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Wednesday, July 17

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Pucks in Five

Skating with the Stars
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Series Rewind
With the first three games of the Wolves division final series against the Iowa Stars in the books, Chicago has taken a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-seven tilt. Game 1 saw the Wolves jump all over the Stars early with two goals in the first 63 seconds in route to a 7-0 rout in Rosemont. Despite the nearly week layoff following the team's sweep of Milwaukee, Chicago looked anything but rusty while peppering Stars goalie Dan Ellis with 15 shots and three goals in the first 20 minutes. Wolves goaltender Michael Garnett continued his strong play with his first career playoff shutout in the victory. In the second game at Allstate Arena, Iowa was able to regroup and deal the Wolves their first loss in the postseason 5-4. The Wolves offense was clicking, with Darren Haydar and Jason Krog notched four points each, but Iowa countered with three second period goals, including a shorthanded breakaway tally, to even the series at 1-1. With the first two games split, the Wolves traveled to Des Moines for Game 3, where despite undisciplined play that led to 12 Iowa power plays and multiple scoring opportunities for the Stars, Chicago held a 3-2 lead in the third period and added a pair of empty netters in the final 5 minutes for a 5-3 victory.

Two: Game 4 to Set the Tone
Game 4s are rarely do or die situations for playoff series, but the results of tonight's contest in Des Moines between the Wolves and the Stars will dictate a lot of how the rest of the series plays out. Contrary to the first round's tight defensive battles against Milwaukee, the scoring onslaught in the first three games has been typical of Chicago's regular season, where they lead the AHL in goals scored. Following Chicago's Game 1 rout, Game 2 was evenly matched, and the Wolves were lucky to escape Game 3 with a 2-1 series lead despite multiple opportunities for the Stars to win the game. If the Stars even the series at two apiece with a decisive victory tonight, the momentum will fully shift to Iowa, with Game 5 taking place in Des Moines Thursday, while setting up a best-of-three scramble for the series victory. A Chicago win would put the Wolves in the driver's seat with a 3-1 advantage and force the Stars to mount a monumental comeback, all fought on Chicago home ice this Saturday and Monday.

Three: Special Teams Score Big Points
Special teams play has been a key factor in the series so far, and will continue to be a focus in the remaining games. Chicago's powerplay was among the AHL's best in the regular season, and their potency has continued in the postseason. The Wolves four goals in Game 2 were all with the man advantage, and they added two more in Game 3. The Stars have been connecting on the powerplay as well, notching two goals each in Games 2 and 3, and also picked up a shorthanded tally in their victory in Game 2. Game 3 showed the importance of the penalty kill in the series as well. The Wolves' poor choices and lack of discipline gave Iowa a dozen powerplays and could have lead to a decisive Stars victory, but Chicago's penalty killers successfully killed off 10 of the 12, including a key 5-on-3 at the beginning of the third period in the team's win.

Four: Defensive Dominance
Leading the charge in the Wolves defensive resurgence this postseason has been netminder Michael Garnett. Garnett has run his career playoff record to 8-1, and is currently third among active goalies with a 2.09 goals-against average, nearly a goal lower than his regular season mark of 3.03. The Wolves blue liners have also contributed to the defensive crackdown; the team has allowed only 15 goals in its seven games, and only one powerplay goal in the first five games before Iowa scored two each in Games 2 and 3. With Chicago leading all teams in the postseason with a 4.14 goals per game average, and grabbing early leads in six of the seven contests so far, the defense has turned from a question mark entering the Calder Cup into a solid shutdown unit. If their play continues, the Wolves are primed to make a run deep into the Cup chase.

Five: The Series to Watch
My fifth point has nothing to do with Chicago hockey, other than as a reminder of what NHL playoff hockey in Chicago used to look like. The Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators will be squaring off in the Eastern Conference Finals in what will be some of the best playoff games of the year. Both teams are speedy and supremely skilled offensively and the series should be played at a breakneck, up-and-down pace. Add in a dose of physical, hard-hitting, bad-blooded venom between the two teams lingering from a blindside hit on Buffalo captain Chris Drury that touched off a brawl in February, and all the ingredients for an intense, supercharged rivalry are present.

For anyone who has been skimming over these columns while reading about Chicago's other franchises or wondering how their friends are so frenzied over hockey, do yourself a favor and tune in to one of these games on Vs. or NBC to see what all the fuss is about. Few things rival playoff hockey in terms of constant action and physical intensity, and this series promises to be a great example. Me? I'll be watching and reminiscing on the days when the Blackhawks could inspire a stadium full of Chicagoans with the same kind of performance.

Bulls in Five

by Jason Maslanka

...will return next week.

Cubs in Five

Lady Luck Smiles
by Jeff Webber

One: A Victory for Pythagoras
Remember last week, when we talked about the "Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball" and odds were, with the way the Cubs were scoring runs versus how they were allowing them, their luck was bound to turn around? How about five wins a row for you since last we spoke? How'd that be? How about eight of nine? Eight of nine.

Two: Life Will Become Much Simpler If Angel Guzman Can Keep This Up
Angel Guzman may have stank up Triple A like he was pulling a double shift digging in the poop mine, but he sure did come through when the Cubs gave him the ball on Sunday. Guzman, who'd looked good in relief earlier this year in the bigs, had clocked an appalling 12.19 ERA for the Iowa Cubs, but got the start against the Nationals anyway, mostly because the Cubs had few other options. And finally, finally he came through, clocking three strikeouts and just one run allowed in five innings.

Three: Smokin' Smokies
This year, the Cubs' Double A affiliate has changed from the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx in Jackson (yeah, I know, terrible name) to the Tennessee Smokies waaaay over on the other side of the state in Knoxville. And one of the first things you notice about their minor league numbers are the insane number of lights-out pitching performances they're getting this year. 23-year-old native Tennesseean Mark Holliman has clocked 26 strikeouts in just 33 innings, along with a 4-0 record and a flat-out sick 0.55 ERA. More heralded prospect Sean Gallagher has 29 Ks against 30 and 2/3 innings. Backing them up in the bullpen we find: Adalberto Mendez, Jim Henderson, Geoffrey Jones and Carmen Pignatiello, who've combined for 45 K in 40 1/3 innings, allowing only five runs between them. Is one of these guy's next year's Rocky Cherry? Time will tell.

Four: And the Two Best Free Agent Pitcher Signings in the NL Are...
Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis? Yeah, I know. I went out of my way to predict success for Lilly, but even so, I'm still surprised. But Marquis...? Four and one with a 2.10 ERA? Well, we probably ought not get used to that. He's still only striking out 4.42 guys per nine, and he's walking a little over three. That's not a much better ratio than his last, mostly miserable season. Let's hope his five-K, zero-walk gem against Pittsburgh last week is a step in a more stable direction. Here's hoping he can push them around again this Wednesday.

Five: The Schedule Is Our Friend... For Now
The Cubs won't get a better chance than this to run their record up for a while. This week, we draw the Pirates and the Phloundering Phillies. The x-factor is how young Angel Guzman does in the launching pad Philly calls a home field. It gets tougher after that, though. ESPN can rave about the Brewers all they want, but the Mets are the NL's best team, and they're up on Monday... followed by the Crosstown Classic against the Sox.

Sox in Five

My Sister, I'm a-Kissin' Her
by Steve Gozdecki

Almost one-fifth of the way through the season, and your 2007 Chicago White Sox stand at 14-14. The break-even point. Fit to be tied? Or tied into fits? I'm tying myself into a knot over the futility of rooting for a team that is neither here nor there, more pretender than contender or cellar dweller. Pre-2005, when to be a Sox fan was to accept that your team would be an also-ran, .500-ish ball was the expectation and the rule. But now? It kinda hurts.

One: Say Hello to the Angels
Like most White Sox fans, I've been rather irritated by the crappy play this year of a certain starting catcher. While he has always been only average at best defensively, A.J. Pierzynski used to be a plus hitter as far as catchers go, spraying line drives all about the yard and flirting with a .300 batting average more often than not. His first year in Chicago he upped the power and lost the average, then rebounded last season. This year, however... it's all been hack, hack, hack, fly out, fly out, fly out, homer. Too bad we don't have a backup catcher so this guy could get a rest. But just when you begin wondering if there might be a good free agent catcher out there this winter that the Sox could sign, A.J. has a series like he did this past weekend, when he continued to torment the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The boos rang out from the Angels fans on high all weekend, but they were only able to keep him down during Friday night's game. Saturday afternoon, the catcher broke up a 3-3 deadlock in the sixth inning by doubling and coming in on a two-out Joe Crede single. Then Sunday, as the Sox snoozed their way to a 3-1 deficit, Pierzynski woke the team up with a game-tying pinch-hit two-run homer in the eighth inning that marked his first pinch hit in a Sox jersey. What to do for an encore? A run-scoring bloop single in the 10th inning to break the tie and help send the Sox back to Chicago with a series win over the Angels.

Two: Obstacle 1
In a move that should have shockingly little impact, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen recently announced that Darin Erstad (aka "The Most Grindy Man in the World") has officially taken over the leadoff spot and will keep it even after Scott Podsednik returns from his latest leg injury. With his recent hot streak, Erstad is up to a .322 on-base percentage, which is actually second-best among non-injured White Sox regulars at present. Why Tadahito Iguchi still hasn't been given a serious look-see at the top of the order remains a bit of a mystery — wouldn't the Gooch's superior on-base skills give Erstad extra opportunities to be all bunty and grindy? — but until the inevitable grinding-related injury, it's going to be Erstad leading the team in plate appearances.

Three: Next Exit
Three-game set against the Minnesota Twins kicks off tonight up in the Twin Cities, with the bad guys slated to put out Boof Bonser, the oddly rejuvenated Ramon Ortiz and the even more oddly resurgent Carlos Silva against the Sox triumvirate of Javier Vazquez, John Danks and Jose Contreras. I smell a sweep for some reason, but don't have a prediction as to which squad will be wielding the brooms. With a schedule full of mediocre teams, May offers a good opportunity for this White Sox team to put together a winning streak — and that shouldn't be impossible, with the current Thome-less team basically composed of the same bunch that won it all in 2005.

Four: The New
Welcome to the big leagues once more, Ryan Sweeney. May your smooth fielding and sweet swing bring you success, and perhaps earn you a spot as the starting left fielder. The ability is there; here's hoping that the ability to adjust to the bigs is as well.

Five: NYC
The next White Sox homestand offers a great opportunity to see two struggling teams at very different points in what was once known as the "success cycle." Friday through Sunday, the Sox play host to the Kansas City Royals, who feature two of the best hitting prospects in the game in their starting lineup. Royals third baseman Alex Gordon has had a fairly tough go of it in the early going, but a look past his abysmal .175 batting average shows that he's learning how to work the count and getting on base via the walk, a skill some hitters never develop. And in something of a surprise move last week, the Royals called up outfielder and future DH Billy Butler, who has two minor league batting titles on his resume. So far, the kid has scratched out a .304 average in a week's worth of at bats, and the next Mike Sweeney injury may find the rook playing Gehrig to Sweeney's Wally Pipp. After KC, the Sox will welcome the New York Yankees to the Cell for a three-game set May 15-17. That the most hated team in baseball just signed the most hated pitcher in baseball to play his prima donna act for three and a half months reeks a bit of eau de desperation — maybe the Sox can grind them down into a fine powder and help keep them out of the playoffs.

Fire in Five

Reality Sets In
by Steve Gillies

One: That Was Fun While It Lasted
After a certain amount of triumphalism about the good start, reality set in this week as the Fire lost 3-1 to New England. It wasn't by any means a terrible performance, but a couple of moments of sloppy defending in the last 20 minutes cost the Fire their undefeated record. Really, the Fire have been far from perfect to start this season, so maybe it's best to get that first loss out of the way and learn from it. They should be able to get back on track against winless, goalless expansion team Toronto FC, but there is some saying about a wounded animal that the Fire should take heed of.

Two: Dave Sarachan, Game Day Coach
One of the biggest gripes Sarachan-haters have is his inability to make tactical adjustments during games. This weekend he did exactly that though, when Khano Smith was giving Ivan Guerrero fits early on. Sarachan made a slightly unorthodox move, switching Guerrero to his preferred left side and putting the team's best man-marker, Dasan Robinson slightly out of position on the right to mark Smith. The move looked like it had paid off, as Ivan was looking dangerous coming forward from the left side and Robinson was effectively marking Khano out of the game. Then in the 67th minute it all went wrong. On a broken play Robinson followed his natural tendencies as a central defender and drifted inside. The ball went out to Smith, who had waaay too much time to put in a cross that led to the go-ahead goal. The incident summed up Sarachan's luck when it comes to changing tactics on the fly. Even though the decision made sense, and worked for most of the game, it still bit him on the ass.

Three: Mark Your Calendars: On May 6 Ivan Guerrero Had a Bad Day
It didn't help Sarachan that Guerrero had a miserable game defensively. Smith's cross on that goal was by no means undefendable. Still, Guerrero got beat to the ball on the back post by Steve Ralston of all people. Generally, Guerrero is the kind of player that hits those crosses, not gets on the end of them. Add to that his torching by Smith in the first half, and then his nearly tripping over his own feet in front of a rookie to give away the third goal and you have one really terrible game from Ivan. You can't blame Sarachan for not knowing what to do when Guerrero plays badly though. That's the first time it's happened in 60 games for the club.

Four: Dave Sarachan, Game Day Coach Part 2
Of more concern to me is the way Sarachan reacts when the Fire are losing late in games. He'll throw on all the creative players he can. Judging from the Colorado game, this weekend's game, and going back to last season's Columbus fiasco, I don't get the impression the team really knows how to play with that many attacking players on the field. With Thiago, Mapp and Pascal Bedrossian all on the field at the same time, none of them seemed to have a clear idea who was steering the ship. It turned into a big, shapeless mess that looked more likely to give up another goal than score one. I like having attacking options, but I want to see a bit more method to how they're used. I'd also like to see more of Bedrossian at times when he isn't part of some desperate role of the dice. Reports were that the coaching staff was very high on him in preseason, and the team obviously values him financially...

Five: Nobody's Getting Rich Out There... Well Almost Nobody
If you couldn't tell, that ellipse in the last paragraph indicated an extremely clever segue. The player's union released salary information for the players this week, which always makes shocking reading [pdf]. As you can see, Bedrossian's at the high end of the salary scale, despite not breaking into the starting lineup yet. But really, the question isn't why he's making so much. It's why the other guys are making so little. Most notably, take the case of Matt Pickens. Last season he won the starting spot in one of the most crucial positions on the field. Now he's making $32,340 a year. That's almost barely half of what his backup makes. As for the developmental guys, how do you live in Chicago on $12,900 a year? Is that even minimum wage? Overall, it makes you admire the guys forgoing more lucrative careers in the janitorial services for the love of the game. But really, if you want to be considered a major, professional sports league, you should pay like one.

Oh yeah, and Blanco will make $2,666,778 to come in and play half a season starting in July. That's only slightly less than the rest of the team combined. Hope he's worth it.

Sky in Five

Undefeated (In the Preseason)
by Anne Elizabeth Moore

One: New Coach, New Strategy
Despite just a week to practice with an untested coach and seven rookies (most of them blonde, making us, yes, the lightest haired WNBA team in the league), the Chicago Sky pulled two more preseason victories out of thin air. Candice Dupree, 2006 All-Star (and the team's point leader) scored 17 points in the 89-69 preseason home opener last Wendesday against the Phoenix; the win was slightly less secure in Friday's 63-60 game against the Washington Mystics at Milwaukee.

The wins marked a clear shift in coaching strategy for the team under new guy Bo Overton, a great improvement over former coach Dave Cowens' strategy of, like, falling asleep as the team was pulling ahead every week during the third quarter. (Dreaming, one assumes, of coaching for the "real" NBA, his oft-professed goal, frequently followed up with variations on the theme of not understanding women's sports.) Further details of Owens' strategy are difficult to describe because they were difficult to watch, as defeat after defeat piled on and the team was finally granted the remarkable — although not good — status of competitor for "the losingest team in the history of the everything."

Two: If You Do the Math Right, They're Totally Undefeated
These two victories in their second year meant the Chicago Sky remains wholly undefeated in the preseason — or in other words, incredibly good when it doesn't count. Luck was on their side against Phoenix, too: Diana Taurasi (2006 WNBA lead scorer) and Cappie Pondexter (a rookie last year, but the second-most prolific scoring one in league history) were both out. Still, any chance to use the term undefeated should be seized. The Chicago Sky also remains undefeated in terms of unintended silliness of mascot, and could handily win any WNBA competition for "best drum line." Of course, there is one more preseason game: Next Tuesday the 15th, against the incredibly fierce Indiana Fever — more specifically, against the unstoppable force of nature that is Tan White.

Three: And What About Those New Players?
All hullaballoo over 5'9" draft pick Armintie Price on Wednesday was overshadowed by the actual on-court action of local forward Christina Quay and guard Jenna Rubino. In 19 and a half minutes of play, Quay attempted 10 field goals and made half — only Dupree tried as hard with eight attempts in 14 minutes of play. Former DuPaul player Rubino (and yeah, her entire team came out to support her, approximately doubling the audience in the stadium) was on court for a little over 13 minutes but showed hustle. It's true there's a cut on the way, and that the players don't know when it'll come down. Luckily we can easily lose about half our blondes without disrupting the Sky's potential.

Four: ...And Those "Old" Players?
The newbies had to stand in for members like the stellar but mysteriously absent 6'4" Bernadette Ngoyisa, a player from Zaire with the Sky's second-highest point average and highest rebound average per game, and the 6'2" Deanna Jackson, who spent the off-season playing for Anda Ramat Hasharon of the Israeli league. Press was reminded during the game that she didn't get arrested for hitting opposing player Ina Gurevich at the end of a playoff game — she was just taken in for questioning. Regardless, she awaits trial there. And while Sky CEO Margaret Stender was quick to denounce her actions as both atypical and not representative of the team, the squeaky-clean Sky could probably do with a bad-girl image boost. As for new players, Forward Liz Moeggenberg isn't one of them; Liz Shimek got married in the off-season, disrupting the view of the WNBA as entirely staffed by lesbians. But oh, we can dream.

Five: But We Gotta Dump the Sky Guy
Thing about the Sky is, nobody goes to the games. Yes, this'll change in just a matter of weeks — especially if Overton plays his cards right. (And not disparaging his own team is a vast improvement over recent Sky Head Coaches, for sure.) But he's gotta make a few changes. Chief among them:

1. Stop relying on Brooke Wyckoff. She has always been a spot of trouble for the Sky; Marketing clearly wants her to be our hometown girl, but she's just not an engaging player. She holds her own OK (ranks second in WNBA's 3-pointers made) but she's no, say, Amanda Lassiter. Who after seven years in the WNBA — for the Houston Comets, first, then the Seattle Storm — averages eight points and 1.3 steals per game. Plus, she's just a gamer: when she's not playing on the court, she's working over her X-Box 360. She's smart, and fast, and on it.

2. Dump the mascot. Seriously. Like having a coach who thinks "women's sports" are different from "sports," it just doesn't make any sense to have a white dude with a jet pack as the mascot for a women's basketball team in Chicago, no matter how many sisters are written into his biography. From my brief survey, plenty of mascots out there have no gender at all (the Seattle Storm's ridiculous, made-up Doppler isn't even really a thing) and certainly few of them are a direct affront to the very point of any WNBA team: that girls got game, and fuck all y'all thinkin' they don't.

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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

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies has been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com.

Anne Elizabeth Moore freely admits she knows next to nothing about basketball, but she knows what she likes: Amanda Lassiter.

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