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SportsMonday: Hawks Trapped

If this is winning hockey, the rest of the NHL can have it.

And that is starting to look almost likely. The defending Stanley Cup champs are teetering on the edge of missing the playoffs heading into the final week of the regular season.

Tampa Bay pulled out Sunday's game against the short-handed Hawks 2-0 thanks primarily due to their stultifying neutral zone trap. And while some fans may admire the work that goes into playing that style effectively, most don't enjoy the choppy hockey that results.

Analyst Steve Konroyd and the producers of the Blackhawk broadcast on WGN-TV carefully showed how the Lightning consistently arrayed as many as four skaters across the middle of the ice just outside their own blue line, making it very difficult for the home team to get any sort of a rush going.

In other words, there was no flow. The Lightning had scored a textbook power-play goal early on and that was enough for them (the visitors eventually finished the scoring with a last-minute empty-netter). It was as if they were playing four defensemen at a time. And those blue-liners certainly did the job, blocking countless Hawk shots and carefully keeping the puck near the boards almost all of the time.

That meant the Lightning wouldn't be busting out on any exciting rushes of their own, which was a little unfortunate (in terms of entertaining the fans anyway) considering the team employs exciting offensive players such as Steve Stamkos, who led the league in goal-scoring for a time this season, and Martin St. Louis. (Another skilled Tampa Bay forward, Vincent Lecavalier, took a stick to the face in the second period and was sidelined the rest of the way.)

The system also exposed one of the Hawks' primary shortcomings. They were forced to dump pucks into the offensive zone and then go and try to win battles in the corners. And they don't have enough guys who are physical enough to win enough of those battles this year, plain and simple. They desperately miss power forwards - and salary cap casualties - Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien.

Of course the Hawks would have benefited from having their primary sniper, leading goal-scorer Patrick Sharp, in the lineup on Sunday, along with second center Dave Bolland. Both are still sidelined by injuries. Then again, especially after Lecavalier went down, the Lightning were playing shorthanded as well.

While I enjoyed Konroyd's breakdowns of the teams' schemes, there was another element of the WGN broadcast that was grating. I am a huge Pat Foley fan and I realize there are limitations to what a hockey announcer can see and then say about the remarkable amount of action that often occurs during a tiny amount of time on the ice. But I do grow tired of Foley gushing "Great Save!" when it was actually a shooter blowing a great chance by firing it right at a given goalie.

Tampa Bay back-up Mike Smith earned the shutout on Sunday with 31 saves and he was certainly solid between the pipes, especially, as Konroyd pointed out late, in terms of limiting rebounds. "It seems like he has puck Velcro on his chest," said the former Hawk defenseman late in the third period. But despite Tampa Bay's best efforts, the Hawks did have a handful of point-blank chances only to see the resulting shots settle comfortably into Smith's mid-section.

The teams who could overtake the Hawks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference both notched big wins later Sunday. Calgary knocked off the Avalanche 2-1 and Dallas pulled out a 4-3 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. That leaves the Flames a point in back of the Blackhawks and the Stars three back. The Hawks travel to Montreal on Tuesday and host the Blues the next evening. Then they wrap up the season with a home-and-home against the Red Wings on Friday (in Detroit) and Sunday.

Draft Note
It was a tough Sunday in Chicago with both baseball teams going down before the Hawks even took the ice. But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about . . . the NFL Draft!

Okay, so the NFL's name is Mud these days but that doesn't mean we can't speculate about who will take who in this year's talent disbursal festival.

Wait, what is that you're saying? Wake you up when the Bears are picking? Okay. But remember, there is nothing better to talk about, sports-wise, then a draft.

There is absolutely no end to the speculating that can be done about who will go where and who should go where.

And that combination of potential and intrigue makes for the best sports talk.

Here we will focus on the Bears' first round pick (No. 29 overall), although I must admit at this still early date, I only have a couple thoughts, the first of which is: Focus on defense!

Except no one has the Bears doing that in their mock drafts (here's a good one).

Most folks believe it will be an offensive lineman in general and a tackle, like Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod (6-6, 312) in particular.

I still say take the best pass rusher or cornerback/safety on the board in the first round.

But if it must be a lineman, for gosh sakes make it a guard with a bad attitude like Florida's Mike Pouncey (he played center for the Gators this past year but actually struggled with shotgun snaps - the man should just be a guard).

The Bears need an ultra-aggressive guy who can knock someone around and do so with extreme prejudice a heck of a lot more than they need a light-on-his feet back-pedaler who might or might not protect the edge of a line.

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Comments welcome.

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