Blackhawks

Cubs lose sixth consecutive game

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Cubs lose sixth consecutive game

Like the weather, the Cubs (3-11) stayed ice-cold Friday, dropping their sixth straight game by a score of 9-4 to the Cincinnati Reds (6-8).

Game-time temperatures dipped into the 30s with the wind chill at Wrigley Field as a disastrous first inning doomed the Cubs and starter Chris Volstad.

After striking out Zack Cozart to lead off the game, Volstad allowed five straight batters to reach, resulting in four runs. The Reds stole two bases in the inning and the Cubs committed two errors -- one charged to Starlin Castro after a throw to second on an attempted steal got by him into center field and one on Marlon Byrd on a throw to third base later in the frame.

"After striking the first guy out, it kind of snow-balled," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "Obviously an inning we didn't need at that point."

"One bad inning each of the last two starts," Volstad said. "This one happened to be the first inning, so it put me and the team in a huge hole to start the game off...It's disappointing because starting the game like that, the team is down 4-0 right away and it's hard to battle back."

The Cubs attempted to claw back with a couple of unearned runs in the third when Reds left fielder Chris Heisey dropped Castro's two-out fly ball on the warning track, allowing David DeJesus to score. Bryan LaHair, hitting cleanup for the first time this season, followed with a base hit.

But Volstad allowed the Reds on the board twice the very next inning, surrendering a two-out, two-run double to Drew Stubbs, who had three hits on the afternoon.

"The big hit of the game was Stubbs to put it 6-2 after we just scored," Sveum said. "That was kind of the back-breaker to the whole deal."

Cincinnati tacked on solo runs in the sixth, eighth and ninth innings to put the game away. Volstad is now winless in his last 14 starts, dating back to the middle of last season. He has seven losses and seven no-decisions in that span.

"That's the way the game is, I guess," Volstad said. "I just have to keep worrying about pitching...Just have to keep battling and get ready for St. Louis in my next start."

On a day when the Cubs received bad news regarding the health of veteran pitchers Kerry Wood (who was placed on the DL with right shoulder fatigue Friday) and Ryan Dempster (whose start Sunday is in doubt with a quad issue), the offense was snakebitten as well.

Despite hitting the ball hard all day, the Cubs had little to show for it, racking up just five hits and one earned run. Ian Stewart was especially unlucky, lining out hard three of his four times up.

"That's probably about the best we've swung the bat all year," Sveum said. "We hit the heck out of the ball all day, right at people and didn't get anything to show for it. A couple balls would have been home runs...Stewart didn't have anything to show for a really nice day at the plate.

"It was nice to see...We battled and swung the bats great."

Bryan LaHair led the Cubs offense with two hits -- including a double -- as well as an RBI and run scored. But he, too, was miffed by the Cubs' bad luck.

"I think everybody hit at least two balls hard," he said. "Tough break, tough game and we just have to keep doing it."

Box Score

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.