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Wednesday, November 13

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Pucks in Five

Salvaging the Season
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Snapping the Streak, Again
With a 3-1 victory Thursday in Calgary, the Blackhawks managed to get back into the win column after their latest five-game skid, which included a 4-1 loss to Edmonton the previous night. The Hawks also picked up a point Sunday against Vancouver, losing a 3-2 game decided by a controversial shootout goal. The recent skid was book-ended with an eight-game slide to start 2008, and while the Hawks' four wins in between the two helped to buffer their streaks, the mounting losses have pushed them to the fringe of the postseason chase. Although only nine points out of the final playoff spot, the Hawks sit at 14th in the conference, meaning they will need to make a sustained run in the win column to leapfrog the half-dozen teams positioned in front of them. It's not an impossible feat, but with only 27 games left, the Hawks are all but out of time.

Earning the victory against the Flames was goalie Nicolai Khabibulin, who desperately needed a win of his own. Habby was mired in a personal 10-game losing streak and while he played well in a few of those games, his tendency to let in soft goals at inopportune times seemed to shake both his and his teammates' confidence. Calgary came along at the right time, as Khabibulin has had their number throughout his career, going 19-5-2. Despite playing well and keeping the Hawks in the game Sunday, Khabibulin was saddled with the loss when the Canucks' Ryan Shannon scored the game-winner in the shootout. Shannon's 360 maneuver also included contact with Habby, who in frustration punched the player, believing he was interfered with.

With two games left on a season high seven-game, 17 day trip, the Hawks travel to Columbus and Nashville for back-to-back games tomorrow and Thursday, before finally returning to the United Center Sunday against Colorado. The Hawks need victories to end the trip on a good note and try and build a new streak, one that counts victories.

Two: Toews Returns to Ice
Help is on the way for the Blackhawks, but it may be too late to salvage the season. The team's January swoon began with rookie Jonathon Toews' knee injury against the L.A. Kings on New Year's Day. Since Toews partially tore his ACL, the Hawks have gone a miserly 5-9-2, dropping the team from the midst of the playoff chase to 14th in the conference. The Hawks' offense has gone missing since Toews was hurt as well. Toews was among the rookie leaders in points when he was injured, and despite missing 16 games, he still is fourth on the team in total points. His return will provide a spark to Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, reuniting a line that was the team's strongest offensive threat in the early part of the season. Sharp has gotten hot as of late, scoring in the team's last three games, but only five of his team-leading 25 goals have come in Toews' absence. Likewise, Kane has seen his production drop nearly a half-point per game since netting 37 points in his first 38 games paired with Toews.

Also expected to return soon is forward Jason Williams, who has been on the IR since Dec. 6th due to a groin injury and a hernia operation. Williams' playmaking ability had the Hawks' powerplay in the top 10 at the time of his injury, and his role as an experienced, steady presence provided some scoring depth. It's no coincidence that the special teams unit has faltered in Williams' absence, dropping to 23rd in the league.

The return of Toews and Williams is a welcome sight for the subpar Hawks O, which has scored more than three goals only twice in the last 18 contests. A playoff run needs to start soon; and the Hawks postseason hopes will need a burst of offensive scoring sparked by the return of Toews and Williams.

Three: Tony O Back in the Fold
New Blackhawks President John McDonough and owner Rocky Wirtz announced last week the return of Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito to the organization as an ambassador. Espo joins fellow Hall of Famers Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull in the role, in which they will represent the team in an official capacity both at the United Center and other events throughout the area. More importantly, the three greats re-establishing ties with the club will help the team promote their history and tradition with some of the greatest players to have ever worn the Indianhead sweater. Esposito is the Hawks' all-time leader with 418 career victories and 74 shutouts, and in his time in net he had seven consecutive 30-win seasons for the Hawks. The three, along with current coach Denis Savard and goalie Glenn Hall, are also the only players to have their numbers retired by the Blackhawks.

While the honor is merely a formality, as an Original Six team, the Hawks have a storied and proud history that is greatly respected by the fans. Bringing in these former greats helps bridge that tradition with the young, dynamic future of the organization.

Four: Winning as Usual
The Wolves just keep on winning. With three wins last week, including two shutouts by goalies Ondrej Pavelec and Robert Gherson, Chicago moved into the division lead with 71 points, two points ahead of second-place Rockford. The IceHogs have also played five more games currently. The Wolves are off to their best start in team history, with 35 wins in their first 49 games, and with a 19-6 home record, Chicago is dominating their home ice, having already matched last year's win total.

While the focus of the Wolves is usually their offensive firepower (the team leads the AHL with a 3.84 goal average per game), the shutout victories, along with a 3-1 win over Milwaukee, showed that this season's team can also get the job done on defense. With the old adage that defense wins playoffs, the play of Chicago's blueliners and goaltenders will continue to be a factor in the postseason.

Five: Strong D
One of the defensemen sparking the resurgence with the rear guard has been Joel Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski's 15 goals lead all defensemen in the AHL, and with 12 of those markers coming with the man advantage, he has set a Wolves team record for power-play goals by a D-man. His 36 points are good for fifth overall on a team loaded with offensive weapons; his point total has been a welcome surprise. Kwiatkowski's career has seen him shuttle back and forth between the AHL and NHL, including a three-game stint with the Atlanta Thrashers earlier this year, but his season with the Wolves has seen him set career highs for goals and points already.

Not to be lost in the scoring binge, Kwiatkowski is a physical, steady defenseman as well. His +20 leads the Wolves, showing he's not a liability in his own zone — and with 92 penalty minutes, Kwiatkowski is not afraid to mix it up. Talk of the Wolves always focuses on Darren Haydar, Brett Sterling, Jason Krog and the team's other talented forwards. Kwiatkowski is demonstrating this season he's a big factor in the Wolves' overall success, as well as shoring up a defense that struggled at times a year ago.

Bulls in Five

All Star Breakage
by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

One: Recap
Bull's were 2-4 on the last road trip. The sad thing is that it was a pretty impressive run of .333 ball. The bench has provided strong performance without Luol Deng (sore left Achilles), Kirk Hinrich (bruised ribs) and Ben Gordon (right wrist). Thabo Sefolosha had another game-high 22 points against Utah Jazz. No ETA on when Deng will return yet he will be out through All Star break. Gordon is scheduled to have an MRI on his wrist Monday Feb 11.

Two: Big Ben Trade Scenarios
With two games left before the trade freeze, talk is hot of a Ben Wallace trade — most notably for Andreis Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz. Another possibility is a multi-loser deal with the Knicks. Lots of sources say that New York is where Ben wants to go, but he keeps denying. Wallace was channeled Yogi Bera in his words Sunday: "I'll be here till I'm gone." John Jackson of Chicago Sun Times reports, "Unless a young star suddenly becomes available — or unless a team is willing to take Ben Wallace and the remainder of his bloated contract — Paxson's best move at the deadline likely will be making no move."

Three: 20-30
Bulls have 20 wins and 30 losses with only 30 games remaining after the All Star break. Coach Boylan says, "The time to win is now." As Yul Brenner said. So let it be written, so let it be done.

Four: Playoffs?
Again, in the weak Eastern Conference, the Bulls might have enough weakness to be a straw man in the playoffs. Coach Boylan calls it "fortunate" that the team can lose three of four and actually gain ground in the Conference. Fortune.

Five: Upcoming
Light week coming up due to the All Star Game. Bulls host New Orleans Feb 12 at 8:30pm, then Miami Feb 14 (Valentines day) at 8pm. It looks like we'll lose to New Orleans and beat Miami. Then it's pull-up-a-chair time for the Chicago team as they watch the best players in the league play. Look for the Bulls to be 21-31 next Monday.

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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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