Blackhawks

Special Teams receive exceptional marks

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Special Teams receive exceptional marks

A blocked punt and accompanying score is a good way to start any game. The Bears did that with Sherrick McManis block and Corey Woottons score off that and never let the Titans into the game. Coverage units were well prepared and the group mindset was reaching the point that the kickoff team was hoping the Titans would try to run back Robbie Gould kicks.

KICKING: A-

Robbie Gould converted all three field goal tries, from 40, 21 and 22, when the offense was not able to get into the end zone. Gould also forced four touchbacks from a returner (Dariius Reynaud) who routinely brings kicks out from deep in his end zone. Adam Podlesh was serviceable with a 31.7 net on three punts, one inside the 20, and he added a stop on a return.

RETURNING: A

The first-quarter punt block by Sherrick McManis was taken in for a TD by Corey Wootton to put the Titans immediately on their heels at a time when the offense was having real difficulty getting anything underway on the first two possessions. Devin Hester broke a punt return for 44 yards, his longest of any kind this season, and he brought his one kickoff back 26 yards.

COVERAGE: A

Reynaud returned seven kickoffs for a modest 20.7-yard average (vs. 25.8, one TD for the season) as Bears cover teamers made a mission out of getting to him and expecting him to return anything not kicked out of the end zone. Blake Costanzo, Sherrick McManis and Anthony Walters each was in on two tackles and Podlesh, Armando Allen and Eric Weems each had one.

COACHING: A

Coordinator Dave Toub had the Bears thoroughly prepared for the Tennessee formation on the punt blockTD. He also challenged the coverage units all week to deal with one of the top-ranked special-teams group in the NFL and had assignments established without dialing down any of the energy needed to take away Reynaud.

It's official: Blackhawks-Bruins to play at Notre Dame Stadium in 2019 Winter Classic

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USA TODAY

It's official: Blackhawks-Bruins to play at Notre Dame Stadium in 2019 Winter Classic

It’s official: The Blackhawks are headed back outdoors.

The NHL announced that the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium, featuring the Blackhawks and Boston Bruins on Jan. 1.

"The Blackhawks and Bruins, two of our most historic franchises, will be meeting outdoors for the first time at the 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "Notre Dame Stadium, with its capacity approaching 80,000, will provide an ideal setting for this ground-breaking event and will host the largest live audience ever to witness a game by either of these teams."

"The Chicago Blackhawks are honored to be participating in this marquee event at an iconic venue like Notre Dame Stadium," Blackhawks President & CEO John McDonough said in a statement. "The University of Notre Dame has strong alumni roots in both Chicago and Boston, and, with an established rivalry between the Blackhawks and Bruins, fans will be treated to an exciting game in a unique atmosphere. We appreciate the invitation to the game and look forward to what will be a great day for both franchises and the National Hockey League."

It's the sixth time the Blackhawks will be playing outdoors, and their league-leading fourth Winter Classic. The Blackhawks are 1-4-0 in outdoor games, and are winless in three Winter Classic games.

Chicago's only outdoor win came against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2014 Stadium Series Classic, a 5-1 victory at Soldier Field.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.