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Against all odds, Bulls must make this personal

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Against all odds, Bulls must make this personal

Carlos Boozer brought it up after Sunday's Game 4 loss. Richard Hamilton was asked about it at Bulls practice Monday. The time Rip's Detroit Pistons rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the 2003 playoffs to beat the Orlando Magic in the first round. It's worth mentioning. It gives you hope. It can be done.

But then you look a little closer and you realize it's not done very often. Only eight teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a NBA playoff series. The last team to do it was the Phoenix Suns, who beat the Los Angels Lakers in a Western Conference first-round series in 2006. In case you're wondering, only three of those teams went on to win it all. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. We just need to concentrate on the Bulls fighting off elimination in Game 5 Tuesday.

I have no idea if the Bulls are going to win this game and live to play another. For the first time all season, I truly have no feel for this game. As soon as I think we can stick a fork in this tattered bunch, another part of me thinks they're going to come out guns-a-blazing in front of the home crowd and reclaim their faded glory.

In franchise history, the Bulls have never rallied from a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series, failing in all five previous attempts. Let's face it, the odds are against them.

Call me crazy, but I still believe if the Bulls can just make a few adjustments and play like their lives depend on it, they may be able to not only win Game 5 but win the necessary three straight and advance.

The most encouraging thing I heard at Bulls practice Monday was when Rip Hamilton said, "Right now, it's personal. We can't just go out there as professional basketball players, we have to make it personal."

Yes, take it personally. Bulls players should be personally offended that a No. 8 seed is about to knock off a No. 1 seed for only the fifth time since 1984. Not in our house!

It's time to pull out all the stops. Use Mike James if you have to -- he's bigger, more physical (to help counter Evan Turner) and plays better defense than C.J. Watson and John Lucas III. He'll be more proficient at running the offense since he's not a scoring point guard and he might distribute the ball better to get Luol Deng and Hamilton more shot opportunities. And, for Pete's sake, maybe he can stop Jrue Holiday during the critical 4th quarter?

I'm not saying James is the answer by any means, I'm simply suggesting that coach Tom Thibodeau needs to throw out the playbook at this point because whatever the Bulls have been doing hasn't been working. They've been sticking to a failed plan and it's time to make adjustments.

Play with a sense of urgency, make it personal and the Bulls can win this thing. Of those eight previous teams I mentioned that came back down 3-1 to win the series, six of them played Game 5 at home. The Bulls have as good a shot as any to make history here.

Even if it is against all odds.

Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach emerging as star and living up to 'playoff performer' hype

Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach emerging as star and living up to 'playoff performer' hype

Ask anyone in Chicago who the standout of training camp 2.0 was and you'll hear one name: Kirby Dach.

“He has all the potential in the world,” Patrick Kane said. “He can be a top player in the league.”

“He’s got the potential to be a great player in this league and a great player for the Blackhawks for a long time," echoed Brent Seabrook.

Upon hearing this enormous praise from a pair of three-time Stanley Cup champions and joining the hype train myself, I couldn’t help but think: Are we putting unfair expectations on a kid who’s still only 19?

The answer: Nope. Because he can handle it.

Dach looks like a completely different player after finally having an “offseason” to recharge, both mentally and physically. And it’s showing in the postseason.

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Through three games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, Dach has four points — all assists — and a team-best plus-4 rating; in total, he’s been on the ice for eight of the Blackhawks’ 13 goals so far. He became the first Blackhawks rookie to register at least one point in his first three postseason games since Eddie Olczyk in 1985. 

All those numbers are great, but here’s the eye-opener: Dach is averaging 20:21 of ice time in the postseason, which trails only Patrick Kane (22:21) among team forwards. He led all Blackhawks forwards with 23:21 of ice time in Wednesday’s Game 3 comeback win over the Edmonton Oilers, which was, by far, a career high for Dach, who averaged 14:16 of ice time during the regular season.

The Blackhawks are giving him an enormous amount of responsibility, whether it's top-six minutes at even strength, power-play time on the first unit and penalty kill reps. And Dach is handling it about as well as you could ask for.

"He loves responsibility and he thrives on it," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We knew, based on how he looked in training camp, that he was ready to take a bigger role here. He's been great. He's been as advertised."

Dach isn't just making an impact on the scoresheet, either. He's doing the little things right, too.

Olli Maatta scored the first goal in Game 3 after his shot from the point got past Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen, but that puck doesn't go in without the 6-foot-4, 197-pound Dach wreaking havoc in front of the net. Those plays don't go unnoticed inside the locker room.

"It shows that the coach trusts in your abilities to get a job done," Dach said of the added responsibility. "And as a player, it's a welcoming challenge. You want to be put in those situations and succeed in them."

One of the main reasons why the Blackhawks selected Dach third overall in 2019 was because of the way he elevated his game in the Western Hockey League playoffs. He was the engine for the Saskatoon Blades and the focal point for opponents yet thrived off the attention.

“He does all the things that can wow you, but then he does the other stuff, too," GM Stan Bowman said the day the Blackhawks drafted Dach. "He was great at stripping pucks, he was great at backchecking, he was great at the physical play when the series got pretty intense in the playoffs and it was clear they were targeting him. He not only took it, he gave it back. It was impressive to see him raise his game at a time of year when it matters most, which is playoff hockey.

"You watch the NHL playoffs and you see how intense it can be and then you look at the way he plays, and you can see that that game translates."

It sure does.

Whether he can be a big-time point producer in the NHL remains to be seen, but it's clear Dach is the kind of player whose game is better suited for the playoffs than the regular season. And we're seeing why.

How Blackhawks' unlikely heroes on defense are providing boost in Oilers series

How Blackhawks' unlikely heroes on defense are providing boost in Oilers series

Jonathan Toews was dominant in Game 1's 6-4 win and he was back at it in Game 3. But, with the special teams woes the Oilers have been causing the Hawks in touting a power play that was No. 1 in the NHL at the time of the pause and a penalty kill that was No. 2, not to mention the top two points leaders in the league during the regular season (Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid), Chicago needed some unlikely heroes to emerge in the series.

Enter Blackhawks defensemen Connor Murphy, Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek.

With Game 3 tied 3-3 and just 1:16 remaining early Thursday morning, Murphy fired a wrist shot to put the Hawks ahead. It even appeared as if he scored the goal himself at first, but Toews was credited with his second goal of the game on the play and Murphy with the primary assist. The D-man finished Game 3 with a +/- rating of +1 in 21:55 of ice time.

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"Just a lucky bounce," a modest Murphy said of his play that helped the Blackhawks take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, having the Oilers facing elimination in Friday's Game 4. "Didn’t throw (a) hard one at the net. I saw Tazer had good position. He was all alone in front, should be able to get a tip on it. ... Just those last minutes of games, every faceoff’s so huge, obviously that one being a big one to get a shot off."

Koekkoek got the primary assist on Matthew Highmore's first career postseason goal which tied the game 3-3 at 14:13 of the third.

Maatta scored the first goal of the game 9:14 into the opening frame off a pass from Patrick Kane and picked up the secondary assist on Highmore's goal. 

"He's got experience from playing in the playoffs, it's nice to have that, and he's done a great job defensively, killing penalties and he's calm back there," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said of Maatta, who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins before coming to the Hawks, after the game. "He's been able to chip in offensively, too, that's always a bonus. Our D as a whole are doing a great job of getting pucks through and getting it to the net, and we're going to need to continue to do that."

Related: Blackhawks overcome special teams woes, complete comeback in Game 3

Maatta has a two-game goal streak in the series and he and his D-partner, Koekkoek, were the only blueliners in Game 2's 6-3 loss with a positive +/- rating (+2). Maatta had one goal in Game 2 and Koekkoek a goal and an assist.

"I think we do a great job whenever we get in the zone, our forwards do a great job holding onto the puck. That makes them collapse a little bit. They do a good job of giving us the puck with a little more time. It hasn't been only me and Kooks," Maatta said of the Hawks blueline's contributions to the series. "It's been Haaner (Calvin de Haan) and Murph and Duncs (Duncan Keith) and Boqi (Adam Boqvist). They're getting pucks through and it feels like every time we get it to the net our forwards are in good position, battling for them, getting rebounds, getting tips. It makes it tough for them."

According to Murphy, with the way the Blackhawks' forwards and D have been effectively collaborating in the offensive zone, it's best for Chicago's defensemen to just keep firing pucks on net when they can.

"It’s always part of your game plan," Murphy said. "Especially our forwards draw good attention when they’re entering the zone, knowing that we’ve got a lot of firepower in them, a lot of skill and strength. They do a good job of drawing wingers down to them. It leaves a couple of open shots. Kooks and Olli have been hot lately and have really smart shots they get through, go in. That’s always a good plan."