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Blackhawks rally past Predators to win series

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks' core group rose to the occasion again when needed the most at United Center on Saturday, including a solid relief appearance by goalie Corey Crawford.

They paved the way to a 4-3 comeback victory against the Nashville Predators that ended the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series in six games, with Crawford making 13 saves after relieving Scott Darling in the first period.

Chicago advanced to the Western Conference Second Round for the third straight season and will play either the St. Louis Blues or Minnesota Wild, who lead that best-of-7 series 3-2.

"If you want to get anywhere at this level, I think your best players have to be your best players," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who had a goal and two assists. "Those are the guys you need to be your best players, and I think they want that more than anything. That's a huge reason why this team's had success in the last number of years."

Defenseman Duncan Keith scored the deciding goal with 3:48 left in the third period. Keith had two assists, and forwards Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp each had a goal and an assist.

Nashville took a 2-0 lead 8:09 into the game on goals by forward James Neal. Predators center Matt Cullen scored later in the first for a 3-1 lead.

Just like Game 1, a goalie change by Chicago coach Joel Quenneville sparked an uptick in the Blackhawks' defensive play. That led to more scoring chances, which is how they climbed back into the game.

Sharp made it 2-1 at 10:37 of the first, Toews capped a power play at 12:14 to make it 3-2, and Kane scored off a feed from Keith with 6 seconds left to tie it 3-3, rewarding center Brad Richards for a clean faceoff win.

"It's frustrating [to fall behind], but I mean, they scored off a couple quick plays that I don't think they had to work too hard for," Keith said. "We knew there was lots of time and we've got confidence in our offensive ability as a team. We showed that."

Neither team scored again until 16:12 of the third, when Keith's shot from the left point traveled through traffic and beat Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne. He ended Game 1 in double overtime almost exactly the same way. Darling made 42 saves in relief in that game after the Blackhawks trailed 3-0.

"It was the end of their shift and we'd had some chances before, so they were kind of reeling a little bit," Keith said. "I just wanted to make it count."

Crawford, who hasn't started since Game 2, rebounded after a shaky start to the series. He faced two shots in the first period and four shots in the third Saturday, and didn't allow a goal after replacing Darling at 11:16.

"I got into it pretty quick," Crawford said. "I've gone through a lot in my career. Just being level-headed, I think, helps not to get too down. You just keep working hard and pretty much just wash away anything else that tries to creep into your mind."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville hinted strongly that Crawford would start the next series.

The Blackhawks are 21-3 when winning three of the first five games in a playoff series and 18-0 when winning three of the first four.

Nashville has plenty of positives to take into the offseason. The Predators outshot the Blackhawks in four of the six games, were the faster team for much of the series, and built big leads in the first and final games.

They played all but the first two games without injured captain Shea Weber (lower body) and had veteran center Mike Fisher for two-plus games because of a lower-body injury.

"It's tough right now for our guys," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "We planned on coming here and winning the hockey game, so it's difficult when things don't happen, but our young guys have played well in the absence of [Fisher] for some of the series and Shea on the back end. Two big pieces out of our lineup."

Neal scored the first goal off a backhand at 1:10 of the first period and finished a power play to make it 2-0 at 8:09. The second goal was Neal's fourth in the past three games after not having a point in the first three.

The Predators, who lost to the Blackhawks in the first round in 2010, dominated the first 10 minutes. They outshot Chicago 10-4, forced numerous turnovers, and were faster.

They just couldn't keep it going once the Blackhawks' core group decided to take over.

"I think everyone left it out there," Jones said. "Every game this season, regular season and playoffs, we played as hard as we could. We're not out of the playoffs right now because of lack of effort, and that's all that we can ask of each other."

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