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Confident Blackhawks excited to begin playoffs

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks lost four straight games to end the regular season, but they didn't look or sound like a team in a funk heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs at practice Monday.

Perhaps that was because it was right wing Patrick Kane's first full-contact practice since Feb. 24, when he fractured his left clavicle against the Florida Panthers.

The Blackhawks were a confident group, even several hours before they learned that Kane has been cleared to return for Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN360, CSN-CH, FS-TN).

"It was a good day today," said veteran center Brad Richards, who will play in Game 1 after missing the final three games with an upper-body injury. "Everybody was chatting, and it was loud out there, and the pace was probably the best pace we've had in a while.

"No matter how beat up you are or how sore you are, this time of year, players that play 82 games, you get through it and there's just a different level of energy for some reason that becomes available to the body. It's amazing what your mind can do with just excitement and a new beginning."

Richards quickly pointed out that 15 other teams feel the same way, but not all have the Blackhawks' wealth of playoff experience.

Chicago's core group has won the Stanley Cup twice in the previous five seasons. The Blackhawks have a goalie, Corey Crawford, who was in net for their most recent championship, in 2013. They've added depth at center in Richards, Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins and acquired even more experience by trading for 40-year-old defenseman Kimmo Timonen.

It appears Vermette might be a healthy scratch Game 1 against Nashville, based on line rushes Monday.

With Kane returning and Chicago's only big question mark its third defense pairing -- five players are vying for the two spots -- the Blackhawks are built to make a deep run.

It's no wonder Richards isn't worried about that four-game losing streak to conclude the regular season.

"I can't even remember what happened last week," he said, smiling.

There were laughs afterward, but there was also some truth in Richards' statement. At various points during the regular season, the Blackhawks seemed distracted by the big picture and the challenge of winning the Cup again.

Their lofty goal hasn't lessened any now. The playoffs have finally arrived, and it's time for the chase to begin.

"You have a big training camp, and then all of the sudden, you're playing 82 games to put yourself in this position," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "This is what we're wired for, is trying to be a champion at the end of it. We have a lot of guys that have some great experiences here. We'll definitely talk about the opportunity here being special."

What they won't discuss is the season-high four-game skid to end the regular season. That's all part of history now, and there's still the most important part of a season ahead.

"That's what the playoffs are all about," Quenneville said. "The regular season gets you in the playoffs. I don't even think that [losing streak] will be a thought in our group's mind in preparing for the playoffs."

Instead, the Blackhawks will focus solely on the Predators. They haven't played Nashville since Dec. 29, but they know it's a vastly different team under coach Peter Laviolette. Nashville is much faster now in playing style and sheer foot speed.

"We're going to have to play with a lot of speed," Richards said. "They're probably one of the fastest teams [in the NHL], the way they move the puck and the way they move as a unit. It's going to be a fast series. I would anticipate that if you're not skating, you'll get left behind."

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