Blackhawks

How will Klopas work Fire's rebuilt roster?

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How will Klopas work Fire's rebuilt roster?

Things are different now. The Fire hasnt played a league home game since July 14, and the starting 11 that coach Frank Klopas puts on the field Saturday night against Toronto FC could be much different than the one he used in that 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. After all, the club has two new Designated Players since it played its last home match.

Designated Players are unique to Major League Soccer. A team can disregard the salary cap in bringing these types in, and they dont always work out. The Fires use of Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo in the disastrous 2010 season was a prime example.

The Fire is hoping for better things from Sherjill MacDonald and Alvaro Fernandez, and Klopas has better players around them than the Fire had when Ljungberg and Castillo tried unsuccessfully to salvage Carlos de los Cobos first season as head coach.

This season, the Fire (9-7-5) has been a stellar 6-2-2 at Toyota Park, and the next opponent is the worst team in the Eastern Conference. That doesnt matter to Klopas.

"We just need to continue to play wellWe need to play consistent to the end. None of the games are going to get any easier, and theres a lot on the line," said Klopas. "Its exciting. You want each game to mean something, and most of the games will because we play teams in our conference."

After missing postseason play the last two seasons, the Fire is in position to make the playoffs now, with 13 games left and seven of them in Bridgeview.

The club got ready for the stretch run by giving reserves liberal playing time in a 1-0 loss to Englands Aston Villa in an international friendly, then parting company with Rafael Robayo and Federico Puppo. Neither made much of an impact as key offseason signings, so the Fire moved in another direction. Puppo, incidentally also carried a DP tag.

In letting Robayo and Puppo go, the Fire made roster room for Dutch striker MacDonald and Fernandez, a midfielder who played in Uruguay before coming to MLS with the Seattle Sounders. Both could make their Toyota Park debuts on Saturday.

MacDonald came on as a substitute in the 64th minute in last Saturdays 1-1 draw at San Jose, and his fitness is still in question. Fernandez, acquired for allocation money from the Whitecaps, joined the Fire at training this week. Hes fit for full-time duty thanks to his stint with Vancouver.

MacDonald didnt do much in the draw against the Earthquakes, the best team in MLS. The Fire let three standings points slip away when San Jose tied the game late in a long second-half stoppage time.

"It was a little difficult for me because it was my first game in a long time," said MacDonald. "Obviously I can do a lot better, and Im looking forward to the next game."

Fernandez scored nine goals for the last place Whitecaps last season and had two in 14 games this campaign before being sent to the Fire. Now its up to Klopas on how theyll be used. Unless Brazilian Alex picks up his game, the Fire doesnt have a clear playmaking midfielder, but Klopas has the players to move around in an effort to overcome the apparent loss of Sebastian Grazzini, who remains in Argentina to deal with family matters.

Marco Pappa, given MLS All-Star recognition even though he didnt play in the leagues midseason match against Chelsea, sat out the San Jose match for yellow card point accumulations but hell be back against Toronto FC (5-12-4). Defender Gonzalo Segares, who didnt make the trip to San Jose after spraining an ankle in training, was back on the pitch this week and is expected to be available against Toronto FC.

In addition to the new DPs and Pappa, Klopas can move around Dominic Oduro, Patrick Nyarko and Chris Rolfe in an effort to perk up the Fire offensively. The club has scored just 23 goals in 21 MLS matches, and only four of the leagues other 18 clubs have scored less.

However, thanks largely to Sean Johnsons great play in goal, the Fire has allowed only 23. Just five MLS clubs have allowed less.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night:
 
1. One too many penalties.

The Blackhawks flirted with danger in the first period when they handed the Lightning three straight continuous power plays, a four-minute double minor high-sticking penalty from John Hayden and a Jonathan Toews hooking call that resulted in a 5-on-3 opportunity for Tampa Bay for 43 seconds. 

The penalty kill unit that ranked fourth in the league entering the matchup, however, killed off all three of those penalties against the NHL's top-ranked power play, and did so in commanding fashion.

The Blackhawks went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill in regulation, but couldn't stop the sixth one — a questionable slashing call on Nick Schmaltz —  in overtime when Brayden Point buried the winner on a 4-on-3 opportunity.

It was also interesting that Jon Cooper elected to go with four forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Point and Steven Stamkos) and zero defensemen during that man advantage, putting all of his offensive weapons out on the ice. It's something more teams should do in that situation.

2. Patrick Kane gets going.

After scoring just one goal in his previous 10 games, Kane found the back of the net twice in the opening frame against Tampa Bay and stayed hot against a team he historically plays well against. And he nearly netted a hat trick in overtime but couldn't cash in on a breakaway opportunity.

Kane has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 14 career regular-season games against the Lightning, and extended his point streak to five games. He has three goals and four assists over that stretch.

We wrote about how important it is for the Blackhawks' superstars to get going again with the offensive contributions mainly coming from role players as of late, and Kane getting into a groove is a perfect step in that direction.

3. How about that goaltending battle?

Corey Crawford and Andrei Vasilevskiy showed us exactly why they belong in the Vezina Trophy discussion, and as of this moment, it's hard not to include both of them as finalists. They put on a goaltending clinic, seemingly topping the other as the game went on.

The two teams combined for 71 scoring chances, and Crawford and Vasilevskiy came up big when their teams need them the most.

Crawford finished with 35 saves on 38 shots (.921 save percentage) in the loss while Vasilevskiy stopped 29 of 31 (.935 save percentage), and improved to 15-2-1 on the season. 

4. Missed opportunities.

You couldn't have asked for a better start for the Blackhawks. They scored the first goal 3:49 into the game and the second on the power play at 15:54, killed off three penalties, including a 5-on-3, had 24 shot attempts (13 on goal) compared to the Lightning's 16 attempts (11 on goal) and led in even-strength scoring chances 9-6.

It was a different story the rest of the way.

The Blackhawks took their foot off the gas pedal a bit and let the Lightning back in the game by getting away from what they do best, and that's control the puck. Obviously, you expected the league's best offense to push back and it's certainly not an easy task to keep them off the scoresheet all together. 

But the Blackhawks had their chances to stay in front or retake the lead and just couldn't bury them. Tampa Bay had 50 shot attempts from the second period on while the Blackhawks had only 32, and finished with 44 scoring chances compared to Chicago's 27.

5. Richard Panik in the doghouse?

Joel Quenneville didn't go to his line blender in this one, but he did shorten some leashes. Panik, most notably, had a season-low 12:28 of ice time in the loss and had 15 shifts, which was second-fewest only to Ryan Hartman (13) on the team.

Panik had a prime chance to break a 2-2 tie in the third period but was denied by Vasilevskiy, who made a remarkable left-pad save. Instead, Panik extended his goal drought to 12 games and didn't get a shift in overtime.

He's certainly better and will get his scoring chances when playing on the top line with Toews and Brandon Saad, but the missed opportunities are magnified in tight losses. It doesn't look like a move down in the lineup is coming given the success of Alex DeBrincat, who gives the Blackhawks an offensive weapon on the third line, but perhaps it should be considered.

Bring your own stuffing: Jazz swat Bulls on Thanksgiving Eve

Bring your own stuffing: Jazz swat Bulls on Thanksgiving Eve

On the second (turkey) leg of a back-to-back, the Bulls didn't bring much energy in a 110-80 loss to the Utah Jazz. 

Instead of diving into the nitty-gritty of the uninspiring effort, though, we decided to just serve you up a Thanksgiving meal of highlights. Here are the top blocks from Wednesday's game: 

5. Derrick Favors is no Rudy Gobert -- that we know -- but imitation is the highest form of flattery. 

4. Are Bobby Portis chase down blocks the new LeBron James chase down blocks? Let's not get carried away... yet. We'll chalk it up to just a real nice hustle play by Bobby. 

3 and 2. Speaking of hustle plays... Jonas Jerebko isn't exactly known as a dominant defender. He sure made it hard for the Bulls on what should of been an easy fast-break bucket in the third quarter, though. First, he silenced Kris Dunn's reverse. Then, he met Lauri Markkanen at the rim and sent the rookie packing. The Baby Bulls 2.0 can blame it on fatigue, but they just handed Jerebko a highlight tape for years to come.   

1. In fairness, Jerian Grant had to get up a shot as the quarter was coming to a close. It is as vicious as it looks, though.