Blackhawks

Cubs will see what theyre made of against Halladay, Phillies

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Cubs will see what theyre made of against Halladay, Phillies

A Cubs team looking for any kind of offensive spark now gets the best pitcher on the planet.

The Cubs knew it was coming, a brutal early schedule filled with teams expecting to play deep into October.

It happens to be two-time Cy Young award winner Roy Halladay and the Phillies on Friday night, in front of what should be another sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

But it started Opening Day against Stephen Strasburg, a run of high-end pitching that helps explain why the Cubs are 6-13: Gio Gonzalez, Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Mark Buehrle and Adam Wainwright (twice).

The Cubs will miss aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee whos on the disabled list with a strained left oblique during this four-game series. Franchise players Ryan Howard (torn Achilles) and Chase Utley (knee) are also on the DL.

Dale Sveum will crunch the numbers and try to manipulate the matchups. But the Cubs manager can only do so much against the Phillies (9-10 with a 2.88 team ERA).

Its going to be tough to score runs and put things together, Sveum said. Thats why theyve got one of the best pitching staffs over the last few years.

Hopefully, getting into more of a hitters park we can hit some home runs and you got to do that against those kind of pitchers, because its just hard to string hits together. They dont walk anybody either.

Over the winter, the Cubs consciously avoided adding a proven big bat to their lineup, and theyre paying for it now. Theyve scored more than four runs only four times this season and only once in their last 11 games.

The Cubs woke up on Thursday last in the National League with seven home runs (and four were hit by Bryan LaHair). They were next-to-last in slugging percentage (.333). They are hitting .211 with runners in scoring position.

We knew the schedule was going to be tough, Sveum said. But, hey, thats Major League Baseball. A lot of teams have really good starting pitching now. Thats part of the game and you got to find a way to scratch runs out and have good at-bats and get leads.

Yes, these are small sample sizes. But combined, Geovany Soto and Ian Stewart went 2-for-34 on the homestand that ended Wednesday. Sotos hitting .140 with one RBI so far this season, while Stewarts at .175.

Alfonso Soriano seems to have a better approach, and has driven in 10 runs, but hes stuck on one extra-base hit this month.

Thats the last thing on my mind losing confidence, Soriano said. I have 11 years in this game. Ive played this game consistently. I know what I can do. We play 162 games. Sometimes you have a bad week, two weeks, but its a six-month (deal). The season isnt over.

The seasons first six weeks will be telling for Cubs management, because 21 of their first 39 games are against the Phillies, Cardinals and Brewers, three playoffs teams in 2011.

This road trip continues to Cincinnati, where the Reds are a trendy pick to win the division. The Cubs will return to Wrigley Field on May 4 for a homestand against the Dodgers and Braves, who combined won 171 games last season.

You want that, utility man Jeff Baker said. If you can play well against those teams and you can do some damage, you can get the confidence going. You can get the city behind you.

If you go out there and youre playing some teams that didnt have a great year last year and you beat em, then everyone says youre supposed to beat em.

As players, you want to go out there and play against those tough teams. For us, if its early, so be it. Well take our chances and roll with it.

So this could be revealing. Tony Campana who has five hits and four stolen bases in five games will try to maximize his opportunity after the Marlon Byrd trade and give the Cubs a different dimension.

Randy Wells, who gets the ball on Saturday, will try to force the issue and grab a spot in the rotation. You can pretty much go up and down the roster, because new president Theo Epstein is taking this year to assess the entire organization.

Starting with Halladay (3-1, 1.50 ERA), the Cubs will begin to find out what theyre made of in South Philly.

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.