Cubs

Plenty has changed since Hawks hit rock-bottom in Nashville

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Plenty has changed since Hawks hit rock-bottom in Nashville

The Blackhawks probably want to forget about the last time they played the Nashville Predators.

It wasnt their worst loss, score-wise, as they dropped a 3-2 decision in Nashville on Feb. 14. But it was how they lost that hurt the most: giving up a late goal in a game they had played pretty well, running their winless streak to nine. The Blackhawks locker room was so stunned, so quiet that night, you couldve heard a pin think about dropping.

It was a brutal loss, said coach Joel Quenneville. It was excruciating. It was one of those losses where you sit there and think, OK, hopefully this is the end of it. Eventually things had to change. And they did.

Yes, things definitely have changed for both teams. The Predators made several moves at the trade deadline. While the Blackhawks made a move themselves acquiring defenseman Johnny Oduya their biggest change came in how they played.

The Blackhawks had their rock-bottom moment that night in Nashville. And whether it was learning from that night or just waking up out of their winless-streak doldrums, the Blackhawks have been a much better team since.

That whole time we were trying to hammer home how we had to play on both sides of the puck, take a checking mentality, Quenneville said. The byproduct was what happened the next two games (against New York and Columbus).

And its gone beyond those next two games. The Blackhawks are 13-4-1 since that game, and after trailing the Predators plenty in the Western Conference theyre now right on their tails -- just two points back after Nashville's 3-1 victory over Winnipeg Saturday night.

Its a rivalry thats come into play the last couple of years, Patrick Kane said. You look at the standings; if we can take some points from them and put points on the board for ourselves, its huge.

The Predators, meanwhile, have had more mixed results. Theyre 10-6-2 since that Feb. 14 game, including 6-5-1 since the day after the trade deadline.

As for the Blackhawks, theyve kept up that style of play through health and injury. Theyve grown plenty in their time without Jonathan Toews and have found success in his absence. And they know theyll need to play their current brand of hockey to have any success against the Predators on Sunday.

Theyre structured, they dont take too many chances and they play a good team game, Viktor Stalberg said. The way we used to play earlier in the year frustrated us a bit. But the way weve played lately, were finding ways to win those tight games. Thats going to fit us better playing them.

The Blackhawks have changed since that Feb. 14 game in Nashville. They ended their brutal losing streak two days later and quelled the foolish coach-and-several-players-must-go talk. Theyve learned from that brutal loss, and theyve got the Predators in their sights again.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

The Blackhawks dealt defenseman Michael Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick. Kempny had seven points in 31 games this season.

Kempny, 27, recorded 15 points in 81 career games for the Blackhawks. He tallied an assist in Saturday's 7-1 victory over the Capitals.

Kempny signed a one-year extension through the end of this season back in May.