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SportsMonday

By Jim Coffman

It didn't take long for another seemingly sweet weekend to turn sour for the Hawks. And even if we're still a ways away from any sort of real concern, if you wanted to see how the home team could end up losing to a considerably less-talented foe in the playoffs, it was on display at the United Center on Sunday.

There have been a handful of games this year (mostly before the 12-wins-in-14-games run capped off by a five-game win streak ended by the Blackhawks' come-from-four-goals-ahead 6-5 loss at the Minnesota Wild on Saturday) where opponents have managed to take a one-goal lead and hold it for a while. But down the stretch of most of those games the Hawks' depth of skill and perseverance has eventually prevailed. The squad finds a way to score the tying goal and then hangs on to force overtime to at the very least earn a point (and then the teams have battled for the second standings point in the extra time and, if necessary, the shootout).

The key has been the 1-0 deficit. Once the deficit becomes two goals, the task facing a team is more than twice as hard. Exhibit A is the fact that the Ducks were able to take a 2-0 first-period lead on the Hawks on Sunday and then hang on for an eventual 3-1 win despite a dearth of decent scoring chances (they managed all of 12 shots all game).

Sure, the Wild rallied from a deficit that was twice as large the night before but work with me here. If the Hawks can stay within a goal, they can almost always grind out a single tally to pull back even. But after a couple first-period defensive breakdowns and some not-stellar goaltending by Antti Niemi on the first goal, the deficit was two this time around. Oh, and Duck goaltender Jonas Hiller, who would eventually stop 42 of the 43 shots he faced, saved 18 shots in the second period alone.

Sure enough, after some neat work by Kris Versteeg near the side boards and a perfect little pass out to the point (and a strong screen by Andrew Ladd), Duncan Keith scored on a slapper with just under five minutes remaining to finally get the Hawks on the board. In so doing, Keith tied his career high (nine) for goals in a season (with more than three dozen games yet to play). No wonder there has been considerable buzz lately about Keith's ever-improving chances to win the Norris Trophy this year given to the NHL's best defenseman.

The Hawks still sit comfortably atop the Western Conference standings. Because they have played so well for so long, they can absorb even several more losses and really not worry about it. A long losing streak would of course be a concern, but it is highly unlikely (it won't happen if the Hawks keep piling up big advantages in shots like they did on Sunday). But while big edges in shots will eventually lead to more wins over a long season, they don't necessarily do so in a relatively short playoff series.

Bulls Session
It was a great week for me along with my favorite teams, what with the Bulls responding to my assertion last weekend that they were turning the corner toward success with an aggravating three-game losing streak. Two of those games in particular, the mid-week contest at Charlotte and Friday's game at the Bucks, were there for the winning.

And it was a rough week for my coach Vinnie. Del Negro's poor rotation (of subs) left the Bulls with exactly the wrong team on the floor in the still-close third quarter of the first game of the week, a home contest with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The group couldn't shoot or rebound and the Thunder pulled away to an eventual double-digit victory. Of course, there was more to the loss than a bad, third-quarter stretch, but Del Negro struggled to have the right guys on the floor at the right times all week.

Then against the Bobcats and the Bucks, Del Negro repeatedly made head-scratching moves in the final minutes. If it wasn't sets with Kirk Hinrich in prime shooting spots despite his inability to hit shots overall and his almost complete inability to hit shots in the clutch, it was having Derrick Rose passing the ball in the waning seconds of games rather than having him out on the floor where he might catch said pass and put up the big shot. It wasn't a totally lost week for the Bulls. They did manage to knock off the terrible Timberwolves on Saturday.

But a stretch that should have been at least three wins in four games went in exactly the opposite direction and that does not bode well.

Football Fools
Three of the four weekend winners in the NFL were the teams that played hard all the way to the end of the regular season. And while the fourth winner, the Cardinals, may have managed to pull out a victory despite mailing in its effort in its last game the week before, they still gave up a staggering 45 points before eking out a lucky win in overtime. It was yet more evidence that not only do teams who clinch playoff spots and then don't compete in the last game or two (to rest some of their starters) damage the integrity of the game (especially when they face teams that are battling for other playoff spots), they also damage their own playoff chances.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman rounds up the sports weekend in this space every Monday. He welcomes your comments.

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