Hawks - Coyotes first-round expectations

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Hawks - Coyotes first-round expectations

The Chicago Blackhawks and Phoenix Coyotes first-round matchup doesnt elicit the storylines of some of the Hawks recent postseason series. Its missing the animosity that comes with the Vancouver draw. Theres no goalie then-and-now comparison that you get with San Jose. And theres no deep history, as there would be if the Hawks wouldve played Detroit.

But hey, the playoffs are all about creating those stories, those subplots Blackhawks-Canucks was a big bag of who cares four seasons ago. So while we wait to see what this series brings, lets look at what each team brings:
Follow the leader

The Coyotes have been looking up to their reliable captain since 2003. The Blackhawks, in the wake of their captains injury, have looked to another for leadership.

Shane Doan is the prototype captain, a dependable player who has been with the WinnipegPhoenix franchise his entire professional career. Doan has long put up the points he has 318 goals and 470 points for a career 788 points. And this season, Doan finally got his first career hat trick.

Patrick Kane doesnt have the 'C' on his sweater, but in Jonathan Toews absence Kane has taken part of that role. Kane has been impressive as the Blackhawks No. 1 center, and his play and leadership down the stretch is a big reason the Blackhawks have surged again this spring

Thorn in opponents side

Which of the Blackhawks has been the Coyotes biggest headache? And vice-versa? The answers to each are wily veterans who are a combined 77 years old: left wings Andrew Brunette and Ray Whitney. Brunette has 42 career points against the Coyotes (14 goals and 28 assists). The 38-year-old was hampered by a foot injury as the regular season ended. But coach Joel Quenneville said Brunette, who was part of a successful top line with Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, should be ready for the playoffs.

For Phoenix, the 39-year-old Whitney has been stellar against Chicago, with 39 career points (12 goals, 27 assists). Whitney played all 82 games this season and put up some of his best career numbers during it. His 24 goals, 53 assists (77 points) are exactly the same as his 2008-09 numbers with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Goaltenders

Corey Crawford has gone through his ups and downs this season, and once again there was talk of a goaltending controversy. Would the backup become the No. 1 guy for the third consecutive season? But as the Blackhawks got closer to the playoffs, Crawford got closer to the form he had last spring. Since coming in relief and pulling out a shootout victory against the St. Louis Blues on March 13, Crawford has gone 8-1-2.

Mike Smith has gone through a renaissance with the Coyotes. Seemingly finished when he languished in the Tampa Bay minor-league system last season, Smith is now among the leagues best goaltenders and should be a Vezina Trophy candidate. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Smith has turned it on entering the postseason, allowing just two goals in his last five games (190 saves on 192 shots).
Knowing coaches

Joel Quenneville and Phoenix coach Dave Tippett are both familiar with each other. The two are longtime friends, and in their playing days were teammates in both Hartford and Washington. Theyve also carved their successful coaching niches. Quenneville has the most victories among NHL coaches (624) and two Stanley Cups, including one as an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche.

Tippett, who has 406 victories, has led the Coyotes to three consecutive playoff appearances and, on Saturday night, their first division title in franchise history. He also won the Jack Adams award in 2010.

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are so strong up the middle that Javier Baez can star for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and return to camp as a super-utility guy/late-game defensive replacement. 

But that projection in late March is based on across-the-board health, which never happens in a 162-game season. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (stiff neck) hasn't played in a Cactus League game in almost a week. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) became a late scratch to Friday's lineup at Sloan Park.

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr. exited a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians with what the Cubs called "left neck tightness" after trying to make a diving catch in the third inning, though he still plans to play in Las Vegas this weekend.  

On the other side of the spring-training complex in Mesa – away from the crowd of 15,473 in a minor-league game against a Colorado Rockies squad – the Cubs did get a positive piece of news on the health front: Kyle Schwarber went four innings behind the plate, going Tony Pena style and trying to reduce the stress on his body.

"I love catching," Schwarber said. "Whenever I played baseball, I was always a catcher. For me to be able to do that today – and feel pretty good about myself walking away from the day – it was a good step."

This is clearly important to Schwarber, an intensely driven personality who doesn't want to hear "no." Otherwise, the Cubs probably would have shut this down already, not wanting to risk it with a franchise player, someone who might blast 35 homers at the top of their lineup.

[Buy Cubs tickets right here]

But the medical staff cleared Schwarber when pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona – 10 months after he underwent surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL – and it could become a valuable skill again. 

"The most difficult part I would probably say was setup-wise," Schwarber said, "trying to find that timing of your moves and everything like that. Sometimes I felt like I was a little late getting my setup. But that all came. It's been a year since I got behind there, so overall everything went really well."

The Cubs already have one of the best young catchers in the game (Willson Contreras) and a two-time All-Star making $14 million this season backing him up (Miguel Montero). Schwarber doesn't want to put a number on how many starts he might make behind the plate, though the Cubs have framed it as in case of emergency, an extra late-inning option for manager Joe Maddon or maybe something that makes sense with a particular matchup. 

"As of right now, it's still the third-catcher role," Schwarber said. "I'm down for whatever, but I know the majority of the time is going to be out there in left."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Mark Sanchez officially signs with Bears

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Mark Sanchez officially signs with Bears

On the latest edition of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Chris Emma, Seth Gruen and Danny Ecker join David Kaplan to discuss the Mark Sanchez signing. Does this mean the Bears won't draft a quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft? 

Later, the White Sox named Jose Quintana their Opening Day starter, but lose Carlos Rodon and Todd Frazier to injuries. 

Finally, Robin Lopez is back after serving a one-game suspension. The panel looks at the Bulls matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below.