SportsMonday

Time to zero in on the winter sports around here, is it not? And a month-plus until pitchers and catchers report, hmm? Oh, and I do have a fine little college football note with which to cap off the bloated, blotto bowl season that finally, mercifully, ends later this week (and it really does end - I promise).

The Hawks bounced back in a big way on Sunday after all the Winter Classic hullabaloo slightly obscured the fact that they got their hockey pants kicked twice in three days by their primary rivals. They scored a beautiful flurry of goals late in the second period and then hung on in the last 20 minutes (thanks largely to red-hot goalie Nikolai Khabibulin stopping 19 of 20 in the third period alone) to beat a very good Calgary team 5-2. They did so without reigning rookie-of-the-year Patrick Kane, who missed his first contest of the season as a precaution after an ankle sprain a few games prior.

NHL officials, exhibiting signs of a "brain-damage injury," actually want media outlets to refer to players having either a "lower body injury" or an "upper body injury" this season. It's pretty obvious guys covering teams should either find out what the injury is and report it or just say the guy is out, isn't it?

And if teams want to make their guys look bad by sending them out to play games without telling the fans what their injury is, that's their prerogative.

And - this is the final "and" for a little while I promise - if teams are worried about opponents targeting players' previously injured regions, solve it the hockey way - by telling them you are going to hurt them far worse than they have hurt you if they don't cut it out.

Anyway, Kane returned to the first loss to the Red Wings (in Detroit last Tuesday) despite suffering the injury in the first period and then tried to play through it in the second game of the back-to-back (where was that game played again? The one on New Year's Day?). But he was ineffective and it was clear some time off made sense. If the games with the Wings proved anything, it's that the Hawks aren't going to beat the supremely talented defending champs - who added even more talent after taking home the Cup last spring - without big contributions from Kane.

But this season isn't about beating the Red Wings. It is about putting an end to a decade of ineptitude (by finally returning to the playoffs) and starting what obviously should be a long run of success (with so many good young players just beginning to shine). With the win over the Flames, the Hawks put themselves right back on track to do just that (they are comfortably ensconced in the Western Conference's top eight).

Big money forward Martin Havlat, who is finally playing free and easy the last few weeks after a tentative start to the season (perhaps because serious injuries cut the previous two campaigns way short), got the Hawks off to a solid start with a goal and an assist. This year's rookies took it from there. Andrew Ladd (converting Havlat's pass) and Kris Versteeg scored the goals that put the Hawks in front and ensured they would stay there. And Dustin Byfuglien came back after he was rushed from the bench with a towel pressed to his forehead (he was believed to have suffered a skin injury) early in the period to score one second before the second intermission.

Bulls Eye
I took in the Bulls game on Saturday, and while the team stinks right now, it will be better when it starts to get over the injury bug. You can't have all three captains (Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Drew Gooden) out and expect your already iffy team to compete against anyone in the NBA.

The best thing about the battle with the Timberwolves on Saturday was the chance to take a look at a couple fascinating young players. Rookie power forward Kevin Love came off the bench for Minnesota and was impressive, and not just because he is no longer wearing that nightmare "Color Me Badd" beard (the thin line of perfectly trimmed stubble that went from ear to chin to ear all last year as he starred for UCLA). He held his own around the basket, and while the Bulls weren't exactly imposing inside, Love did enough good things to keep T-Wolves leading scorer Al Jefferson on the bench for long stretches in both halves and then played with him for a while in crunch time.

As for the Bulls, the highlight was the fact that inconsistent Tyrus Thomas picked this night to show us again why it is almost impossible to give up hope that he will figure out how to be a successful professional sooner rather than later. His eight blocks were imposing, his high-flying dunk off a fast break was the most exciting play of the game by a landslide and he even passed up a couple wide-open short jumpers (which he loves to take and almost always misses) to drive the lane, draw the defense and pass to teammates for layups.

Individual performances were the focus because the rest of this season barely matters for the Bulls as a team. They might scuffle along and earn a return ticket to the lottery or they might pull things together at some point and make a run at the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. But then they'll just get killed in the first round of the post-season. Either way, it is obvious this team has to swing at least a handful of clever transactions before it can even dream of a return to title contention. And the most important of those is general manager John Paxson figuring out a way to acquire an impact-at-both-ends big man before next season. I believe he'll need to figure out a way to trade Ben Gordon (an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season) before the February trade deadline to do it.

Unfortunately, it turns out Gordon has veto power over all trades this season (I omitted that fact from a previous column about the Bulls' prospects - color me badd). This, of course, is another reason why giving Luol Deng the big money last off-season and signing Gordon to a one-year deal (and automatically giving him no-trade status) was a really, really bad idea. Even if the Bulls can get Gordon to agree to a trade (it'll have to be to a contender that desperately needs a shooter won't it? And will a contender be in any position to give away an impact big man?), the chances of their getting fair value in return are microscopic.

So perhaps the Bulls should deal Kirk Hinrich (who was Reinsdorfed when he signed a new contract a few years ago and will be paid less money next year and even less the next, making his contract at least reasonably attractive to potential trade partners) when he returns to good health? But how much value does he have? He's a decent on-the-ball defender but doesn't break guys down off the dribble and he might be the worst clutch performer in the NBA (he barely shoots 20 percent from the field in the last five minutes of close games). Perhaps it is time to turn our attention elsewhere.

Come on over here by the stove, would ya? Let's talk a little baseball.

Hot Stove League
Hey Cubs, make a resolution: The departure of Mark DeRosa will first and foremost lead to more at-bats for lefty-hitting second baseman Mike Fontenot. Without drawing much attention, the Pocket Rocket had a huge season last time around, building on a decent campaign the year before. And it is time to get him at least 400 at-bats and see what he can do. This will be tough for Lou Piniella, who values size (for hitters) and big numbers on the radar gun (for pitchers) way more than he should. But Fontenot's numbers demand it.

Fontenot finished with only 243 at-bats last year and didn't start in the first two critical playoff games in Chicago, which in retrospect were Piniella's biggest screw-ups. When Fukudome went south in the second half . . . excuse me, when Fukudome went to the South Pole (no major league non-pitcher has ever taken worse swings for more than a month than Fukudome did at the end of last season - the kids on my son's 10-year-old baseball team who struck out all the time took better swings than Fukudome), he obviously should have been out of the lineup for good. DeRosa should have permanently replaced him in right and Fontenot should have moved in at second.

Fontenot's batting average was OK (.305) but his on-base percentage was exquisite (.395). And his power numbers were off the charts. He hit nine home runs and bashed 22 doubles! Did I mention he didn't even have 250 at-bats? Get him in there next year Lou. The easy, obvious lineup, especially against right-handers, will be Ryan Theriot leading off and Fontenot number 2. Just do it.

If Lou insists on keeping a small guy in his place (on the bench) perhaps he can focus his attentions on recent Cub free-agent pickup Aaron Miles. Miles, a switch-hitter who can play multiple positions, had a decent batting average last year (.317) but his on-base percentage was unimpressive and he has never hit for any sort of power. In other words, he's just the kind of guy Jim Hendry seemed to target during his first five years on the job until he finally wised up a bit and at least began to take on-base percentage into account the last few off-seasons.

Miles doesn't have the power teams are usually looking for in corner outfielders but that isn't as important for the Cubs because they have power at the corner infield spots, in left field and even behind the plate. Nevertheless, the North Siders will be at their best if Miles is a utility player, especially after they acquire a left-handed hitting right fielder . . . which they will any day now . . . right, guys?

One note on that situation: It certainly doesn't make sense to overpay for injury-prone, oft-unhinged Milton Bradley when on-base machine and fellow free agent Bobby Abreu is still out there, does it Cubs? At least this question has a definitive answer.

Fundamentally Corrupt
I generally have only one thing to say about big-money college sports: they're great except for the fact that they're fundamentally corrupt. Rick Telander continues to pump out pleasing little shots at all the ridiculousness in the Sun-Times, but the best article about the current state of the game was written by that proud son of the South Side, Michael Wilbon.

Anyway, did you see the best score from the bowl season? That would be good old Dave Wannstedt's Pitt Panthers dropping a 3-0 decision to the powerhouse Oregon State Beavers in a scintillating Sun Bowl. It was the lowest number of points scored in any Bowl since the 1959 Cotton Bowl finished in a scoreless tie. The teams who participated in that donnybrook shall remain nameless.

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Jim Coffman brings you the city's best weekend sports roundup every Monday because he loves you. You can write to him personally! Please include a real name if you would like your comments to be considered for publication.

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