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Sunday, July 21

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Pucks in Five

Still a Chance
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Against All Odds
Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in. With a 2-0-1 week, the Blackhawks positioned themselves to keep playoff talk alive for just another week. A strong performance in a 5-0 shutout against the Capitals, a 2-1 shootout loss in Nashville and a 4-3 Easter Sunday win over the Blues left the Hawks just four points out of the final playoff spot with six games to play. The team has been playing some of their better hockey up and down the entire roster, getting quality shots on net and playing strong defense in front of a rejuvenated Nicolai Khabibulin in net. Habby picked up his second shutout of the season in Wednesday's win over Washington in his first game back after missing the previous 13 with back spasms, and has a .969 save percentage in his last five games, dating to Feb. 20.

The team to catch is the Colorado Avalanche, who currently sit at 84 points and are slumping, having lost fiveof their last seven games. The Nashville Predators sit two points back at 82, and have also lost five of their last seven, though they gained a big two points in their win over Chicago. Also ahead of the Hawks are the Edmonton Oilers, who have surged to 81 points by winning six of their last eight. All three teams also have six games left, with Colorado and Edmonton facing off once more head-to-head.

The success of these other teams won't matter if the Hawks don't take care of business in their own end, so the focus this week is earning Ws in a home and home with Columbus tomorrow and Sunday, sandwiched by a return engagement in St. Louis Saturday. Without picking up those points, the playoff aspirations hanging by a thread will be snapped.

Two: Success On, and Off, the Ice
Even if the team's playoff chase falls short, the season has seen the franchise grow in unprecedented ways on the rink, in the stands, in the front office, and across the broadcast airwaves. The Hawks currently sit at 80 points with six games to play, putting the team on pace for their highest point total since the 2001-2 team reached 96 points and is only the second time in the past 10 years the team has reached the 80 point barrier. More importantly, as the Hawks' young talent is growing and maturing on the ice, the fans are responding both to the team itself and the changes chairman Rocky Wirtz has made to the franchise since the death of his father last September.

Ticket sales this season are up 54 percent, and the team's eight sellouts are more than the previous five seasons combined. Overall attendance is also up an average of nearly 3,000 fans a game and rising. Merchandise sales are up 184 percent and 151 percent at Fandemonium and Hawkquarters, as the number of brand new 19 and 88 jerseys attest. Also, March 7's ceremony honoring Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull saw the single highest grossing nightly sales at Fandemonium, as eager fans gobbled up the special merchandise commemorating the return of two of the team's greatest stars to the organization. For a team that was rumored to have lost $30 million a year ago and roughly $190 million the past decade, seeing a resurgent, passionate fan base returning to the United Center is a welcome sight to behold. Equally amazing is seeing a handful of home games being broadcast on TV, breaking a long-standing team policy; and with news breaking last week that the team was in discussion to air the entire slate of contests next season, including a smattering of games on WGN, the outlook just keeps getting better.

With the death of Bill Wirtz, a great cloud of uncertainty hung over the franchise, one that only became more muddled when little known Rocky stepped in as opposed to Peter Wirtz, who was a Blackhawks VP for 20 years. The amount of change undertaken in the past six months and the goodwill built between organization and the fanbase is nothing short of miraculous. For proof, just look at the standing ovation and cheers of "Rocky, Rocky" for team chairman Wirtz at the recent ceremonies. The day a Wirtz was cheered in Chicago was going to be the day the devil laced up his skates, but Rocky is now revered for reviving the Hawks.

Three: Holy Khabby

I only wish the camera work was better, because this clip barely does the save justice. One of the best saves I've ever seen.

Four: Wolves Nearing Playoff Berth
Entering the middle stretch of a five-game road trip, the Wolves were well positioned to continue their winning ways, having lost just twice in regulation in their previous 20 games. But the week saw the team stumble, dropping a 7-5 shootout to Lake Erie Tuesday and a pair of games in Houston to the Aeros Thursday and Friday. The losses tied the Wolves season-high four game losing streak, but Chicago was able to rebound Saturday with a 3-1 victory over the San Antonio Rampage.

Even with the losing streak, the team is a win away from clinching a postseason berth for the 13th time in 14 years, and Chicago still has a 14-point division lead in the West Division and the second-best record in the league. The team wraps up the road trip in Rockford Friday night before earning a chance at redemption when the Aeros visit Allstate Arena Saturday. Sunday afternoon the Grand Rapids Griffins pay a visit as well.

Also of note, Jason Krog picked up another six points in the four games last week. Krog has been atop the AHL points race most of the season and currently sits at 97, 17 ahead of Blackhawk prospect Martin St. Pierre. But with three goals in the past week, Krog has leaped past teammate Brett Sterling for the goal lead with 35 tallies, and also leads the league with 62 assists. With 11 games left in the season, were Krog to hold on, he would become only the third player in AHL history to lead in all three categories.

While the individual honor would be impressive (and something worth keeping tabs on in the next few weeks), the Wolves are fine-tuning their focus for the Calder Cup race.

Five: Anderson Earns Accolades
Besides breaking the team's four game losing streak, Saturday's win was a milestone for head coach John Anderson. The 3-1 victory over San Antonio gave Anderson 500 career victories as a Chicago coach, along with 300 AHL victories. During his 11 years at the helm of the Wolves, Anderson has posted a .627 winning percentage, and has earned an AHL championship and two IHL championships in his tenure.

Anderson's a hockey lifer, having played in the NHL for 12 seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers, amassing 282 goals and 631 points in his career. He also spent time in the IHL in the twilight of his career, before getting his coaching start in Winston-Salem in 1995. After spending a year in North Carolina, he moved on to the Quad City Mallards for a season, earning the Colonial Cup in the 1996-7 Colonial Hockey League season before being hired by the Wolves for the 1997-98 campaign.

Anderson has never posted a losing record as coach of the Wolves and his teams have only missed the playoffs once. Given the large amount of roster turnover that happens in the minor league game, his ability to win consistently is a feat to behold and a testament to his coaching system and ability to teach young minor-leaguers.

Help Wanted

Gapers Block is starting a new sports blog, and we're looking for new contributors! We're calling it Tailgate, and our intention is to serve as a place for fans of all Chicago sports — not just the majors — to talk. We're looking for six or eight writers to write a minimum of two posts a week. If you're interested in joining the team, email Andrew at ah@gapersblock.com with a little about yourself and some writing samples.

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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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