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Blackhawks' leaders step up to help even series

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE -- Entering Game 4 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Nashville Predators, it wasn’t hard to find reasons why the Chicago Blackhawks trailed two games to one.

Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa were each minus-3. Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and a host of others were minus-2. Duncan Keith’s minus-4 stood out like a bad turnover.


The Blackhawks knew that they had to turn that around and they did -- their best players scored the big goals and made the key plays as they evened the series Thursday with a 3-0 win over No. 7 seed Nashville before a sell-out crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena.

"We need to be," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said after registering a goal and an assist. "We’re the type of players that will be focused on by their best players. It’s all about outcompeting their best players and making sure we’re better. So far we haven’t been playing at that level where we were satisfied. Tonight was a win in our favor and we want to keep it going that way."

Sharp scored twice and goalie Antti Niemi posted his second shutout of the postseason with 33 saves. Game 5 will be back in Chicago on Saturday, with Game 6 in Nashville on Monday.

"Everybody had a good game across the board," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, who had challenged his best players on Wednesday. "Sharp scored a huge goal there to make it 3-0. We had the puck a little more. All four lines contributed."

In the first period, Chicago scored a power-play goal for the third straight game in an expeditious 10 seconds after Francis Bouillon was called for interfering with Bickell. The 6-foot-4 Bickell, playing his first game of the series, was inserted into the lineup for his size and drew the call as he skated to the net for a rebound.

Chicago scored by drilling pucks at the net. First a point shot by Toews, then two more by Kane before Sharp finally put the puck past Pekka Rinne (27 saves) at the 10:57 mark.

A key turning point came in the first period with Chicago leading 1-0. Nashville earned a two-man advantage for 1:51 after Tomas Kopecky received a boarding penalty on Kevin Klein and then Dave Bolland cleared the puck over the glass for a delay of game call.

The Predators kept trying to set up the big shot of Shea Weber, but never put together a great opportunity, as pucks sailed wide of the net. Then David Legwand, the hero of Game 3 with three points, took a goaltender interference call, negating the final 33 seconds of the 5-on-3. Even with a 4-on-3, Nashville could not score.

The Preds’ futility on the power play has been costly. They were 0-for-5 in Game 4 -- they also pulled Rinne on a late power play for a 6-on-4 that did not connect -- and are now 0-for-14 in the series and 1-for-34 against Chicago this season in 10 meetings, including the regular season.

"We practiced 5-on-3 power plays a lot during that little period after the end of the season," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We shot a lot of pucks but we didn’t get them through or we missed the net or went over the net. Just as a power-play goal can give you momentum, a big penalty kill or a big save will give you momentum. I’m pretty sure they got some momentum off that."

The Blackhawks used two late goals in the second period to break open the game.

Chicago made it 2-0 off an odd-man rush. Hossa, playing his customary right wing in the second period -- far from his bench -- overstayed his shift and was on the ice with Bickell and Toews. Hossa got his second point of the series by throwing a puck at the net from the right-wing circle and Toews beat Nashville defenseman Dan Hamhuis to the rebound and quickly put it in the net with 7:05 left in the period.

Sharp made it 3-0 with 3:43 left with a wrist shot from the slot with assists to defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Sopel, who did a good job getting the puck up ice quickly on the play.

The three lineup changes and line juggling that Quenneville did seemed to have their effect. Quenneville said he thought having defenseman Brian Campbell back in the lineup for the first time in more than a month after recovering from a broken collarbone was a big help.

Toews had two new linemates: Bickell and Kane. And Sharp moved to center between Slovaks Kopecky and Hossa.

"It gives us a different look -- that’s for sure," Sharp said after the game. "Going back to center changes things a little bit for me, gives me a different look. But we’ve played 86 games now, I think everybody should be comfortable with everybody. And I think we are. Joel’s got a good feel for putting players together and it worked tonight."

Shift of the game: It lasted only 10 seconds but it resulted in the game-winning goal. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had talked about the need to put more shots on goal, create more traffic and go to the hard areas of the ice, and Sharp, an alternate captain and 25-goal scorer during the regular season, did just that. After Patrick Kane had two shots on net, Kane was there in the blue paint on the power play to tap in the goal.

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