Blackhawks

Open for business: What we learned about the Cubs in May

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Open for business: What we learned about the Cubs in May

Kerry Wood wrote the perfect ending, walking off the mound at Wrigley Field for the final time and embracing his son. Whoever cuts the highlight film for the 2013 Cubs Convention already has the feel-good moment for the diehard fans.

That it took almost three months for the new Mr. Cub and Theo Epsteins front office to agree on a one-year, 3 million contract was probably a sign.

The deal was announced last January at the convention, inside a Hilton Chicago ballroom, roughly 90 minutes after the team president said you cant make baseball decisions based on public relations.

Woods retirement may wind up being what chairman Tom Ricketts likes to call an inflection point. (So could his fathers Super PAC.)

Everythings supposed to be cold and clinical now, and this month confirmed what we already knew: No one is untouchable.

Epstein said as much this week, when reporters surrounded him during batting practice at Wrigley Field. The losing streak had reached 12 games, shattering the idea that the Cubs could contend this year.

More than two months from the July 31 deadline, people were talking about Ryan Dempsters no-trade rights, and Epstein was planning to meet again with his Opening Day starter.

Every option has to be on the table, Epstein said.

Heres the disclaimer: The Cubs would have to be absolutely blown away to deal a Matt Garza or a Starlin Castro. Youd have to get multiple impact players in return to even consider it, and those deals are increasingly difficult to engineer.

When the Cubs open a four-game series against the San Francisco Giants on Friday night at AT&T Park, they will again be trying to find out who is and who isnt a foundation piece. Thats the lens through which you can view the rest of this season.

Carlos Marmol and Rafael Dolis lost the closers job in May, and the Cubs are planning to go by committee in the ninth inning with James Russell, Shawn Camp and Casey Coleman.

As Epstein predicted, Bryan LaHair cooled off and didnt produce at a Babe Ruthian level. But no other first baseman in the National League has more home runs (10), and only Joey Votto has a higher on-base percentage than LaHairs .396.

Trying to jumpstart the lineup, manager Dale Sveum removed Castro from the No. 3 hole, opening another debate on how high the All-Star shortstops ceiling will be.

Its easy to forget, but remember that Castro is around the same age as the college players who will be taken in next weeks amateur draft. The 22-year-old already has two .300 seasons on his big-league resume, and appears to be on his way to a third.

Castro has walked five times in 205 at-bats. Can he learn to grind out at-bats and become patient at the plate?

A lot of people do, Sveum said. You understand (that) it takes time. Some guys are built to do it. Some guys take 2,000-3,000 major-league at-bats until it all starts gradually coming together. A lot of times you just get tired of it. You get tired of rolling over. You get tired of swinging at bad pitches.

Thats the maturity level that comes with major-league at-bats.

Castro is up to 1,437 plate appearances now, and hes playing for his third manager in three years. You can wonder how the losing environment will effect him.

But the Cubs didnt really explode or lash out during that 12-game losing streak. Insiders say the clubhouse is more quiet and emotionally level without Carlos Zambrano and Marlon Byrd.

Nobodys wondering whos in charge or who might get fired. Sveum and his experienced group of coaches have essentially seen it all before. They will be judged subjectively in 2012, far beyond the won-loss record (18-32).

Theyve done a really nice job of being prepared and being even-keeled during these moments, general manager Jed Hoyer said. I know sometimes people want to see throwing helmets and broken coolers and things like that.

(But) at some point were going to win seven out of eight (and) you got to stay in the middle and not (have) players feel like youre running hot and cold on them.

It wont be easy maintaining equilibrium. Alfonso Soriano smiled when a reporter asked what happened to the clubhouse wall after Wednesdays walk-off win over the San Diego Padres.

Part of it had been smashed, leaving a dent and cracks in the space between the lockers of Soriano and Dempster (who got a no-decision that afternoon).

Oh, I dont know, Soriano said. For sure, thats not me.

Those moments of frustration have been kept behind closed doors. Soriano essentially shrugged: Thats part of the game, too.

This is a business. Once the draft ends next week, the Cubs will shift gears and focus on the trade deadline. They will block out all the noise about Anthony Rizzo (and his sore right wrist heard around the Twitter world).

I understand fans have a right to be upset anytime were not playing winning baseball, Epstein said. I just think if we start making decisions based on it or scrap plans because of it (and) try to put Band-Aids on situations were doing the fans a disservice in the long run.

Ill always operate with the belief that the only way to make fans happy in the long run is to get to a point where were playing baseball in October on a regular basis. And nothing is going to get in the way of that.

Sometimes when you rip the scab off, theres some pain, until we grow some new skin and were born anew. Were going places. Its just (that) this is a tough road.

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.