Blackhawks

Fire's loss sets up critical match against DC United

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Fire's loss sets up critical match against DC United

Saturday was a strange night for Chicago soccer.

Arguably the best-played match of the season at Toyota Park was staged in an ideal soccer atmosphere, but it didnt involve the Fire. The citys Major League Soccer club was in Boston, playing a bad game in a bad setting at a crucial point in the season.

Toyota Park welcomed the top two teams in the current FIFA Womens World Rankings, and it drew a sellout crowd announced at 19,522. The stadiums seating capacity is 20,000 and the Fire drew 20,563 against the Los Angeles Galaxy in its lone sellout of this season, but forget the seeming contradiction in numbers. The Olympic gold medalists from the U.S. played Germany to a 1-1 draw before a most-attentive packed house in Bridgeview.

The Fire, meanwhile, went into its last road match of the MLS regular season against the New England Revolution with the chance to take over first place in the Eastern Conference. Putting on a performance that captain Logan Pause admitted was "kind of blah," the Fire took a 1-0 loss that damaged its playoff positioning.

Not only that, but the atmosphere in New England reflected the problems still plaguing 17-year old MLS. One of its charter teams, the Revolution announced a crowd of 25,534 not bad numerically, but that left Gillette Stadium only one-third filled. The home of footballs New England Patriots is clearly not suited for soccer.

The Fire-New England match was played on artificial turf clearly marked for a National Football League game. The field was also too narrow for an MLS match. The Revs need a new home field, one like most every other team in the league.

Those long-range issues aside, the Fire (17-11-5) put itself in a precarious position for this Saturdays regular season home finale against D.C. United (17-10-6). United climbed ahead of the Fire and into second place in the Eastern Conference by beating the Columbus Crew 3-2 in another Saturday night matchup.

The loss in New England, coupled with Sporting Kansas Citys scoreless draw against New York, killed the Fires chances of finishing in first place in the Eastern Conference. Now the Fire could finish as high as second or as low as fifth, depending on the last round of regular season matches.

Finishing second or third would mean a spot in the two-game Eastern semifinal series, to be played Nov. 3 or 4 and Nov. 7 or 8. Finishing fourth or fifth would mean a one-game knockout match on Wednesday or Thursday on the home field of the No. 4 seed to determine the last team in the conference semifinals.

The five Eastern playoff teams were determined over the weekend, but not the order of finish. SKC (17-7-9) needs a draw in its last match at home against the Philadelphia Union to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. D.C. United (17-10-6) could keep its hopes alive for the top spot with a road win in Bridgeview. New York (15-9-9) sits in the fourth spot with only a Saturday road match at Philadelphia remaining. Fifth-place Houston (14-8-11) concludes at Colorado on Saturday night.

Though theres plenty of uncertainty regarding the postseason, theres no doubt that the Fire must play better the rest of the way than it did under the less-than-ideal circumstances in New England.

"We really just needed to raise our energy level. Thats really what it was about. We just came out flat in the first half," said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. That resulted in the Fire giving up the first goal for the 20th time in 33 matches a revealing statistic that must be improved for the big matches ahead.

The Fire has been a bad team on artificial turf, going 2-9-2 on such surfaces over the last three years, so it wasnt surprising the club struggled in its latest adventure off grass. Coach Frank Klopas didnt want to risk injury to Arne Friedrich, the veteran German defender, on the New England field with a playoff berth already assured. Friedrich was a healthy scratch.

"We dont play on turf much, and we come here and the field is smaller, the bounce is different, we dont practice on turf," said Klopas. "Its different.Its not like we came here underestimating anyone.We just werent that share in the final third when we had opportunities to be so."

Klopas brought Dan Gargan in at right back and moved Jalil Anibaba into the middle against the Revs. Friedrichs absence had little to do with the disappointing outcome, as the defenders limited New England to one shot on goal a 25-yarder by 17-year old Diego Fagundez in the 17th minute. Fagundez was one of several youngsters used by coach Jay Heaps as New England (8-17-8) wound down its disappointing season.

Fagundez goal snapped a 196-minute scoreless streak for New England. The Revs became the first Eastern team to win a season series from the Fire, which has won season series against SKC, New York, Houston, Columbus, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. The Fire came out a 4-2 loser in its lone meeting with D.C. United, an Aug. 22 battle on Uniteds field.

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.