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Blackhawks return home to face Predators

by Brian Hedger

PREDATORS (28-28-10) at BLACKHAWKS (38-14-14)


Last 10: Nashville 3-5-2; Chicago 5-4-1

Season series: This is the third of five games between the Central Division's Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks, with each team winning one of the first two at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. The Predators won 7-2 on Nov. 16 and the Blackhawks evened the season series on Dec. 12 with a 3-1 victory.

Big story: The Blackhawks, who once cruised atop the Western Conference and Central standings in their defense of the 2013 Stanley Cup championship, slipped to third in their division and fifth in the conference following a 3-2 loss Wednesday night to the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center in Denver. The Predators are headed for a high pick in the 2014 NHL Draft; they are last in the Central and eight points out of the final wild-card spot in the West.

Team Scope:

Predators: Nashville is 3-4-0 since returning from the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but the Predators have won back-to-back games against the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres to start a three-game road trip that concludes Friday night in Chicago.

Nashville scored four goals in each of the two victories. The Predators, who rank 24th in the NHL in scoring with 2.41 goals per game, had scored a total of three goals in their previous four games -- all regulation defeats. Even with dim hopes of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators haven't lost their fight.

"It's a good start to the road trip so far," said defenseman Shea Weber, who scored his 16th goal and had an assist in a 4-1 victory against the Sabres on Tuesday night. "We've got a challenge in Chicago coming up. They're a very good team and we've got to make sure we keep pushing forward and trying to get on a roll here."

Blackhawks: The good news is elite two-way forward Marian Hossa (upper-body injury) was slated to get back on the ice for individual work back in Chicago on Wednesday. The bad news is that he's still out. The Blackhawks really seem to miss the quality minutes he logs at both ends of the ice, at even strength and for both special teams.

The first-place St. Louis Blues are starting to pull away in the division, but the second-place Avalanche (91 points) are just a point ahead in the standings. If the Blackhawks want home-ice advantage in a potential matchup against Colorado in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, they need to start winning games with only 16 left to play before the postseason.

"Maybe we can learn our lesson now that games aren't going to get any easier this time of year," captain Jonathan Toews said following their third straight loss to the Avalanche. "It's time to play hard. It's time to play playoff-style hockey if we want to win games. That's another big two points we let slip. That's, I think, six [points] in a row against this team. It's not good enough. It is frustrating."

Who's hot: Nashville center Craig Smith has two goals, three points and a plus-5 rating in the past two games. … Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane has scored goals in back-to-back games and has points in three straight.

Injury report: Hossa (upper body) is working his way back for Chicago and veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (rotator-cuff surgery) is expected to miss the rest of the season. ... The Predators report no injuries.

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