Blackhawks

Napleton, St. Rita capture hockey championship over St. Viator

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Napleton, St. Rita capture hockey championship over St. Viator

By Pat Disabato
YourSeason.com

St. Rita goalie Marty Napleton has been marvelous all season a 31-8-2 mark, including 13 shutouts, and 1.45 goals-against average is testament to that.

Napleton, however, saved arguably his finest performance of the campaign for Friday night.

The junior netminder turned aside 28 shots, many in spectacular fashion, to carry St. Rita to a dominant 5-0 victory over St. Viator in the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois state championship at the United Center. Napleton earned Most Valuable Player honors for his performance.

Stan Sojka (assist) and Ricky Faron paced the offense, scoring two goals each. Jack Warren added a solo tally for the Mustangs.

Marty has been unbelievable all year, Faron said. He stood on his head tonight.

The state title was St. Ritas second in three seasons and the third overall for the storied program. The Mustangs (40-13-4), who won their fifth straight Kennedy Cup championship earlier this season, knocked off defending champion New Trier, the No. 1 seed, Saturday in the semifinals and then No. 2 St. Viator (50-17-5) in a matter of six days.

All the kids played well, said St. Rita coach Craig Ferguson, who just completed his eighth season. We outplayed them. We were the better team tonight.

Trailing 2-0 entering the third period, St. Viator had a chance to mount a comeback with a power play just 47 seconds in. The Lions had two wonderful chances to dent the net, but Napleton denied Jackson Owens on a breakaway and Michael Decker, after being stopped on his first attempt, fired wide on a rebound chance.

The failure to convert appeared to sap life from St. Viator.

That was big to kill that penalty, Faron said. It took away all their momentum.

The Mustangs then put the game away. Warren hammered home a one-timer off a pretty pass from Sojka at 13:33 to make it 3-0. It was Warrens 23rd goal of the season. Just 1:22 later, Sojka went to his backhand to beat goalie Robert Schmidt for a 4-0 advantage. It was the St. Rita captains second goal of the game and 10th of the season.

Then Faron, camped out just right of the crease, made it 5-0 at 9:46. It was Farons second goal of the game and 63rd of the season. Chris Foley and Luke Botica picked up assists.

I think it was our composure, said Foley, who was injured most of the season and was limited to 29 games. Weve played in enough big games where we werent really nervous. Its a bigger stage, but just another game.

It was non-stop action for the first seven minutes of the opening period, void of a single whistle that would have caused play to halt.

Play was finally stopped at 10:07 and would be halted again just four seconds later, when Sojka batted home his own rebound at 10:03 for a 1-0 lead.

The early deficit seemed to wake-up St. Viator, which picked up the pace considerably the rest of the period. The Lions were awarded two power plays one at 9:35 and another at 3:38, but failed to capitalize. A lack of effort wasnt the problem; The Lions had scoring chances, but Napleton was a brick wall.

The junior absolutely stoned St. Viators David Kellner, whose rebound from just outside the crease was miraculously stopped by a sprawling Napleton. Moments later, Owens one-timer from the slot was kicked aside by Napleton.

Just 22 seconds after the Lions second power play elapsed and with 1:16 remaining in the opening period, Faron scored to extend the lead to 2-0. Faron made a nifty move around the Lions Ryan Santorsola just inside the blue line, before completing a give-and-go with Foley.

The score may as well been 10-0 with the way Napleton was playing. Slap shots, snap shots, wrist shots, breakaways, rebounds, you name it, St. Viator tried it. Nothing, however, could make its way past Napleton. The Lions Sean Thornton will have nightmares thinking about Napletons sliding blocker save that preserved the shutout late in the third.

After the New Trier game, I had a lot of confidence, Napleton said. It carried over to this game. I was just seeing the puck well. This is an unbelievable feeling. To win the Kennedy Cup and state, fortunately we had the guys and coaches to do it.

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.