Cubs

Hawks face a tough test in Smith

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Hawks face a tough test in Smith

GLENDALE, Ariz. Mike Smiths debut for the Phoenix Coyotes was an inauspicious one.

The goaltender struggled, allowing six goals in the first two periods in the season opener against the San Jose Sharks. Goaltending coach Sean Burke said the Coyotes had a decision to make after those 40 minutes.

We talked about it as coaches: Do we want to take him out? Burke recalled. But we said, Its his first game, and we need to show him right now hes going to be our guy, hes going to play. From that point on he took the ball and ran with it.

That guy who gave up six in his first two periods with Phoenix gave up very, very little in his last five regular-season games. And Smiths renaissance season is a big reason why the Coyotes won the Pacific Division title, their first division championship in franchise history.

When the Chicago Blackhawks face the Coyotes tomorrow, theyll be facing arguably the hottest goaltender in the league right now. In his final five regular-season games, Smith stopped 190 of the 192 shots he saw. For a goaltender whose career stalled in Tampa Bay, Smith is now back at the top of his game.

I dont look at it as him getting hot at the end. Hes been good all year long, Burke said. Obviously the key to his season has been his consistency. When we got him we knew what a great athlete he was, (Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett) had him in Dallas, so there was a confidence factor off the bat there. He came in here looking as a new lease on life and he has taken advantage of it.

Smith gave Burke credit for where he is now.

I dont think Im a lot different (from my Dallas days), Smith said. Consistency-wise, Ive been better this year. I worked hard to gain that, and Burkes been a big part of that. Ive approached every game the same way, and I dont plan to change that now.

It has been a fresh start for Smith, who was traded from the Stars to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the Brad Richards deal in February of 2008. Smith was on his way up at the time, a strong backup to Marty Turco and someone who was pegged to take the No. 1 job in Tampa. But it didnt work out; Smith played part of last season in the minors and was a free agent last summer.

Then the Coyotes called. And given his relationship with Tippett, it was a natural fit.

I know him and his character, Tippett said. I always thought he was going to be a top goaltender, and for whatever reason in Tampa didnt turn out that way. He was hungry from the opportunity, and I thought the relationship with him and Burke could be good. Hes just continued to work on his game, its matured and hes turned into a very good player.

The Blackhawks respect what Smith has done; they also want to get to him early in Game 1 on Thursday.

Hes on a heck of a run, hes had a good season. Thats not surprising to anybody, Patrick Sharp said. Playing with the lead is big so we want to score that first goal. The start is key, but its a 60-minute game. Sometimes its 80 minutes. You just want to make sure youre ready to go.

So is Smith. This is his first chance to be a No. 1 goaltender for a playoff team, and hes ready for the opportunity.

Im thrilled. This is why we play hockey, why were in this position, Smith said. I know from experience last year (with Tampa) that theres no better feeling than playing in the playoffs. In any playoff series you have to have good goaltending. Im just going to do my thing and hopefully its good enough.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

Podcast: Which Blackhawks could be on the move before trade deadline?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Which Blackhawks could be on the move before trade deadline?

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Adam Burish and Pat Boyle discuss which Blackhawks could be on the trading block and what players are building blocks for the Hawks future.

Burish also shares a couple memorable trade deadline days and his “near” return to the Blackhawks in 2012. Plus, he makes his bold trade deadline prediction for the Hawks.

Listen to the full Blackhawks Talk Podcast right here: