CHICAGO -- It's been considered a formality for a while, but the Chicago Blackhawks can officially say they've reserved a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After defeating the Nashville Predators 5-3 at United Center on Sunday night, the Blackhawks became the first team in the NHL to clinch a 2013 postseason berth. It's not the ultimate goal, of course, but it is the first step on the path to the Stanley Cup.
Chicago can't finish any lower than seventh in the Western Conference but would like to be the top seed.
"It's a good feeling, first team to clinch a playoff spot, but we've done a good job of never thinking too far ahead this year and taking it one game at a time," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who scored the game-deciding goal, his 19th marker of the season, and added an assist. "We're going to go forward with that mindset. We're not going to focus on something that doesn't really matter right now."
Saad, Kane and Shaw added assists to join Toews with two-point nights. Ray Emery made 19 saves and defeated the Predators (15-17-8) for the second time in as many days, also winning 1-0 on Saturday at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.
The Predators took a 3-2 lead 6:54 into the third period on David Legwand's goal, his 11th of the year, but Saad and Toews scored 55 seconds apart to put the Blackhawks up for good.
"Obviously, our goal at the start of the year is to make the playoffs and then we know anything can happen," said Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, who assisted on Saad's goal and finished with a plus-3 rating. "We've given ourselves a chance now."
Chances for the Predators are starting to run out. Nashville has eight games remaining and dropped a spot to 13th in the West with 38 points. There are four teams and five points separating the Predators from the West's eighth playoff spot.
"We've just got to play hard and see what happens," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "Chances are very remote, but you've got to play hard. You're not going to do anybody any favors if you don't. You just embarrass yourself."
Like the other three head-to-head matchups, the Blackhawks controlled most of the play but still went to the third period deadlocked 2-2 thanks to Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne (35 saves).
Shaw put the Blackhawks up 1-0 at 6:34 of the first by standing in front of Rinne and tipping Michael Frolik's long wrister from the top of the left circle into the upper left corner of the net. It was Shaw's eight goal, first since March 18, and capped a great shift by Chicago's fourth line, which Shaw is centering mainly because the Blackhawks are playing without injured forwards Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland.
Chicago outshot Nashville 17-7 in the first period and 40-22 for the game, but the Predators scored some timely goals to stay in it.
First it was Spaling, who tied it 1-1 with 2:44 left before the first intermission by burying a second chance into the net from the low slot. Then, after Bickell scored his second goal in as many days to put Chicago up 2-1 at 2:09 of the second, Weber knotted it again at 2-2 with his eighth goal of 2012-13.
The Predators captain had the puck come right to him after a faceoff win by Spaling in the offensive zone. The defenseman fired a half-slapper from just above the right circle that sailed over Emery's shoulder, clanked off the crossbar and hit the back of the net.
It was Weber's 107th career goal, which tied him with Jason Arnott for third in Predators history.
The Blackhawks went into the third period with a 29-16 advantage in shots. They just didn't have the lead and knew that a mere point separated them from automatic playoff qualification, something that's been assumed since their 24-game point streak to start the season.
The Predators didn't make it easy. Legwand put Nashville up 3-2 when he took a pass from behind the net by Matt Halischuk and zipped it through Emery's pads from the low slot. That set the stage for the goals by Saad and Toews, who've been red hot as two-thirds of a dynamic top line.
Saad smacked a rebound of Keith's shot between Rinne's pads at 9:37 to make it 3-3, and Toews made it 4-3 after taking a great pass from Kane and launching a high, hard rocket from the top of the right circle that sailed through traffic and ripped into the top right corner of the net.
Just like that, the Blackhawks knew for sure they'd be battling for the Stanley Cup for a fifth straight postseason. Now the overriding goal is to gear up for a deep playoff run.
"We're very happy with what we've accomplished, but we still want to keep trying to get better in games," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Playing the right way is what we're going to be stressing here the last 10 [games] and that's important. We'd like to finish as high as we can, that's a priority as well, but that's what the motivation is."
|Andrew Shaw (8) ASST: Michael Frolik (6), Niklas Hjalmarsson (8)|
1 - 0 CHI
|Nick Spaling (7) ASST: Sergei Kostitsyn (11)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Bryan Bickell (8) ASST: Viktor Stalberg (12), Michal Rozsival (11)|
2 - 1 CHI
|Shea Weber (8) ASST: Nick Spaling (4)|
2 - 2 Tie
|David Legwand (11) ASST: Matt Halischuk (5), Shea Weber (15)|
3 - 2 NSH
|Brandon Saad (9) ASST: Duncan Keith (20), Jonathan Toews (21)|
3 - 3 Tie
|Jonathan Toews (19) ASST: Patrick Kane (26), Andrew Shaw (5)|
4 - 3 CHI
|EN - Patrick Kane (20) ASST: Brandon Saad (14)|
5 - 3 CHI
|Rich Clune Too many men/ice - bench|
|Andrew Shaw Unsportsmanlike conduct|