Blackhawks passing 'mettle test' without Toews

702538.png

Blackhawks passing 'mettle test' without Toews

Jonathan Toews wasnt sidelined with his concussion long when the questions began. What were the Blackhawks going to do without their captain? How were they possibly going to get through this trying stretch of the season while hes out?

The sky was supposed to fall. The Blackhawks were supposed to fall away, or at least fall out of the playoff picture. It was supposed to be bad, all bad, right?

Wrong. Despite losing a big part of their lineup with their captain out, the Blackhawks are still finding ways to win.

The Blackhawks got another big character win on Tuesday night, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Blues 4-3 in a shootout. After going 1-3-0 in their first four games without Toews the Blackhawks are now 5-1-1 in their last seven games. The points andor victories have come against good teams with good goaltending, and most have come in comeback fashion.

But theyre getting it done, and it speaks volumes for their late-season mettle.

It didnt start off well (without him). But the last few games we realized we wanted to put it together and start winning some games for him, said Patrick Kane, whos risen to the task of No. 1-center duties in Toews absence. The last (three) games weve been down in the third period, weve come back and weve found ways to get points. And were only going to get better when he comes back.

The Blackhawks have weathered the loss by playing a team game. Kanes been strong at the top and Marcus Kruger is growing into the No. 2 center spot fast. The Hawks best players have been just that. The defense has gotten a boost with Johnny Oduyas arrival, and the pairs are playing with confidence.

Even the rookies, who have had to learn a lot in a hurry, have contributed their share. Theyve taken advantage of the opportunity.

Other guys get a chance to step up and play, get extra time. In the long run we can look at it as a positive, Marian Hossa said. When Johnny comes back those guys will have experience. And when the playoffs come they know what to expect.

The pack mentality has worked.

We found ways to adapt our game and get our team winning, Bryan Bickell said. No individual can take his spot. Hes our leader, one of the best players in the league. It takes a team effort to fill in what weve been missing with him.

The Blackhawks arent the first team to lose key pieces at critical times. The good teams adapt to losing players, especially their superstars. It hasnt always been pretty and it hasnt always been easy, but the Blackhawks are finding ways to win without their leader.

Right now, theyre passing the mettle test.

Its nice to think about it that way, that youre winning games without a big piece in your lineup, Kane said. And when you know hes coming back soon, its exciting.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue break down the Bulls' upcoming schedule in the latest edition of the Bulls Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda dealers.

TNT Bulls are back this week as the team heads into a crucial stretch. 

Currently, the Bulls sit half a game back of the Miami Heat for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and with just eight games remaining on the schedule, each contest is essentially a must-win. 

So, yes, Thursday would be a great time for Jimmy Butler and company to summon their TNT alter ego. The Bulls have sealed 18 straight victories when playing on TNT Thursday, an improbable feat considering those games are usually reserved for two of the NBA's best. 

To continue that run, they'll have to down Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are also fighting for playoff positioning -- albeit at the top of the conference. Good thing the Bulls have a tendency to get up for big games. 

"The Bulls play up and down to their competition," Bulls Pregame and Postgame analyst Kendall Gill said. "They've been doing that the whole season." 

After Cleveland, the Bulls get set to battle another playoff squad, the Atlanta Hawks. 

Watch the video above to see Schanowski, Gill and Perdue break down the matchups.