Blackhawks close in on Division Title and West #1 seed win win over Columbus

Corey Crawford and Artemi Panarin helped the battle-tested Blackhawks win a matchup against another of the NHL’s top teams.Crawford made 32 saves, Panarin had two goals and the Blackhawks beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-1 on Friday night to reach the cusp of clinching the Central Division.Panarin scored in the opening minute, then added an empty-netter with 44 seconds left for his 28th goal of the season. Marian Hossa also scored in the first period for the Hawks, and Patrick Kane assisted on all three goals as the Hawks extended their division lead to nine points over idle Minnesota.The Wild have five games remaining and the Blackhawks have four.The Blackhawks, with 107 points, also leap-frogged over Columbus, with 106, and into second place overall in the league standings behind Washington in the Presidents’ Trophy race.

”It was a good challenge against a team like that, one of the better teams in the league,” Crawford said. ”It was another solid game against a top team.”

The Blackhawks and Crawford played a smart, tidy game to deny the Blue Jackets a chance to gain ground on Washington in the Metropolitan Division.Kane, who reached 750 career points, likes the way his team is tooling up for the playoffs on the heels of an impressive 5-1 win at Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

”Another good team we were facing tonight from the East, so it’s nice to have that measuring stick, see where you stand against that conference,” Kane said.

The Blackhawks also reached 50 wins for just the second time in 90 seasons and have a shot at their team record for points (112) set in 2009-2010 when they went on to win their first of three Stanley Cups in six years.Nick Foligno scored his 25th goal to end an eight-game drought and Sergei Bobrovksy made 21 saves, but the Blue Jackets lost for the second time in two nights. The Blue Jackets have just seven goals in their last five games.

”We didn’t get the result, but as I told you before at this time of the year, I just want just to play the right way,” coach John Tortorella said. ”We played the right way tonight. I don’t have any complaints about our hockey club.”

Bobrovsky got his first regulation loss since Feb. 19 against Nashville. He had been 10-0-2 during the run and entered leading the NHL in wins, goals-against average and save percentage.Coming off a 2-1 overtime loss at Carolina on Thursday night – with backup Joonas Korpisalo in net – the Blue Jackets didn’t arrive at the their hotel in Chicago until about 1:30 p.m. on Friday.The team left Raleigh-Durham International Airport on a chartered jet shortly after Thursday’s game, but the plane was forced to turn back about 30 minutes into the flight because of a faulty generator. The Blue Jackets returned to the hotel they stayed at on Wednesday, then flew to Chicago on Friday.The Hawks took advantage by striking fast.Panarin got a power-play goal 32 seconds in and four seconds after Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky was sent off for cross-checking Niklas Hjalmarsson.After Jonathan Toews won a faceoff in the Blue Jackets’ zone, Kane slipped the puck to Panarin in the slot.The teams exchanged goals 22 seconds apart during a 4-on-4 late in the first period.Foligno tied it 1-all with 2:45 left, and Hossa’s 26th goal put the Hawks back in front 2-1 moments later. The 38-year-old faked Bobrovsky to the ice, cut across the crease and scored on a slick backhander.

NOTES: Columbus C Lukas Sedlak left in the second period with an upper-body injury and didn’t return. … Blackhawks C Artem Anisimov missed his ninth game (lower body), but coach Joel Quenneville said he hoped the 22-goal scorer would return for the playoffs. … C Vinnie Hinostroza, recalled from Rockford of the AHL on Thursday, was among Hawk scratches. … Tortorella said the team’s flight turnaround was ”very nerve-wracking,” but otherwise joked about the incident before Friday’s game and hoped it might rally his team. ”When you hear the announcement: `It’s an emergency, but we’re OK,’ where do you go with that?” Tortorella said…..The Blackhawks host Boston on Sunday in their final regular-season home game. They closes out the schedule with three road contests.

Niko,Butler lead Bulls past Cavs(again).

Chicago Bulls Logo - Red bull with script above head

Nikola Mirotic tied season highs with 28 points and six 3-pointers, Jimmy Butler scored 25, and the Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-93 on a night when LeBron James moved into seventh place on the NBA’s career scoring list.James moved past Shaquille O’Neal, finishing with 26 points and giving him 28,599 for his career – three more than O’Neal. But the big night by the four-time MVP couldn’t prevent the Cavaliers from matching a season high with their third straight loss.That dropped them a half-game behind Boston for the Eastern Conference lead and left them with a 6-10 record in March.Rajon Rondo added 15 assists, Robin Lopez had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and the ninth-place Bulls moved within a game of Miami and Indiana in the Eastern Conference standings.They also finished 4-0 against Cleveland to complete their first sweep of the Cavaliers since they took all three games during the 2011-12 season.

Hawks wake up, finish road trip with 5-1 rout of Penguins

PITTSBURGH—Patrick Kane darted behind the Pittsburgh Penguins net, seemingly intent on trying to bend a wraparound past Marc-Andre Fleury.Halfway there, the Blackhawks star changed his mind, instead flipping a backhand pass to Artemi Panarin at the left post. Panarin flicked the puck off an unsuspecting Fleury – caught looking the other way – and into the net.Seems nobody can see the Blackhawks coming these days. Not even the defending Stanley Cup champions.Kane’s sleight of hand set the tone for a lopsided 5-1 victory over the short-handed Penguins on Wednesday night. Panarin’s 26th of the season kickstarted a four-goal first period for the Hawks, who moved closer to locking up the Central Division title by winning in regulation in Pittsburgh for the first time in 20 years.Richard Panik, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa also scored during the first as the Blackhawks moved nine points clear of second-place Minnesota with five games left in the regular season. Tanner Nero added a breakaway goal in the third. Kane finished with two assists to move past Sidney Crosby for second in the NHL scoring race.

”I think it’s good to know we can play like that, so let’s keep building,” Kane said. ”Let’s try to get this momentum going into the playoffs where we’re firing on all cylinders.”

It looks like the Hawks might already be there. Corey Crawford stopped 31 shots, albeit against a depleted Pittsburgh lineup missing stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Not that Crawford was complaining.

”Obviously, we scored a bunch of goals, but I thought our game was even better after that,” Crawford said. ”We had some good kills to not give them momentum on their power play. It was a great game, full game for us.”

Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 31 saves but received little help outside of Bryan Rust’s third-period goal. Pittsburgh saw its winless streak reach four games, dimming its chances of catching first-place Washington atop the Metropolitan Division. At this point, securing home ice in the first round might be a challenge.

”We’ve made some mistakes, especially early on in the first period, and in that position it’s a climb,” Crosby said. ”We’ve got to be better. We can look at all the other games, it’s good that we stayed in it, but we’re capable of more.”

Pittsburgh is searching for healthy bodies and momentum with the postseason just two weeks away. Not the Blackhawks, who showcased the speed and creativity that have them looking like the favorite in the wide-open Western Conference and a serious threat to add to the three Cups they’ve captured since 2010.The Penguins started Fleury over Matt Murray, who has struggled recently while Fleury has regained his form since the team opted to hold onto him at the trading deadline. Given a chance to perhaps make serious inroads on Murray’s grasp of the No. 1 spot, Fleury instead spent the first period trying to contend with a seemingly endless series of odd-man rushes that left the Penguins flat-footed and reeling.

”They came out pretty hard,” Fleury said. ”They’re a good team. They have a lot of skill. I wish there could have been more stops to keep us in the game.”

Panik doubled the lead 14:39 into the first when he powered home a shot from the slot past Fleury’s outstretched glove. Kruger’s fourth of the year with 55 seconds left in the first came courtesy of a deft touch pass from Kane. Hossa finished off a 3-on-1 by firing it by Fleury with 16 seconds left, and the Hawks 20 minute clinic was complete.Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan switched up the lines but stuck with Fleury, who settled down, but by then the damage was already done. Sullivan has refused to blame health for his team’s slide even while allowing that players like Malkin and Letang are difficult to replace.

”The league is just going to challenge you through particular points in your schedule, and we’re going through one right now,” he said.

NOTES—The Blackhawks tied a franchise record with its 24th road win of the season. … The Hawks went 0 for 4 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 2. … The Penguins last dropped consecutive games by four goals on Jan. 3 and Jan. 5, 2009. … Pittsburgh’s last four-game winless streak came in Sullivan’s first four games on the job in December, 2015. … Asked if he expects Letang – who has missed 16 games with an injury – to return by the playoffs, Sullivan replied ”yes.”
The Blackhawks have just two home games left. They host Columbus on Friday. The Blue Jackets edged the Hawks 3-2 on Oct. 21.The Hawks host Boston Sunday at 11:35am

Hawks let 4-1 lead get away, fall to Lightning 5-4 in O.T.

TAMPA—Yanni Gourde’s second career goal capped a tremendous comeback by the Tampa Bay Lightning against one of the NHL’s elite teams.Gourde had a breakaway goal 4:25 into overtime and the Lightning rallied from a three-goal deficit to beat the Blackhawks 5-4 on Monday night.Playing in his 13th game this season and 15th overall, Gourde beat Scott Darling after Victor Hedman set up the winner with his third assist of the game.Tampa Bay, which trails Boston by a point for the second Eastern Conference wild card, got two goals from Jonathan Drouin. Ondrej Palat and Anton Stralman also scored, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who got pulled 14 minutes into the first after allowing three goals on eight shots, returned to start the second and finished with 25 saves.Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane, Tomas Jurco and Richard Panik scored for the Western Conference-leading Blackhawks, who were coming off a 7-0 loss Saturday night at Florida. Darling stopped 25 shots.

”We had everything going our way there and then we started getting cute in the neutral zone,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. ”We let them get back in the game.”

After the Blackhawks went up 4-1 midway through the second on Panik’s goal, Tampa Bay tied it at 4 on Drouin’s goals and one by Stralman in a 4:39 span.The Blackhawks took a 3-1 lead after the first period on goals by Panarin, Kane and Jurco. Palat, playing in his 300th NHL game, had the Tampa Bay goal.

”We had such a good first period,” Darling said. ”A good start for the second and then they just turned it on. It was pretty impressive.”

Palat and Drouin’s second goal came on power plays after the Hawks were penalized for delay of game after shooting the puck over the glass.The Blackhawks have the 24th ranked short-handed unit in the NHL.Nikita Kucherov had two assists to set a Tampa Bay record for points in a single month with 22. The right wing has four assists and 11 points during a five-game point streak.

NOTES—The Hawks have won just five times in 19 regular season road games against the Lightning. The Blackhawks did win two of three at Tampa Bay in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. … Jurco stopped a 34-game goal drought, dating to Feb. 18, 2016. … Palat has two goals and eight points in a five-game point streak. … Lightning G Peter Budaj made three saves in the first….The Blackhawks complete the three-game trip Wednesday night at Pittsburgh.

Bulls finally beat Bucks, 109-94

Chicago Bulls Logo - Red bull with script above head

MILWAUKEE—Nikola Mirotic tied a season high with 28 points, Jimmy Butler had 20 points and a career-high 14 assists, and the Bulls pulled away in the second half for a 109-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday.Butler broke his previous career best for assists (12) by the end of a pivotal third quarter, when the Bulls stretched a one-point lead at the half to 91-79 going into the fourth.Butler punctuated the second-half runaway with a backcourt steal off a telegraphed pass by Greg Monroe before strolling the other way for an easy dunk and 17-point lead with 8:55 left.Mirotic hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter, while Rajon Rondo scored 14 of his 18 points in that period.Giannis Antetokounmpo had 22 points and eight rebounds for the Bucks.The Bulls avoided a season sweep at the hands of the Bucks.

Hawks suffer worse loss since 2001-Panthers win in 7-0 ROUT!!

SUNRISE—The Blackhawks didn’t look like a Stanley Cup challenger in South Florida! The Florida Panthers needed a reason to feel good about themselves, and they got it.Jonathan Marchessault scored his first career hat trick, James Reimer stopped 25 shots for his first shutout of the season and the Panthers routed the Blackhawks 7-0 on Saturday night.Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and three assists, and Aleksander Barkov added a goal and two assists for Florida. Reilly Smith and Nick Bjugstad also scored to give the Panthers their largest margin of victory since an 8-0 win over Toronto on Feb. 5, 2008.Marchessault had two goals in a 3-1 victory over Arizona on Thursday. He has nine goals over his last nine games and leads the Panthers with 28.Reimer got his 15th career shutout and first with the Panthers.Florida remained seven points behind Boston for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.Corey Crawford stopped 21 shots for the playoff-bound Blackhawks before being lifted at 4:59 of the third period for Scott Darling, who allowed three goals on six shots.The Western Conference-leading Blackhawks had won six of seven coming into the game.

”Tough loss, especially when a lot of Chicago fans came out and watch this game here in Florida and we have an outing like that. We’ve got to be better,” center Jonathan Toews said. ”We have to get motivated and light that fire again and play the right kind of hockey going into the playoffs.”

Already leading 3-0, the Panthers poured in four goals in the third.They padded their advantage to 4-0 on Marchessault’s second goal. Colton Sceviour passed across to Marchessault in the left circle, and his goal chased Crawford.Marchessault’s third goal came when he beat Darling between the legs at 7:13 to make it 5-0, and the rout was on.Bjugstad redirected a shot by Sceviour into the net at 7:53, and Smith poked in a rebound with 8:15 left.Barkov gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead 17 seconds into the second period. During 4-on-4 play, Huberdeau passed to Barkov in the right circle and his wrist shot went over Crawford’s glove.Florida stretched its lead to 2-0 during a 5-on-3 power play, which came after Marcus Kruger was called for interference during a four-minute power play. Barkov passed to Huberdeau in the right circle and he fired a shot past Crawford on the short side at 10:21 of the second.

”We were moving along fine until that one call changed the whole complexion of the game,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. ”You got a breakaway or it’s a 5-on-3 for two minutes. You can’t get a bigger swing than that. That was an ugly, ugly game the way it ended up.”

Later in the same shift, Marchessault made it 3-0 when he one-timed a shot from the left circle at 11:40.Florida forward Jaromir Jagr was hip-checked along the boards by Richard Panik early in the second period. Jagr left the game for one shift as the trainer looked at his left knee. He returned for the rest of the second, but was out for the third period.

NOTES—Blackhawks D Brian Campbell still holds the Panthers record with 376 consecutive games played. Campbell was with the Panthers from 2011-16 and was given a video tribute on the scoreboard in the first period….The Blackhawks visit the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.

Bulls lack interest is loss to lowly Sixers

Chicago Bulls Logo - Red bull with script above head

It gets worse and worse for these “ODD-Bulls”! Rookies Dario Saric and Shawn Long had career highs in scoring, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 117-107 win against the desperate Bulls on Friday night.Saric scored 32 points, extending his double-digit points streak to 22 games, the longest by a rookie this season. He added 10 rebounds. Shawn Long, playing in his ninth career game, had 18 points and seven rebounds.The 76ers were playing without injured post players Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid, two of their recent high draft picks. Embiid had knee surgery on Friday and is out for the season, while Okafor (knee soreness) is questionable for Sunday at Indiana.The Bulls remained even with Detroit, which lost at Orlando, for ninth place in the Eastern Conference.Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 36 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds.

Hawks beat Stars, increase Division lead to 8 points.

The Blackhawks weren’t at their best, but marquee players came through -again – to keep Western Conference-leading Hawks on a roll.Patrick Kane scored his team-leading 33rd goal in regulation and connected again in the shootout as the Blackhawks beat the Dallas Stars 3-2 on Thursday night to open an eight-point lead for first place in the Central Division.Artemi Panarin also scored in the shootout as Chicago rode a 42-save effort by Corey Crawford through overtime to improve to 6-0-1 in its last seven. It was also the Blackhawks’ 18th win in their last 22 games. Marian Hossa scored his 24th goal of the season midway through the third period.

”We didn’t have the best game and Corey was strong for us there,” Hossa said. ”He made some huge saves, especially in the shootouts, too. Two nice points.”

Kane agreed that Crawford, who reached 30 wins for the sixth time in his career, was the difference.

”He played amazing tonight.” Kane said. ”The reason we won the game. ”Hats off to him. He’s done that a lot this year.”

Crawford was beaten only by Tyler Seguin in the shootout and twice in regulation by Ales Hemsky as he matched his season high for saves. The All-Star goalie rebounded smartly from giving up four goals on 10 shots to Vancouver on Tuesday night.The Blackhawks have been spotty in their last three games, all at home, despite going 2-0-1. the Hawks needed big third period rallies in their previous two contests to earn points, then leaned on Crawford in this one.

”Games like tonight you can’t be too happy with what you saw,” coach Joel Quenneville said. ”We want to make sure there’s more attention to detail and pace to our game.”

Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen made 24 saves through overtime, following up on a 30-save shutout on Monday against San Jose.Hemsky’s second goal of the game with 5:09 left in the third tied it at 2 and sent it to overtime. From the left side of the crease, Hemsky buried a rebound of Esa Lindell’s shot from the right point.Coach Lindy Ruff thought the Stars, all but eliminated from playoff contention, should have had more on the board before the extra period.

”You’ve got to give Crawford some credit on the saves,” Ruff said. ”But, at the same time, we missed some beauties. You know, we probably doubled them up 2-1 in chances.

Hemsky connected for his second goal and third goals this season in his 10th game back following hip surgery.

”We finally feel like a team and if we can play like that, we can play with anybody,” Hemksy said. ”We just didn’t score.”

Kane opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 8:13 of the first. He moved in on a 2-on-1 break with Richard Panik, then beat Lehtonen on the stick side.Crawford was sharp as the Stars started piling on shots. That including a point-blank pad save on Jiri Hudler’s backhander at 9:42.Hemsky tied it at 1 at 12:26 of the second on a 40-foot shot from the slot that may have been screened by Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Hemsky beat Crawford high on the stick side after taking John Klingberg’s feed from the right boards.Hossa fired a quick wrist shot from 30 feet out in the slot, through a screen and past Lehtonen to put the Hawks ahead 2-1 at 8:37 of the third. Hossa was set up by rookie Nick Schmaltz, who passed from just inside the Dallas blue line on the left boards.Kane fired a shot off the post during a power play 26 seconds into overtime.Later in the extra period, Crawford stopped two in-close chances by Jamie Benn from the right edge of the crease. He then came up with a pad save on Remi Elie’s breakaway with 1:15 left in overtime.

NOTES—Crawford (30-15-3) reached 30 wins for the sixth time in his career. . Stars C Jason Spezza missed his second game with back spasms. … Artem Anisimov sat out his fifth game with a lower-body injury. … Earlier on Thursday the Blackhawks gave utility F Tanner Kero a contract extension that runs through 2018-19. The 24-year-old Kero, signed as a free agent in April 2015, is one of seven rookies to skate with the Blackhawks this season, and has five goals and seven assists in 38 games since his recall from the AHL. … The Blackhawks honored Hall of Fame G Ed Belfour in a brief ”One More Shift” ceremony before the game. Dressed in his Blackhawks gear, Belfour skated onto the ice and joined the team for the national anthem. Belfour began his career with the Hawks, where he earned his first 201 of 484 career wins over seven seasons. He went on to play for the Stars and led them to their only Stanley Cup in 1999…..Blackhawks are at Florida on Saturday night to start a three-game trip. They plays six of their last eight regular-season games on the road.

Illini NIT run ends at Central Florida

Illinois Fighting Illini (2004 - 2013)

ORLANDO—B.J. Taylor scored 17 points, Tacko Fall had a double-double and Central Florida held on to defeat Illinois 68-58 on Wednesday night to advance to the final four of the NIT.A.J. Davis and Matt Williams added 16 points apiece for the Knights (24-11), who play TCU in a semifinal game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Fall had 10 points and 10 rebounds.UCF was the fourth-seed in the bracket and Illinois (20-15) No. 2 but due to an arena conflict the Fighting Illini couldn’t host the game. The Knights took advantage with the first sellout crowd in 10,000-seat CFE Arena history to move within one win of tying for the most in school history.Both teams had five 3-pointers in the first half but Illinois only had two other baskets, shooting 7 for 26 to fall behind 34-19.UCF pushed the lead to 19 midway through the second half and was up 52-37 before Malcolm Hill rallied the Illini. Hill hit back-to-back 3-pointers and then made three free throws with 3:14 to play to cut the deficit to six. But Davis made 5 of 6 free throws from there and Taylor was 6 of 8 in the final minute.Hill had 29 points to finish his Illini career with 1,846, third all-time. Jamall Walker went 2-1 as the interim coach after replacing John Groce, who was fired after the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois introduced Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood as its new coach on Monday

UIC drops CBI Semi-Finals game to Coastal Carolina

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CONWAY, S.C.—UIC shot the ball well Wednesday night, connecting at a clip of 50 percent from the field, but the Flames did not have enough firepower to top the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers in the semifinal of the College Basketball Invitational. The Flames fell, 89-78, at the HTC Center.UIC’s Tarkus Ferguson scored a career-high 27 points to lead all scorers and four Flames in double figures. Marcus Ottey netted 11 points by making all four of his field-goal attempts, while Tai Odiase and Dominique Matthews chipped in with 10 points apiece.The Flames drilled 11 3-pointers in the game, including eight during a furious second-half comeback. It marked the eighth time this season that the squad hit double-digit shots from beyond the arc.