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Wednesday, November 20

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Bears in Five

The Pressure is Off
by the Bearscast.com hosts

Yo-Yo Goes Down
Well its official — the Bears have now failed at their fifth opportunity to win back-to-back games and I seriously wonder if it'll ever happen. I mean, how do you blow a game when you are leading by nearly 10 points late in the fourth quarter? I guess we did learn something from the Denver game last week. But the most upsetting thing was to see a season slip away. To watch a team that looked so good in the first half fail three times to score when starting drives from their own 40 or better late in the game. The dropped passes, the silly penalties, and the complete lack of a running game... it was hard to watch. All of that aside, though, the worst stat of the game was that the Bears were +4 in turnovers but didn't win the game. Disgusting!

Rexurrection
What does it say about the Bears season when the play of Rex Grossman was the most encouraging thing about Sunday's game? He was one bomb to Devin Hester away from throwing for nearly 300 yards in the first half, but much like last week dropped passes plagued his targets yet again. It's crazy to think that the support for bringing Rex back next year grows by the week. His newfound consistency combined with a very limited free agent class has seemingly brought his Bears career back from the dead. While he does still struggle with not stepping up in the pocket and there were some over-throws on Sunday, it's safe to say that Rex is probably the least of this team's problems right now. Who ever thought I'd be writing that this season?

Somebody Get the Stick'em
At least the Bears are consistent in one way: they continue to lead the NFL in dropped passes. The deep pass to Hester bouncing off his shoulder pad was just a microcosm of a unit that has a serious case of the dropsies — about the only thing they've managed to catch this season. While not every one of Rex's throws was on the money, several that were dropped would've been caught on a winning football team. It's the little things like that which continue to keep the Bears performing below their talent level. I am an advocate of taking the Gene Hackman/The Replacements approach to this problem and covering our receivers' hands in stick'em. If they get caught, so what? The few plays they may make in the mean time could be crucial for this team's confidence.

Time to Look in the Mirror
I know this is a short week but here are several people who need to look in the mirror before kickoff on Thursday:

Lovie Smith: I don't care what you say; this is no longer a running team. A team is a reflection of its coach — so what do you have to say about our inconsistencies?

Ron Turner: Why is Rex Grossman throwing the ball 46 times in a game? You are the offensive guru and yet you can't find a running game, a slant pattern, or how to get Devin Hester the ball enough.

Offensive Line: Six sacks and 68 yards rushing. Enough said.

Wide Receivers: You are paid to catch the ball; please do so.

Danieal Manning: The odds of getting stiff-armed significantly decrease when you go at a player's waist and legs. I feel your poor play has mainly been masked by the horrendous play of Archuleta — get it together.

Brian Urlacher: You are our captain, our leader, our savior. Things like Sunday's fourth quarter CAN NOT HAPPEN!

At Least the Pressure Is Off
If nothing else, the Bears can finally kick off Thursday not feeling like it's a must-win game. I know the Bears are not yet mathematically eliminated, but Sunday sure felt like the end. They'd need to win four in a row — they have yet to win two — and get a lot of help to make it in, and I am sick of fooling myself. I want to see what happens when this team plays a game loose and without pressure. Maybe we all hyped ourselves into this frenzy and it never allowed the Bears to play their game. The pressure certainly seemed to be getting to Rex early on, so why couldn't it have plagued the whole team? I'm not completely packing it in and I'd like to see this team finish strong, maybe 8-8, and certainly beat Green Bay. But I must admit it'll be kinda nice watching Thursday night and not feeling like the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

...took that loss pretty hard. Back next week.

Pucks in Five

Change is on the Wind
by Jeremy Piniak

This week sees the return of an older star, the emergence of a defensive stalwart, and a chance to meet the future of the Blackhawks franchise. Also in the news are changes to who will visit the United Center in the future. Meanwhile, the Wolves hit the road to face some unfamiliar foes in this week's Pucks in Five.

One: Welcome Back, Martin
Forty-three seconds into his second season opener Wednesday against Tampa Bay, Martin Havlat took a 2-on-1 pass from Jason Williams and, following a quick shoulder juke, roofed a backhand into the corner of the net for his first goal of the year. He followed that up 12 seconds into the second period, notching his second goal. With those quick goals, Havlat showed exactly the extra dimension he adds to the Blackhawks offense. Last year's leading scorer was often the focal point of the opposing team's defense last season, as he showed Wednesday and also Friday, when he netted an assist in the team's 6-1 shellacking of Phoenix. Now, with the emergence of rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews and the acquisition of Jason Williams and Robert Lang, the Blackhawks can roll out two potent lines and a more balanced attack.

Unfortunately, later in the same game, Williams aggravated his groin injury (along with taking a stick to the face that required stitches) and will be out for the next two weeks, forcing coach Denis Savard to shuffle lines just as his team was back to full strength. Williams has been a solid contributor so far, and showed chemistry in his play with Havlat, but Martin's talent can elevate an entire line's play, and he will be a constant threat as he works himself back into game shape.

Two: Buffing Up
Friday's game against Phoenix was the team's second televised home game, and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien took a star turn on the screen, netting a natural hat trick in 5:29 in the first period. Byfuglien also had an assist in the 6-1 victory Friday for his first career four-point game, as well as a helper in the team's 3-1 loss to St. Louis Saturday and the game-winning goal Wednesday. After being injured and beginning the season in Rockford, Byfuglien was called up Nov. 3 and has made an indelible case for his reason to stay in Chicago with his continuously improving play. In fact, with a number of defensemen on the roster, Savard was planning to move Byfuglien to the wing, believing he can develop into a strong power forward. Buff began playing wing during last weekend's Western Canada trip, but the plan has been temporarily halted due to James Wisniewski's concussion.

While Byfuglien has the tools and physical prowess to be an imposing forward, his play over the last month has also made him one of the top four defensemen as well. With the way the Hawks have struggled in their defensive zone at times this season, removing a usually steady defender is risky, but if Buff can adjust to playing forward at the NHL level, he can be part of an aggressively powerful line that will be provide a counterpunch to the speed of the top two lines.

Three: Meet the Kids
Want the chance to meet the Blackhawks' hyped prospects? Rookie stalwarts Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane will be signing autographs downtown at Hawkquarters (333 N. Michigan Ave.) from 2 to 4pm Saturday. Signatures are limited to one per player per person, but it's a great chance to meet the two 19-year-olds who will be the faces of the franchise for years to come.

Four: Scheduling Solutions
At the annual governor's meeting in Pebble Beach, the NHL chose to scrap the new scheduling system put in place after the lockout three years ago. The current schedule has a team like the Blackhawks playing division rivals eight times in a season and the other Western conference teams four times, while facing only 10 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams a year. Due to some horrible planning, the division teams sometimes face each other far too often within a short time. For example, last month Phoenix played San Jose three straight times in the same week, then followed that with two consecutive games against the LA Kings. Talk about monotonous. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have gone two straight years without having Penguins phenom Sidney Crosby in the United Center, due to the unbalanced Eastern conference schedule, depriving Chicago fans from seeing one of the league's brightest stars.

The new schedule plan cuts the number of divisional games from eight to six while keeping the conference games at four. This will allow for the Hawks to play each Eastern Conference team at least once a season, as well as three wild-card games to reach the total of 82. This way, each Eastern team will visit Chicago every other year, the same setup the league had before the lockout, while still fostering division rivalries. However, some players think the schedule could be adjusted to be even more fan-friendly, and are willing to add two games to the schedule to ensure each Eastern Conference team plays a home and away, while lessening the Western Conference games from four to three, with a rotating home-away-home schedule every other year. With the number of teams in the league, it's impossible to hit upon a perfect schedule, but the players' proposal does the best between balancing fairness and fan interest. Hopefully the Board of Governors agrees.

Five: Wolves Work Their Way East
Speaking of scheduling quirks, the Chicago Wolves, after wrapping up a five-game home stand against the Syracuse Crunch, travel east to take on the Providence Bruins and the Manchester Monarchs. This will be the first time the Wolves play Providence since 2002, and the first ever meeting with the Monarchs, who entered the league in 2001. I am not aware of the exact details on how the AHL balances its schedule, but it's amazing that teams, even in different conferences, may not meet for more than five years. The Wolves lost their third game in regulation to the Iowa Stars on December, but their 17-3-1-0 record gives them second in the AHL with 35 points, while their winning percentage is tops in the league. Providence is the top team in the league with a 17-3-2 record, so the Wolves will face a stiff and fair test in their battle against the Bruins, as neither team is familiar with the other.

Bulls in Five

Looking Better
by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

One: Whoopteedoo
Your Chicago Bulls won two games in a row this week — a bona fide winning streak. They are now 4-11, so they got half the season's win total this week. Against Charlotte (111-95), Ben Gordon scored 34 points and Luol Deng added 29 as they won consecutive games for the first time this season. They beat the middling Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, 90 - 78. Still firmly in the basement of the Central Division.

Two: Hinrich Under the Gaze
Kirk Hinrich had started 304 of 314 games since being selected seventh overall in the 2003 NBA draft. Yet after the Atlanta game Thursday (shooting 29 percent), Skiles said. "He's just got to play better... He's got to relax, keep up his defensive intensity and all around be a little better at that spot." At that point Kirk had not scored more than 20 points in any game this season. He did start the next game, playing 40 minutes against Charlotte (shooting 50 percent) and 32 against Dallas (shooting 31 percent) on Monday. He's still not showing anybody who's co-captain.

Three: Dallas vs. Mavericks
The Bulls lost at home last night against the Maverick's 98-103. It was fun to watch, but they continue the pattern of lame hole-digging, frantic come-backing and the almost-wons. The Bulls did better than the Mavericks in most every category but shooting (also known as scoring, leading to points, which furthers the chance of winning the game). In what should make the people on the roster wince when they see it in the papers on Tuesday, Coach Skiles said, "We've got to find a way to make pro layups." Ouch.

Four: Out on the Beat
Veteran Bulls beat reporter Sam Smith raises the spector of Pau Gasol again. GM John Paxon has long been rumored to be after him. Mariotti points at Skiles again, and Brian Hanley warns of more microphones in TV game coverage. Language, people, language!

Five: Busy Week
Looking ahead, the Bulls head to Charlotte to play the Bobcats on Wednesday, then head to Detroit to face our friends, the Pistons. Then back home to face the hot Celtics.

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About the Author(s)

Sean Cassidy, Herman Coats and Gabe Dixon are the hosts of Bearscast.com, the best and brightest Bears podcast, part of the Chicago Sportscast Network. Now with perfect pronunciation of "Adewale Ogunleye"...by one of the hosts anyway. Go listen. Send comments to hosts@bearscast.com.

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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