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Blackhawks, Predators compete for first in Central

by Robby Stanley

BLACKHAWKS (4-0-1) at PREDATORS (4-0-2)


NASHVILLE -- The Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators will play for the second time this season Thursday, with first place in the Central Division at stake.

The Blackhawks and Predators have yet to lose in regulation this season, making them the only two teams in the NHL to have gained at least one point in every game.

"It's always nice to get off to a good start. I think if someone would've told us we would have nine out of the first 10 points, we would have taken that to start the season," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "I still feel, and I think our team feels, that we haven't played our best hockey yet. Hopefully that's ahead of us and we keep improving every game."

Chicago beat Nashville 2-1 in overtime at United Center last Saturday when Jonathan Toews scored on a shorthanded breakaway in overtime. The Predators are looking for payback Thursday.

"Last time they caught us on the second night of a back-to-back, and we hung in there," Predators forward Eric Nystrom said. "We got better as the game went on and now we've got a chance to have them in our building. We're fresh, we're going to be rested and we're ready to go. It's going to be a great atmosphere."

The Blackhawks were impressed with the way the Predators have played under coach Peter Laviolette. Even though it's early in the season, Chicago sees Nashville as a new threat in the division.

"It seems like they're going to be a little bit more aggressive this year," Kane said. "They've always been a pretty tough team for us in the past and always tough to generate chances, and when you do get chances they have one of the best goaltenders in the league in [Pekka] Rinne. It seems like they're back in the fold where they can be competitive in the division. We'll take this team very seriously because it's a good test for us."

Chicago is coming off a 4-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. Antti Raanta earned the shutout in his first start of the season. The power play (2-for-4) was effective for the Blackhawks as well.

"We got off to a great start, so that was huge," Kane said. "When you find yourself up 3-0 in the first period you're going to have a good chance of winning the game. Our power play was a lot better. We generated a lot more chances and scored a couple goals off that. That's one of the things that wasn't very good against Nashville the last time we played them, so we'll try to improve on that."

Nashville defeated the Arizona Coyotes 4-3 in a shootout Tuesday but will try to improve its low cycle game against Chicago. The Predators allowed a few odd-man rushes against the Coyotes, with the defense getting caught in the offensive zone.

"We got caught a few times when our defense is pinching and then our forwards are still staying in the zone, and then we get caught like two or three times now for a breakaway or a 2-on-1, so we need to stay to the system and don't try to cheat too much," Predators forward Mike Ribeiro said.

Chicago forward Kris Versteeg will join Kane's line for the second straight game Thursday. Kane has seen a motivated Versteeg so far this season.

"I think one of the things about him is he came into the season to really try and prove himself and show that he can be an effective player like he was a few years back," Kane said. "He's obviously very motivated and he's been great for us so far."

Here are the projected lineups:


Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Kris Versteeg - Andrew Shaw - Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell - Brad Richards - Brandon Saad

Daniel Carcillo - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson

Trevor van Riemsdyk - Michal Rozsival

Antti Raanta

Scott Darling

Scratched: Jeremy Morin, David Rundblad

Injured: Corey Crawford (upper body)


Filip Forsberg - Mike Ribeiro - James Neal

Colin Wilson - Derek Roy - Craig Smith

Olli Jokinen - Calle Jarnkrok - Taylor Beck

Eric Nystrom - Paul Gaustad - Viktor Stalberg

Roman Josi - Shea Weber

Anton Volchenkov - Seth Jones

Mattias Ekholm - Ryan Ellis

Pekka Rinne

Carter Hutton

Scratched: Rich Clune, Gabriel Bourque, Victor Bartley

Injured: Mike Fisher (ruptured Achilles tendon), Matt Cullen (upper body)

Status report: Morin skated with the fourth line as an extra for Chicago at the morning skate. ... Beck enters Nashville's lineup in place of Bourque, who began the season on the first line. ... Stalberg has been moved to the fourth line for the Predators.

Who's hot: Kane scored two goals for Chicago on Tuesday against Philadelphia and has five points in five games. ... Ribeiro had a goal and an assist Tuesday for Nashville and is tied for the Predators lead in goals with three.

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