched between. While there were flashes of strong play, periods like the third period against the Avalanche, where the Hawks were out shot 17-5, or the overall control the Red Wings exerted in their two triumphs were troubling to see.

Sunday saw the same lackadaisical team come out, going down 3-1 to Ottawa, before a rousing third period comeback saw the Hawks tie the score at 3-3 with a goal in the final two minutes and an eventual shootout win. The turnaround was thanks in large part to coach Denis Savard playing only two and a half lines, specifically those Hawks who were showing a constant effort. The Hawks' gritty win is the type of effort that should be expected, and it was great to see the team respond after Savard called his team into a closed-door meeting after Friday's loss, later telling the press that "they're embarrassing themselves and — most importantly — they're embarrassing the [Blackhawks] logo." While the message got through on Sunday, the team needs to continue to play with the same pride the rest of the year.

Two: Alexeev Trade
In the craze of last Tuesday's trade deadline, the Hawks made one more minor deal, sending forward Karl Stewart and a sixth-round draft pick in 2008 to Tampa Bay for Nikita Alexeev. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound Russian has scored 10 goals and netted 11 assists this season with the Lightning. Stewart was one of the few Hawks players who always had intensity and spark, regardless of the number of minutes he would be on the ice, and as the past week has shown, his physical presence will be missed by the Hawks. However, with the trade, they were able to ship a player signed off the waiver wire during the season for the eighth overall pick in the 2000 draft. While Alexeev has yet to reach the potential of such a high pick, perhaps a change of scenery will get him back on track.

Three: Flu Bug
With winter's late blast the past few weeks leaving half of Chicago fighting off the flu, including your humble writer, the Blackhawks were unlucky to be hit hard as well. The past week saw Martin Havlat miss a game and lose 10 pounds after a severe bout with the bug, Rene Bourque sat out Thursday and Friday's contest, and Tuomo Ruutu was scratched for Sunday's game, leaving the Hawks short-handed throughout the week. The illness could continue to cause problems in the upcoming week if the bug makes its way through the rest of the roster.

Four: Radim Rising
The hero of Sunday's come from behind victory over Ottawa was winger Radim Vrbata, who netted two goals, along with the winning shootout goal. Vrbata arrived in a trade with Carolina last season and was one of the Hawks' scoring leaders in the second half of the year. This year, after notching points in seven of his first eight games, Vrbata has been inconsistent and a little gun-shy shooting the puck at times but has still reached a career high in points, with 11 goals and 26 assists with 18 games still left to play. Radim has shown flashes of being a consistent 20-goal scorer, and the Hawks are counting on him to reach that plateau if the team wants to succeed in the future. He's not there yet, but he deserves the NHLPA player of the day award he received for Sunday's game.

Five: Williams a winner
Tuesday's trade deadline brought forward Jason Williams to Chicago, just in time to play his former Detroit teammates twice in the week. Williams could be a key player for the future of the Blackhawks, and his play during the week on a line with Martin Havlat and Vrbata has been extremely solid. While getting used to his new surroundings, Friday's game at Detroit felt like home to Williams, as he netted the Hawks only two goals, both unassisted, in a superior performance. Williams is able to play both center and right wing, and his versatility and offensive touch look to be part of the solution for the Hawks' goal-scoring.

Hoops in Five

All Kinds of Hoops
by Jason Maslanka

March is upon us, but it doesn't look like the local representation is going to do enough this year to heat up the city and warm our collective freezing toes. This year, instead of turning all my effort towards March Madness in Five, I welcome you to the new Hoops in Five, keeping tabs on the Bulls and the local university's possible trips towards the postseason.

One: Who's Out?
March started only last week, but already some of the area teams have hung up their extra-long shorts for the summer. In the Horizon League tournament, UIC won a game against their rival to the north UW-Milwaukee, but lost to cross-town rival Loyola on Friday. Only a day later, Loyola was done as well, losing to nationally ranked Butler by one. Loyola has a really outside shot at an NIT bid, but with a computer ranking (RPI) of 100, it's unlikely. Last year's Mid-Continent Conference pseudo-Cinderella Chicago State went Independent this year (a curious decision) and may have had to win 30 games to get into the tournament. They won 9. Without a conference, their drought of never making the tournament is sure to continue, well, forever.

Two: Who's Alive?
Northwestern, the 10 seed in the 11-team Big 10 tournament, matches up with Michigan State in the first round of the Big 10 tournament. Their 2-14 record in the Big 10 wouldn't get them invited to a tournament in my back yard, let alone anywhere else. They're alive in name only. Illinois, also about to start the Big 10 tournament, should kill Penn State in their first game, but may need to win the tournament to make the big dance. They're a bubble team, at best. Over in the Big East, DePaul is another weak bubble team. Winning the Big East tournament is almost an impossibility with the talent in the conference, but a few impressive wins could get them in. I'm not optimistic.

Threeeeee: Who's In?
Sadly, no one local has locked up a spot. Chicagoland could easily get shut out. Downstate, Southern Illinois locked up a bid a while ago, despite losing the MVC tournament final to Creighton. SIU is looking for a 3 or 4 seed in the dance. Notre Dame is almost assuredly going to be chosen. Out of the MVC, as well, Bradley is a bubble team looking for some mid-major compassion. It's not a great year for Chicago and Illinois basketball, except for the amazing success of SIU, which may as well be in Kentucky for all Chicago cares.

Four: Tyrus Thomas Can Fly
It's been an up and down, mostly disappointing rookie season for Tyrus Thomas. The last week, however, may have been his coming out party. Thomas scored 14 points against the Warriors last week and followed it up with 10 against the Hornets. At one point in the game, Thomas blocked a shot and dunked over a defender taking two steps from the free throw line and thrilling everyone in attendance and watching on TV. Thomas' athletic ability is unquestioned, and while he's still in the wrong place on the floor at times and puts together some incredibly ugly post moves, his upside is high enough to get excited about. If he can provide any scoring from the low-post as the season ends, this Bulls team gets considerably more dangerous.

Five: Standings Update
After a thrilling 18-point comeback against the Bucks in which Ben Gordon set his new career high with 48 points on Sunday, the Bulls are 35-27. Through Sunday's action, that puts them 4.5 games out of first place, half a game out of second place and fifth in the conference playoff standings. Because the three division leaders must be in the top four seeds in the playoffs, the Bulls sit in fifth. The half game they reside behind Cleveland, however, would put them in the second seed. It's a lot of math, and unnecessarily confusing. Just check back here every week for their current position and leave the 'splainin' to me.

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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, when possible, the minor-league Wolves and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

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 bulls@gapersblock.com.

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