Blackhawks make most of every second

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Blackhawks make most of every second

Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence. And if it happens three times, you have to call it a trend.

The Blackhawks last three postseason games have been truly down to the wire, with the team forcing overtime in each one with just a few seconds left in regulation. Its been frenzied, scrambling, desperate last-minute work for the Blackhawks, who keep finding ways to play longer postseason games.

Its Blackhawks playoff hockey, sponsored by Bayer, for the near cardiac event it causes.

Its kind of comparable; weve had three straight playoff games in the same fashion on the road, coach Joel Quenneville said after Saturday nights 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, which tied their Western Conference quarterfinal series at 1-1. We had momentum going into overtime and we loved to cash in.

Brent Seabrook joked that the Blackhawks were just trying to beat our time from the last game by a bit.

Indeed, they have slowly inched their way toward zero in each of their last three postseason road games. Jonathan Toews scored a shorthanded goal with 1:56 left in regulation an eternity compared to the Blackhawks last two games -- in Game 7 vs. Vancouver last spring. Seabrooks tying goal in Game 1 came with 14.2 seconds remaining and Patrick Sharps deflection in Game 2 was with 5.5 seconds left.

In both games the Blackhawks had an empty net at the other end. And as overtime began on Saturday, some fans on Twitter joked that the team should start the extra time with the same setup.

The Blackhawks were feeling the last-second excitement.

It was kind of fun there in the last minute, six guys moving the puck pretty well, said Sharp. We had a few chances to score and I knew Seabs was going to pound it. I dont know if Ive ever seen that before, back to back games forcing overtime (that late). Were thankful we seized the opportunity.

Yes, the Blackhawks worked hard to get those late chances and those late tying goals. But as exhilarating as those endings are, the Blackhawks need to make things a little easier on themselves in future games. That push, that drive to the net needs to be as evident with 20 minutes left in the third as it is with 20 seconds.

Playoff hockey is always tight. The Blackhawks dont have to make it any tighter.

Its always scary when its that extra attacker. You never know with the empty net, Dave Bolland said. But the guys we have out there are capable of doing some damage. We didnt want to wait for that 5.5 left to tie the game.

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

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USA TODAY

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

Remember when the season began and we were talking about the likelihood of Illinois ending a three-year NCAA tournament drought?

Yeah, about that.

The Fighting Illini were again walloped on the road Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, their fourth road defeat in as many games during conference play. Against Michigan, Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, the losses have come in extreme fashion, by a combined total of 73 points, an average of 18.3 points.

And those numbers would be much bigger if not for a garbage-time 18-6 run to close out Saturday's 66-57 loss to the Wolverines. The game saw Michigan's lead grow as big as 21 with fewer than six minutes to play. It was another blowout, even if the final margin of defeat was in single digits.

How this continues to happen is frankly somewhat mind boggling. Illinois entered the season with experience, health and depth and have kept all of those traits throughout the campaign. But the experienced players who were believed to lead the Illini to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, Groce's first season, simply haven't shown up.

Malcolm Hill has, and he deserves a pass in this critique. Hill, the only Illinois player who scored in double figures Saturday, ranks fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 17.8 points a game. He also ranks in the top 20 in rebounding (5.9 rebounds a game), free-throw percentage (79.4 percent) and minutes played (32.4 minutes a game).

Maverick Morgan, too, has been a bright spot. He's shooting 60 percent from the floor, good for fourth in the Big Ten, and is averaging 13 points a game over the last 10 games.

But where has everyone else gone? After a stellar non-conference season, Tracy Abrams' production has fallen off a cliff, and he's just 1-for-21 from 3-point range against Big Ten competition. Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn't been very reliable, averaging almost two points fewer per game and shooting almost five percent lower from 3-point range than he did during his freshman season a year ago. Mike Thorne Jr. was supposed to be the team's starting center, but he's not even averaging 15 minutes a game. Second-year guys like D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan have barely seen the floor. Michael Finke has had good games and quiet games. This veteran team is more and more reliant on freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols for sparks that only rarely come.

The biggest issue has been the defense, with the team allowing opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field. That number has been significantly worse in conference play, up to 50.8 percent. Saturday was better, Michigan shooting only 45.1 percent and only 40 percent in the second half, when its lead grew largest. But the Wolverines, also a poor defensive team, clamped down on the Illini, who only shot 45.8 percent and more importantly turned the ball over a whopping 17 times, leading to 22 points for the home team.

With consistently subpar defense and inconsistent offense — a win over the same Michigan team just 10 days earlier saw Illinois drop 85 points on red-hot 64.2-percent shooting; where was that Saturday? — has been a recipe for disaster.

Coming into the conference season, it seemed Illinois was a prime contender for a spot in the Big Dance's field of 68. After all, only one disastrous week prevented the non-conference season from being a success. The Illini scored wins over name-brand opponents North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri, with that nightmarish week featuring losses to West Virginia and Florida State, the current Nos. 7 and 10 teams in the country.

But despite the high rankings of the Mountaineers and Seminoles, that resume has weakened. North Carolina State is just 2-5 in ACC play, and Missouri has just five wins this season, a nasty record that includes 10 straight losses. BYU and VCU aren't at the top of their respective mid-major conference standings.

That has made Illinois' conference showing all the worse as the tournament hopes flicker. The two wins have come at home against Ohio State and Michigan teams that stumbled out of the gates themselves. The losses, as chronicled above, have been convincing to say the least, and the one that came at the State Farm Center, against Maryland, featured an ugly second-half collapse after Illinois went to the locker room with a lead.

With typical bottom-feeders like Penn State and Nebraska improving their play this season, there aren't many noticeably winnable games remaining on Illinois' schedule, with just the season-finale at Rutgers looking like a surefire win, though the Scarlet Knights are no longer winless in Big Ten play after beating the Huskers on Saturday. What it means is a gauntlet the rest of the way for the Illini. There are plenty of home games, but does the venue matter when the Illini are playing like this and their opponents are of a significantly higher caliber?

Groce's seat is undeniably warm, and the heat could crank up if the campaign progresses as it has played out to this point. Would a fourth straight season without an NCAA tournament invite mean Groce's tenure would be over in Champaign? That's difficult to say, as Groce has secured one of the best recruiting classes in the country for next season. Illinois' best recruiting work in years would be in real danger if he's axed before his Class of 2017 arrives on campus.

But the on-court results are starting to get predictable, and not in the way games were predictable back during Illinois' glory days a decade ago. 

How about this: Last week's 23-point shellacking at Purdue was the 12th loss by 20 or more points of the Groce Era, which is in its fifth season. Bruce Weber, who coached the Illini for nine seasons, had three such losses during the course of his entire tenure. Prior to Weber, it was Bill Self, who had one such loss in his three seasons. Prior to Self, it was Lon Kruger, who had four such losses in his four seasons.

You have to go all the way back to 1980 to find the last time Illinois missed the NCAA tournament in four straight years.

Right now, the future is a mystery. What we do know is that the present is not going well.

Deerfield defensive end Josh Maize pledges to Miami of Ohio

Deerfield defensive end Josh Maize pledges to Miami of Ohio

Deerfield three star ranked defensive end Josh Maize (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) gave Miami of Ohio and head coach Chuck Martin his verbal commitment on Sunday morning. Maize was making a weekend official visit to the Oxford, Ohio based campus and left for the airport verbally committed to the Redhawks.

"I'm about to board my flight but I wanted to let you know that I'm committed to Miami (OH)," Maize said. "It's a great fit for me and I knew that I found the right place for myself so I committed.

"Miami of Ohio is just a great fit socially as well as academically. They also have amazing facilities plus the last two guys that plays my position for them (rush end/outside linebacker) one is in the NFL and the other one is about to get a shot to play in the league. The Miami coaches will be able to develop me into that type of player for them."

Maize had 13 scholarship offers and also made official visits to Wyoming and UConn before giving Miami of Ohio his verbal commitment.