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Friday, July 19

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Pucks in Five

Trading Day
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Terrible Trios
After spending eight of their nine games in February on the road, the Blackhawks find themselves in the comfortable, quiet confines of the United Center for six of their next seven contests. After splitting the first two home games this past week, falling 2-0 to San Jose Thursday before a 5-1 thrashing of St. Louis Sunday, the Hawks welcome a foreboding threesome of opponents this week. First, on Tuesday, the rival Red Wings roll into town, looking to continue their recent domination of Chicago, including a 4-2 win last week in Detroit. The Red Wings are the Energizer bunny of the league, consistently a Cup contender for the better part of a decade, and this season is no different, with them in a battle with Nashville for the Central Division lead. The Blackhawks also make a return trip to Joe Louis Arena on Friday, making Detroit double trouble this week.

Also visiting the United Center are the always cunning Colorado Avalanche and legend Joe Sakic, who despite being last in the Northwest Division are 10th in the conference and only a short run away from the playoff battle. Sunday finds a rare Eastern Conference foe in Ottawa coming to town. The Senators are the second-best offensive team in the league, averaging over 3.4 goals a game, and are in the thick of the race for the top seed in the East. While every game this week is more important for the Hawks' opponent's playoff chances, the team can look to improve their home record to an even 14-14-4 with a sweep of the table.

Two: Power Play Progress Report
In the latest update on the Blackhawks' power play, we find that, despite some noticeable changes, it remains very much a work in progress with no long-term improvements. The unit is much more consistent in putting pressure on the offensive zone, but still sometimes struggling with putting the puck in the net — though nowhere near as bad as their 0-36 stretch earlier in the year. Coach Denis Savard has also shown his willingness to tinker with the two lines, including having winger Martin Havlat cover the point for a few games, a move that seemed to spark the team a few weeks ago and something I'd like to see continue.

The past week saw the Hawks go 1-4 against Detroit, 0-3 in the shutout loss to the Sharks, and 1-5 in Sunday's matinee win over St. Louis, a respectable 16.6 rate over three games. This week's opponents provide a decent challenge to the power-play, as Ottawa is 10th in penalty-kill and the Red Wings are 12th (Chicago happens to be 11th), while Colorado is struggling at 25th. With 20 games left in the season, the Hawks' hopes of improving their power play ranking are running thin, but increasing their production over 12 percent is a reasonable goal to reach.

Three: Aucoin Awful
It's hard to blame one player (other than a goalie on a bad night) for a team's loss, but last week's loss to the Red Wings falls almost single-handedly at the feet of defenseman and team captain Adrian Aucoin. Aucoin's telegraphed pass on the power play led to Detroit's second goal, for the third goal he was out of position and left Henrik Zetterberg on the doorstep, and he lost the puck and fell in the final 30 seconds, allowing Zetterberg to walk the puck into the empty net.

Unfortunately, when he hasn't been injured, Aucoin has been fairly atrocious all season, tied for last in plus/minus at -14. Compounding the problem is this is only his second year on a four-year deal at $4 million per year, meaning the Hawks have invested a considerable amount of money in a player who's hurting the team now and blocking a spot for the numerous defensive prospects. The Blackhawks would be truly blessed to find a taker by today's trade deadline, but this off-season they need to cut their losses and drop the dead weight.

Four: Trade deadline
As today's 2pm trade deadline nears, the Hawks figured to be sellers in what has increasingly been shaping up to be a seller's market. Here's where the team stood as of midnight Monday, with possibly more transactions happening this morning.

First, and not at all surprising, serviceable centerman Bryan Smolinski was shipped to Vancouver for a conditional second round draft pick in this summer's draft. Smoke is an experienced vet who can still put up decent numbers and was expected to draw interest by teams looking to make a playoff push and needing some depth. With his free-agent status at the end of the year, he was an attractive rental for a Cup run, and given some of the other trades made the past few days, a solitary second round pick is selling his skills short. More surprising was the Hawks second move of the day, a three-way deal with Philadelphia and Detroit. Chicago sent rookie defenseman Lasse Kukkonen and a third round pick to Philly for former Hawk Kyle Calder, then shipped Calder to the Red Wings for forward Jason Williams. Williams is a legitimate top six forward with a career high of 58 points last season, and more importantly can play center, a position the Hawks have been sorely lacking even before first line center Michael Handzus went down for the season in late October. Williams effectively replaces Smolinski in terms of statistics, and he's nine years younger and less expensive. He could see an increase in production and ice time with a team struggling for offensive help. While Kukkonen started the season off solidly, he's struggled to find minutes in a burgeoning defensive rotation and was collecting as many healthy scratches as points lately. Kuk showed promise, but with the depth the Hawks have on the blue line he was the biggest movable asset, as Jassen Cullimore and Adrian Aucoin's salary and unsteady play made them tough sells. Finally, as expected, a move was made with the Hawks' trio of goalies, only without any interest, GM Dale Tallon was forced to waive Brian Boucher. If unclaimed, Boucher will most likely be sent to Norfolk, and would need to reclear waivers were he called back to the parent club at a later date.

Overall, Tallon's moves so far earn a C-minus. With Boucher there was nothing that could be done, but he severely undervalued Smoke in garnering only a single pick. The pickup of Williams balances things out somewhat, though Kukkonen and a third round pick for Calder is a little much for a player Tallon dumped last summer for Handzus, especially given how poor he's played for the Flyers this season. It's possible the Blackhawks still have some moves left in them, and if so we'll cover the second half of the trade deadline next week.

Five: Wolves Wow Fans
Even with a winter storm pelting the area last Saturday, the Chicago Wolves' game against Omaha went on without a delay, with the Wolves falling 2-0 in front of an announced crowd of 14,113. However, with weather conditions as they were, many were unable to make the game. In an effort to reward their fans, the Wolves announced that "anyone holding a ticket for tonight's game — used or unused — may redeem it for tomorrow afternoon's matchup against Omaha, or any other remaining Sunday thru Friday contest this season." This kind of reward for fan loyalty is exactly the kind of thing that has made the Wolves successful, and something that should be applauded. It's nice to see one team in Chicago that knows how to treat their fans right.

Bulls in Five

Please Stand Up
by Jason Maslanka

One: Seriously, Just Let Us Know
There are 23 games left in the Bulls' season and fans want to know who this team is. Like a broken record, the post-All Star Game stretch started with a thrashing of the awful Atlanta Hawks, but also promising wins against Cleveland and Washington, two teams ahead of the Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings. That was followed up by a loss at East leader Detroit and a disappointing home loss against the struggling Magic. It's just so confusing.

Two: Standing Still
Pau? Kevin? Maybe even Zach? There may have been a dozen trade rumors that surrounded the Bulls as the deadline passed last week. Eventually, none of them were good enough to get General Manager John Paxson to trade Luol Deng. Basically, all of the trades centered around Deng and P.J. Brown (due to his large, expiring contract). Paxson, rightfully so, saw too much potential in Deng's future, and refused to cave to the pressure of the media and fans who wanted a scoring big man. This year's draft could feature a number of talented big men, and mortgaging your possible superstar in Deng for a scoring center would have been dangerous.

Threeeeee: Nobody Loves Ben?
A common theme throughout trade rumors, as discussed above, was teams' desire for Luol Deng and lack of such for Ben Gordon. His 20.8 points per game lead the Bulls and are 21st in the NBA. But Gordon has his issues. He leads the team in turnovers and his lack of height can often be an issue against taller defenders. With that said, he also hits some of the most unlikely shots anyone can imagine. He regularly scores 30 points and can usually create his own shot. It's confusing as to why he was not a hotter commodity during the trade talks. As a scorer, he's a talent unlike many other players this side of Gilbert Arenas and should really have commanded more attention.

Four: Rant Time
Alright, I hate to be "that" guy, but basketball officiating is just horrible. I've noticed it in college, and seen way too much of it in the NBA. One would assume that these are the 60 best basketball officials in basketball, as they represent the best league in the world. The end of the Detroit game was the most recent and egregious example of awful officiating. On a missed shot with 3 seconds left, Chris Webber of the Pistons blatantly pushed P.J. Brown out of the way for an easy rebound putback, which turned out to be the winning basket in the game. Look, I understand mistakes, but there are three officials who are probably watching the center of the action at most times. With Brown in prime rebounding position, I just can't fathom how none of the three referees were able to see him go flying out of the way and at least make an assumption as to what might have happened. It's awful, and in that case, it really did lose the Bulls the basketball game. Now, I know many people will say that the Bulls blew a 16 point lead in the game. That is true, but for this argument, all that matters is that the score was tied with 3 seconds left when Webber tossed Brown to the side and scored the winning basket. Something has to be done.

Five: Standings Update
The Bulls sit at 32-27, six games behind Detroit in the Central Division and 1.5 behind Cleveland. In the Eastern Conference Playoffs standings, the Bulls are currently the fifth seed and would play fourth seed Toronto at home in the first round of the playoffs.

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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

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he executes a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions and arguments to

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