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TODAY

Tuesday, July 23

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Pucks in Five

(Probably) Out of the Running
by Jeremy Piniak

One: All Over but the Fat Lady
Entering the week, the Blackhawks were looking at a steep seven point climb to the eighth playoff seed. Now, at the end of the week, the Hawks find themselves... seven points out. After ending last week on a two-game losing streak (though picking up an overtime point), the last thing the team needed was a continued slide. Unfortunately, a superb 44-save performance by goalie Corey Crawford in Detroit was wasted by a lackadaisical offensive effort as the Hawks lost to the Red Wings 3-1 Tuesday. To make matters worse, the next night the Carolina Hurricanes skated circles around the tired team in an absolutely atrocious 3-0 shutout that could have been twice as bad. While the team rebounded with a strong 6-3 victory in Columbus Friday night, the damage had been done, and a 4-2 loss to the Calgary Flames Sunday afternoon all but sealed the team's missing the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons. If there is a silver lining, despite losing three of their four games this week, the Hawks didn't lose any ground in the chase. However, with only nine games left and five teams ahead of Chicago in the chase for the eighth seed, time has just about run out. The slim chance they have is to pick up almost all of their 18 available points and somehow hope that four other teams enter a huge slump.

Two: Ovation for Ovechkin and Tony O
Even if the Blackhawks' postseason aspirations would require a miracle greater than the celebration of Jesus rising from the dead this weekend, there are still many reasons to come to the United Center to see a game, especially for tomorrow's game against the Washington Capitals. The Caps last visited the UC Feb. 15, 2004, and the biggest change in D.C., besides the nostalgic new jerseys, is arrival of NHL superstar Alexander Ovechkin. As the first overall draft pick in the 2004 draft, Ovie burst onto the scene in 2005, earning rookie of the year honors. He's continued to grow, and his 57 goals and 99 total points leads the NHL this season while putting the Capitals on the cusp of playoff contention. Ovechkin is pound for pound one of the most thrilling players to watch in the league, and his exuberance and passion for the game comes across whether he's letting go a torrential shot or laying out a huge hit in the corner. The Blackhawks are also welcoming back another living legend before the game. Hall-of-Fame goaltender Tony Esposito will join Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull as ambassadors of the organization, and the Hawks will honor Tony O in a ceremony before the opening faceoff. As anyone who saw the tribute to the Golden Jet and Stosh, the festivities promise to be something truly special.

Three: Reinforcements Return
Although the team has picked up some losses on the ice, they did receive some additions to the dressing room, as goaltender Nicolai Khabibulin and defenseman Brent Sopel were back in action Sunday. Although he didn't start, Habby saw action in the third period, as rookie goalie Corey Crawford was suffering from illness and was scratched from his start. Crawford was sent to Rockford to make room for Khabibulin, but his play in his latest stint in the pros has showed he's capable of playing in the big leagues next year. While the team struggled when Sopel was injured earlier in the season, the defense had been playing better this latest go-round, but the steady veteran will help take some of the pressure off the D. Center Yanic Perrault also came off injured reserve recently, but is likely to see little ice time barring any other Hawks going down. In other news that was all but expected, Hawks forward Martin Havlat's season is officially over after surgery on his injured shoulder last week. Havlat initially hurt the shoulder in the first game of the season and missed the next 22 games while rehabbing the injury. He reinjured the same shoulder Feb. 27 against Phoenix, and after weighing his options, he went under the knife March 13. Havlat will be ready for training camp and the final year of his three-year, $18 million deal that has become a bust for the Hawks. If Havlat hopes to earn that kind of money in his next deal, he needs to find a way to stay healthy and finally play at his top potential.

Four: Back to the Future
For a new generation of Blackhawks fans, the ceremonies honoring Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, as well as tomorrow's Tony Esposito extravaganza, established a link between the bright future of today's team with the glory days of Blackhawk hockey. The names and numbers hanging from the United Center rafters have been have been welcomed back into the organization, and been given the respect and appreciation they deserve as some of the greatest players to have ever worn the Indianhead sweater. For most of these younger fans, the exploits of these Hall-of-Famers is the stuff of legend only. However, tonight at 10:30pm, fans young and old will get the chance to experience these Hawks at the peak of their careers, as Comcast Sportsnet broadcasts a 1971 matchup between the Blackhawks and the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a rare chance to relive history, and a great opportunity for those of us who weren't alive to witness a time when the Blackhawks ruled the city of Chicago.

Five: Wolves, Win, Repeat
Despite losing to the Peoria Riverman 5-3 Saturday, the Chicago Wolves are continuing to distance themselves from the competition in the AHL. The loss was just the Wolves' second defeat in regulation in their last 20 games, and their 46-15-2-2 record gives the team the best winning percentage in the league. Chicago has opened up a 14-point advantage over Rockford and San Antonio in the Western division, and is on track to wrap up the first seed in the Western conference. As has been noted previously in this column, the Wolves continue to play at a pace never before seen, as their 46 wins and 96 points is a franchise record through 65 games. With 15 games remaining, the team is on pace to shatter the previous franchise record of 114 points. The team has built its resounding run the past month by defending their home ice at the Allstate Arena; starting tonight, however, the Wolves embark on a five-game road trip. After struggling away from Allstate a year ago, Chicago has solved their road woes, going 21-7-1-1 to lead the AHL. With two-thirds of their remaining games in enemy territory, the Wolves will need to capitalize on their strength away from home to continue their monumental run and lock up the top spot in the AHL.

Bulls in Five

by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

...is off once again. The suckiness of this team is killing us.

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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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