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Saturday, July 20

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Airbags

Pucks in Five

Rebound or Dead Cat Bounce?
by Jeremy Piniak

As the city begins to thaw out from the recent cold snap, the Blackhawks have had a recent warming trend of their own, along with some stellar performances from some expected and unexpected players. Also, a quick look at how the NHL trade deadline can also affect the Wolves.

One: Western Winsome
Last November's West Coast swing cost the Blackhawks momentum and a head coach. After a dismal 10-game losing streak that stretched through most of January, this past week's trip back West was looming large. Were the Hawks not all but eliminated, I'd call it a make-or-break trip. Either way, the Hawks stepped up and played with some fire in going 4-2, with one game left at Pittsburgh. After splitting the first two games last week, the Hawks stole a 3-2 shootout victory at Calgary, where the Flames were a league-best 22-5 entering the game. They followed that the next night with a 3-0 defeat of Vancouver, where they had lost eight straight, dating back to 2001. After a tough 2-1 loss at Edmonton, the Hawks notched a key 5-4 win over division rival Columbus Sunday afternoon on NBC, lifting themselves out of the Central basement with 51 points. Although the winning trip will most likely have little effect on the Hawks' long-term playoff chances (they're still 15 points from the eighth spot), their strong play could be a turning point to a far-fetched run.

Two: Perfect Patrick
When starting goalie Nicolai Khabibulin went down with injuries last season, the Blackhawks struggled with young, inexperienced goalies between the pipes. To counteract the issues from a year ago, the team signed goalie Patrick Lalime from St. Louis to back up Khabby. Better late than never, Lalime returned to the team this week after a preseason injury, and was stellar in a 3-0 shutout victory over Vancouver. Lalime's return leaves the Hawks overstocked, as the team signed Brian Boucher in the wake of his injury, as has been documented here before. Lalime's play may leave Boucher as the odd man out. Although it has only been one game, Lalime was the original Plan B and Boucher has struggled in the backup role, but played solidly in Khabibulin's absence. Interesting of note, Lalime picked up a shutout in his first game in the Indianhead sweater. Boucher had one in his ninth game. Khabibulin? Well, in 91 games, he has yet to pitch an 0-fer. After struggling with injuries and expectations last year, Khabby has been strong this year, and shutouts don't matter as much as wins. But it's troubling that he has yet to pick one up in a Hawks uniform, especially considering his $6 million-a-year contract. Not that Khabibulin will be going anywhere, nor should he, but having a viable backup can take some of the load and pressure off him.

Three: Havlat's Hot Again
After getting off to a torrid start before going down with an ankle injury, winger Martin Havlat returned in December and looked hesitant and a step slower than before his stint on the IR. As he's gotten his confidence back, the Havlat of old is returning more and more, and the past few weeks have seen him back to his frantic scoring pace, notching goals in six straight games and 11 points in his last six contests. Havlat almost single-handedly earned the Hawks a tough win at Calgary, notching two goals in the final three minutes of the game, and tallying a score in the 2-0 shootout win. As Havlat goes, the Blackhawks seem to go, so his return to putting points on the scoreboard consistently is a welcome sign for the team.

Four: Powerplay Performance
Returning to our focus on the Hawks' powerplay unit, the past week showed a huge increase in production, which coincidentally corresponded with a successful week. The team notched at least one powerplay score in each game except the Vancouver win, and clicked at a 25 percent success rate, going four for 16, with Havlat notching three of the powerplay goals. The team is still last in the league for the season, with an 11.5 percent conversion rate, but the improved powerplay, as evidenced by the past week, means an improved Blackhawks team.

This week, the team sees a return tilt against Vancouver at home on Friday, sandwiched between games at Pittsburgh and at the New York Rangers. The Canucks are the league's leading penalty-killing team, and the Hawks were 0-2 on the man advantage last week in Vancouver. The Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the NHL and tough at home as well, so the powerplay will need to continue its current production if the team wants to continue its winning ways.

Five: NHL Deadline Looms Large for Wolves
The NHL trade deadline can have just as much of an effect on their AHL affiliates, as the Wolves demonstrated this past week. On February 1st, the Thrashers acquired minor-league defenseman Andy Delmore and Andre Deveaux from Tampa Bay for Kyle Wanvig and Stephen Baby, who played 26 and eight games, respectively, for the Wolves this season. The transaction scored points for the Wolves this week, as Delmore put up a goal and two assists in a 6-2 win over the Syracuse Crunch Sunday. Deveaux added a goal to the tally as well.

As the deadline nears, it's possible the Wolves may see more turnover in their roster if Atlanta makes any additional moves. However, with call-ups to the Thrashers throughout the season, the team is used to fielding new lineups day in and day out, depending on the needs of the parent club. The Wolves have continued their winning ways, still leading the West division with a 33-15-1-4 record, for 71 points and a nine point cushion. Barring any major transactions, the core of the team should stay together to make a run at the Calder Cup this spring.

Bulls in Five

The Only Show
by Jason Maslanka

One: Start Paying Attention The Bears magical season came to an unceremonious halt last Sunday. That's all I'll really say about that, as I still find it pretty painful. Pitchers and catchers report next week, but baseball doesn't really start for another couple months. With all due respect to Jeremy and Pucks in Five, I couldn't name a hockey player no matter how hard I tried... and you couldn't either. Don't pretend. Chicago, there's one show in town right now, and while frustrating, it's a pretty interesting one. Your Chicago Bulls continue to struggle on the road, but hold tight with the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference and their two huge road trips behind them. There's 31 games left and every single one matters.

Two: Playoff Intensity
Most casual NBA fans say that while the playoffs are exciting, the regular season is generally dull. I could write a dissertation on why that's just not true, but for those who hold that opinion true, the playoff intensity is about the start. After the All-Star Break, the Bulls match up with Cleveland, Detroit and a host of other Eastern Conference competition. The race for first place in the Central Division between us, the afore-mentioned two and even Indiana should be impressive, with all four separated by only five games. Playoff basketball is about to start two months before the season comes to an end.

Threeeeee: Help?
For those of you just tuning in from football season, the Bulls have been the center of trade rumors since the off-season. As the deadline approaches on February 22nd, the only rumor with any credibility is Memphis' Pau Gasol to the Bulls. The Grizzlies have only one more win than a Celtics team who has lost 18 in a row, and Gasol may want out. He has put up multiple 30-point games in the past week, fueling speculation that he's trying to get out. The problem with those big games, however, is they continue to raise his price. If the price is too high, look for John Paxson to pass and stay put. It might be the wrong decision, but Pax is not one to get fleeced.

Four: Who Goes?
The most interesting discussion stemming from the Gasol rumors is figuring out who goes to Memphis in the rumored deal. For a talented 7-footer like Gasol, the deal is almost assured to include Ben Gordon or Luol Deng, but who is really the superstar in training? Deng has great size and his 15- to 20-foot jumper is nearly automatic. He can finish at the hoop with a flourish, but can lack the ability to create his own shot. He's a good long defender, but not great. His rebounding from the small forward position is outstanding. Gordon is nearly the opposite. He's a mediocre defender, who is, frankly, short. He's as streaky as they come, but might be top 10 in the NBA in creating his own shot. He's a poor man's Allen Iverson, but the question is whether he can ever really approach Iverson-like status. It's hard to pass up the spotty greatness that Gordon brings. It would be especially painful to watch him do it for another team, but Deng is still incredibly young and has played the game only since he was a teen. It's impossible to predict his future. My money's on keeping Gordon.

Five: Past and Future
The seven-game road trip out west was a disappointment to most at 3-4, but ended with a solid win against the Steve Nash-less Suns. Before the long break, this week provides the surprisingly solid Atlantic-leading Toronto Raptors, and the pesky, yet awful, Charlotte Bobcats. The Bulls should take both and enter the All-Star break on a three-game winning streak. The break should be good for the banged up Bulls like Andres Nocioni and Ben Wallace. It should also be good for Tyrus Thomas, who heads to Las Vegas to collect his "free money." If you don't get the joke... google it. It's certainly a funny story I call "NBA Youngster Should Consider Not Talking Around Reporters."

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