Blackhawks

Hamilton getting closer to return from injury

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Hamilton getting closer to return from injury

ATLANTA -- Before the majority of his teammates were even onthe bus to take them to Philips Arena for the Bulls Wednesday-morningshootaround -- sans Brian Scalabrine, his workout partner -- Rip Hamilton waslaunching shots, going through drills and perhaps most importantly, gettingjostled and hit in his effort to return from a right-shoulder injury. However,despite his considerable progress as of late, its unlikely the veteranshooting guard suits up Wednesday evening against the Hawks.Im trying to get as many shots as possible and get myworkout, in addition to the stuff Ive been trying to do in practice, so Imjust trying to get acclimated, get more strength in my shoulders, Hamiltonsaid before the teams shootaround. Theres still some pain in there, but itsgetting better each and every day. Im able to shoot. That was the biggestconcern because its my right side. Im able to get my shot off and I thinkthats the thing that Im really happy with.Well see how it goes today. Today was actually thefirst time I did a little bumping. Thats what me and Scal were doing, himchasing me and bumping, and having a little contact. It was good because thatsthe biggest thingme getting hitnow, the contact, he continued. I definitelythink so. Im happy with my progress. I know that its not going to bepain-free. We just want to prevent me re-aggravating it, anything of that sort,but theres going to be pain. But as long as I can get my hand over my shoulderand be able to shoot the ball, Ill be fine.

Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibideau: Hes doing fine.Game-time decision. Doing more and more. Hes very close.Hes had some contact, he went on to say. His legs aregreat, so hes over all those injuries. We want to make sure the strength isthere in the shoulder. Were very encouraged. Hes doing great right now.The 13-year NBA veteran admitted that workout sessionsarent the same as actual games, but since he prides himself on hisconditioning, Hamilton believes hell get in the swing of things soon after hiseventual return.The games are always different than practice, but Itrain myself to be the best-conditioned athlete in the NBA. But I think thebiggest thing is rhythm, timing. I think theyre the biggest things, trying tocatch your second wind when youre out there for the first time, he said. Theschedules been crazy. I tell people that. Its no secret why everybodysgetting hurt. The back-to-back-to-back games, the traveling, its an adjustmenton everybodys body, but I feel as though when youre out there playing, youforget everything. You forget that youre hurt, youre injured, theres pain oranything like that. The only thing youre focused on is the game and trying toget a win.Today was the first day we actually took a littlecontact on it, so the more, the better and thats the one thing that wereall -- me, Thibs -- really trying to figure out. OK, whens the right time to reallypush it, because you cant dictate contact on the floor when youre playing,so were just trying to figure out when is the best time to really push it,continued Hamilton, who noted that hell wear something protective on hisshoulder when he returns to game action. The guys have been doing an awesomejob. The guys that have been coming off the bench and stepping up, and playingstarters roles have really been awesome. Ronnies been awesome, C.J.s beenawesome, Lucas, Kyle. Those guys have been doing an unbelievable job, so I givethem a lot of credit for playing the way they have been playing and doing whatthey have been doing the last couple weeks.As far as the Bulls other currently-sidelined startingguard, Derrick Rose, the leagues reigning MVP is also on the road to recovery,though unlike Hamilton, he hasnt participated in full-contact drills yet.Hes doing more. Again, game-time decision tonight,said Thibodeau. Hes running now, on the court, so that parts good. Doingmore shooting, more moving. Hes coming along.Injuries aside, Thibodeau has other concerns -- specificallyrebounding and defense -- heading into Wednesdays game, coming off the seasonsworst loss to the Nuggets at home Monday.Weve been a great rebounding team all year. I thinkits one of our strengths. We gang rebound, really. Weve got to get everybodygoing and the more you go, the more you get, so youve got to make the effortto go and youve got to fight for the ball. Hopefully we can correct that, heexplained. Its not any one particular thing and your offense is also tiedinto it, so right now, were not playing with energy and intensity andconcentration. So, weve got to get that part back first and thats in allareas, and theres stretches in those games where weve played very well. Everygame tells you something and we have to correct the things were not doingwell, clean those things up and then strive to be more of a 48-minute team. Toplay with consistency and intensity is so important in this league. I think wewill respond well.

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.