White Sox

Hawks face a tough test in Smith

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Hawks face a tough test in Smith

GLENDALE, Ariz. Mike Smiths debut for the Phoenix Coyotes was an inauspicious one.

The goaltender struggled, allowing six goals in the first two periods in the season opener against the San Jose Sharks. Goaltending coach Sean Burke said the Coyotes had a decision to make after those 40 minutes.

We talked about it as coaches: Do we want to take him out? Burke recalled. But we said, Its his first game, and we need to show him right now hes going to be our guy, hes going to play. From that point on he took the ball and ran with it.

That guy who gave up six in his first two periods with Phoenix gave up very, very little in his last five regular-season games. And Smiths renaissance season is a big reason why the Coyotes won the Pacific Division title, their first division championship in franchise history.

When the Chicago Blackhawks face the Coyotes tomorrow, theyll be facing arguably the hottest goaltender in the league right now. In his final five regular-season games, Smith stopped 190 of the 192 shots he saw. For a goaltender whose career stalled in Tampa Bay, Smith is now back at the top of his game.

I dont look at it as him getting hot at the end. Hes been good all year long, Burke said. Obviously the key to his season has been his consistency. When we got him we knew what a great athlete he was, (Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett) had him in Dallas, so there was a confidence factor off the bat there. He came in here looking as a new lease on life and he has taken advantage of it.

Smith gave Burke credit for where he is now.

I dont think Im a lot different (from my Dallas days), Smith said. Consistency-wise, Ive been better this year. I worked hard to gain that, and Burkes been a big part of that. Ive approached every game the same way, and I dont plan to change that now.

It has been a fresh start for Smith, who was traded from the Stars to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the Brad Richards deal in February of 2008. Smith was on his way up at the time, a strong backup to Marty Turco and someone who was pegged to take the No. 1 job in Tampa. But it didnt work out; Smith played part of last season in the minors and was a free agent last summer.

Then the Coyotes called. And given his relationship with Tippett, it was a natural fit.

I know him and his character, Tippett said. I always thought he was going to be a top goaltender, and for whatever reason in Tampa didnt turn out that way. He was hungry from the opportunity, and I thought the relationship with him and Burke could be good. Hes just continued to work on his game, its matured and hes turned into a very good player.

The Blackhawks respect what Smith has done; they also want to get to him early in Game 1 on Thursday.

Hes on a heck of a run, hes had a good season. Thats not surprising to anybody, Patrick Sharp said. Playing with the lead is big so we want to score that first goal. The start is key, but its a 60-minute game. Sometimes its 80 minutes. You just want to make sure youre ready to go.

So is Smith. This is his first chance to be a No. 1 goaltender for a playoff team, and hes ready for the opportunity.

Im thrilled. This is why we play hockey, why were in this position, Smith said. I know from experience last year (with Tampa) that theres no better feeling than playing in the playoffs. In any playoff series you have to have good goaltending. Im just going to do my thing and hopefully its good enough.

Eloy's comin' to Charlotte, but how long before he's playing on the South Side?

Eloy's comin' to Charlotte, but how long before he's playing on the South Side?

The No. 1 prospect in the White Sox loaded farm system got a step closer to playing in the major leagues Thursday.

Eloy Jimenez was the headliner in a ridiculously large number of promotions throughout the organization that signaled that despite a 25-games-under-.500 record at the big league level, the rebuilding effort is progressing nicely.

But antsy fans and observers who want to see the fruits of that effort land on the South Side as soon as possible have the same question now that Jimenez is a Charlotte Knight as they did when he was a Birmingham Baron: When will he be inserted into Rick Renteria's everyday lineup?

Director of player development Chris Getz didn’t have that answer Thursday when he was discussing all the minor league movement. But he outlined exactly what’s had White Sox fans salivating over the idea of Jimenez in the major league lineup.

“He’s done nothing but hit with us, and he’s continuing to do that,” Getz said on the conference call. “He’s driving the ball to all fields with power. The hit tool is very good, as well. He’s hammering fastballs. Talking about maturity, he’s definitely beyond his years in how he handles the game as a whole.

“When he steps into the box, it seems that you’re looking at a guy that plays in the big leagues already, and he’s not. He’s controlling the zone, he’s driving the ball, he’s making good decisions. We’ll see what he can do up at Charlotte.”

With Jimenez mashing at Birmingham this season — to the tune of .317/.368/.556 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 53 games — plenty have wondered why a pit stop at Charlotte is even necessary. General manager Rick Hahn has answered that question in the past, pointing to the different kind of pitching that Jimenez will face, and Getz echoed that thinking Thursday.

“At Charlotte, you’re going to run into guys that have a little more experience,” Getz said. “Some may have pitched in the big leagues, some might have been labeled those ‘4-A’ types. But what comes with that is more off-speed pitches, pitching backwards, being able to locate a little bit more. It will be interesting to see how he does respond with guys attacking him a little bit differently.

“We as an organization believe he’s going to be able to accomplish pretty much the same type of things he’s been accomplishing at Charlotte.”

That would be good news for those eagerly awaiting Jimenez’s arrival in Chicago because if he dominates at the plate at Triple-A the way he did at Double-A, then another promotion could be a possibility before the 2018 major league season runs out.

Of course before that happens, the White Sox want Jimenez to master things at the Triple-A level. Hahn mentioned before the season started that a good developmental season could end without Jimenez joining the big league squad at all. Like with all things in this rebuilding effort, the White Sox are going to be patient and do what’s best for the long term.

“He’s never played at Triple-A,” Getz said about a player who prior to joining the White Sox organization last summer had never played above Class A. “Now do I have full confidence that he’s going to go up there and hit? Sure. I absolutely do.

“If he continues to do so and forces our hand, we’re certainly going to have that conversation about him coming to Chicago. Let’s just get him in the lineup tonight and see what he can do.”

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman: "We expect Corey to be back"

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman: "We expect Corey to be back"

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said that the team expects goalie Corey Crawford to be back next season around training camp. Bowman also mentioned that Crawford might speak about his status himself during the Blackhawks Convention.

“What I said at the end of the year was still the case now, which is we expect Corey to be back,” Bowman said in a Thursday afternoon conference call. “We don’t have any reason to think that’s not going to happen.”

According to Bowman, Blackhawks players, including Crawford, already have their eyes set on next season.

“At this point in the summer, all the players are preparing for next season,” Bowman said. “Corey’s in that same preparation mode.”

Crawford is nursing what has been labeled an upper-body injury by the team. The two-time Stanley Cup winner was put on the shelf for the rest of the season back in late December, and he has not seen the ice since he skated in a February practice.

“Nothing has changed,” Bowman said. “We expect him to be back and ready to go in training camp.”

The Blackhawks have chosen to keep any groundbreaking news with Crawford under wraps, which the organization has done with other player injuries in the past. Bowman spoke about his vagueness in this situation.

“We’ve never gone into specifics about injuries,” Bowman said. “I realize this probably gets more attention because he’s our starting goalie and he won the Stanley Cup.”

Fans will have to take a wait-and-see approach, because it is unlikely that there will be a significant update regarding Crawford’s health before the season gets closer to its start.

Last season, Crawford only appeared in 28 games, posting a record of 16-9 with 782 saves before going down for the rest of the year.