Hawks face a tough test in Smith

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Hawks face a tough test in Smith

GLENDALE, Ariz. Mike Smiths debut for the Phoenix Coyotes was an inauspicious one.

The goaltender struggled, allowing six goals in the first two periods in the season opener against the San Jose Sharks. Goaltending coach Sean Burke said the Coyotes had a decision to make after those 40 minutes.

We talked about it as coaches: Do we want to take him out? Burke recalled. But we said, Its his first game, and we need to show him right now hes going to be our guy, hes going to play. From that point on he took the ball and ran with it.

That guy who gave up six in his first two periods with Phoenix gave up very, very little in his last five regular-season games. And Smiths renaissance season is a big reason why the Coyotes won the Pacific Division title, their first division championship in franchise history.

When the Chicago Blackhawks face the Coyotes tomorrow, theyll be facing arguably the hottest goaltender in the league right now. In his final five regular-season games, Smith stopped 190 of the 192 shots he saw. For a goaltender whose career stalled in Tampa Bay, Smith is now back at the top of his game.

I dont look at it as him getting hot at the end. Hes been good all year long, Burke said. Obviously the key to his season has been his consistency. When we got him we knew what a great athlete he was, (Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett) had him in Dallas, so there was a confidence factor off the bat there. He came in here looking as a new lease on life and he has taken advantage of it.

Smith gave Burke credit for where he is now.

I dont think Im a lot different (from my Dallas days), Smith said. Consistency-wise, Ive been better this year. I worked hard to gain that, and Burkes been a big part of that. Ive approached every game the same way, and I dont plan to change that now.

It has been a fresh start for Smith, who was traded from the Stars to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the Brad Richards deal in February of 2008. Smith was on his way up at the time, a strong backup to Marty Turco and someone who was pegged to take the No. 1 job in Tampa. But it didnt work out; Smith played part of last season in the minors and was a free agent last summer.

Then the Coyotes called. And given his relationship with Tippett, it was a natural fit.

I know him and his character, Tippett said. I always thought he was going to be a top goaltender, and for whatever reason in Tampa didnt turn out that way. He was hungry from the opportunity, and I thought the relationship with him and Burke could be good. Hes just continued to work on his game, its matured and hes turned into a very good player.

The Blackhawks respect what Smith has done; they also want to get to him early in Game 1 on Thursday.

Hes on a heck of a run, hes had a good season. Thats not surprising to anybody, Patrick Sharp said. Playing with the lead is big so we want to score that first goal. The start is key, but its a 60-minute game. Sometimes its 80 minutes. You just want to make sure youre ready to go.

So is Smith. This is his first chance to be a No. 1 goaltender for a playoff team, and hes ready for the opportunity.

Im thrilled. This is why we play hockey, why were in this position, Smith said. I know from experience last year (with Tampa) that theres no better feeling than playing in the playoffs. In any playoff series you have to have good goaltending. Im just going to do my thing and hopefully its good enough.

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

LOS ANGELES – A man stepped to the microphone during a Q&A session at Cubs Convention and called Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman “the two boy geniuses.” The fan told Epstein how his friends used to call the Dodgers baseball boss “your Mini-Me,” asking about their personal rivalry and if beating L.A. in the playoffs had any extra meaning.

“We have a friendly rivalry,” Epstein told a packed hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago in January. “First off, didn’t he interview for an internship with us and we turned him down way back in the day?

“And then like nine months later, he was GM of the Rays. When he was with Tampa and I was with Boston, we never spoke, because we were in the same division. It was kind of a heated rivalry. We literally never called each other on trades or anything like that.”

But where it’s so difficult for the small-market Rays to keep up with the ultra-rich Red Sox – and replace Friedman’s vision and Joe Maddon’s star power and survive a string of wasted first-round draft picks and find a long-term stadium solution – the Cubs and Dodgers are positioned to be superpowers for years to come.

That’s what makes this Memorial Day weekend showdown at Dodger Stadium so compelling beyond the National League Championship Series rematch. It’s not just upcoming free agent Jake Arrieta returning to the site of his onesie no-hitter on Friday night, a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant) and Rookie of the Year (Corey Seager), two of the best closers on the planet (Wade Davis and Kenley Jansen) and a classic Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup on Sunday afternoon.

The Cubs eliminated the Dodgers less than a month after Epstein finalized a five-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $50 million, likely surpassing Friedman as the game’s highest-paid personnel executive.

“Jed developed a pretty good relationship with him, because I didn’t like talking to him,” Epstein said, referencing GM Jed Hoyer, another Boston transplant on the Cubs Convention panel that day. “But then when I came out here with the Cubs, a different league and everything, I developed a much better relationship with Andrew and we became friends, so now it’s much more of a friendly rivalry.

“I will say that losing to the Dodgers would have been a bitter pill to swallow on a number of fronts, including that one. But they’re developing a powerhouse out there.

“We see them as a team we have to go through each year to get where we want to be.”

[MORE CUBS: Summing up the Cubs' impressive, potentially season-altering homestand]

Backed by Guggenheim Partners’ financial muscle and flush with new TV money, the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and 90-plus games each season while ramping up a farm system that’s now ranked fourth, fifth or sixth by Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com.

“Everyone’s got their own style and their own approach,” Epstein said. “Ours was more kind of bottom-up (where) they needed to keep it rolling at a high level in the big leagues while retooling their system and nurturing the talent that was already there.

“We had to go out and transact and bring some stuff in. We were at different points of the success cycle. They’ve done a really nice job of winning while kind of establishing something new at the same time.”

The blue-blooded franchise that produced 17 Rookie of the Year winners last month rolled out Cody Bellinger, a 21-year-old, left-handed first baseman with nine homers in his first 28 games in The Show. Julio Urias – who might be the next Fernando Valenzuela – is supposed to be conserving some innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City for another October where the Cubs could be standing in the way of the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988.

“They’ve been producing great young talent for a long period of time,” Epstein said. “If you go back and look at some of the young studs they have in the big leagues that (former scouting director) Logan White and (the previous regime) brought in, some of the guys are still coming.

“They’re stocked and the Dodger tradition runs really deep. With Andrew and his front office, we know they’re going to be dynamic. They’re going to have more resources than anyone. And they’re a big threat to the whole league for a long period of time.”

Could Derrick Rose reunite with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota?

Could Derrick Rose reunite with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota?

Tom Thibodeau was without Derrick Rose for the first time in his head-coaching career last season, coaching the Timberwolves while Rose suited up for the New York Knicks.

But a reunion may be on the horizon. Rose is an unrestricted free agent and the Timberwolves, though they don't have a real need at point guard, are showing interest in the Chicago native. We'll have to wait until July 1, when free agency begins, to see what happens.

See what special guest Nick Friedell, Bulls beat reporter for ESPN, had to say about the topic on SportsTalk Live in the video above.