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Depleted Blackhawks enter playoffs on losing streak

by John Manasso

NASHVILLE -- The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks will go into the Stanley Cup Playoffs on a two-game losing streak after a 7-5 loss to the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena in their regular-season finale.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville placed more of a priority on long-term health that short-term victory Saturday. The Blackhawks played without six top players: Center Jonathan Toews and right wing Patrick Kane are injured, and Quenneville elected to rest defensemen Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson and centers Michael Handzus and Marcus Kruger.

Chicago also rested right wing Marian Hossa after he scored his 30th goal of the season in the first period. Quenneville gave Hossa the option not to play at all, but Hossa elected to. Once he scored, Quenneville sat him after 4:30 of time on ice on five shifts.

The Blackhawks ended up blowing leads of 2-0 and 3-2 one night after a 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. Chicago had won four straight, allowing nine goals in that span.

"The last two games we allowed lots of goals, but I think the previous four or five games we played much better defensively," Hossa said.

Chicago (46-21-15), which finished third in the Central Division, will face either the Colorado Avalanche or the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round.

"It's what it's all about," Quenneville said of the playoffs. "It's fun playing every night and playing the right way and learning. Being around the guys and being around the team, you put yourself in this position, that's why, at the end of it all, if you become a champion, it's the greatest feeling in the world."

Nashville's Patric Hornqvist scored the game-winner with 58.2 seconds left to cap a wild finish. Matt Cullen's pass deflected off Hornqvist into the net. Shea Weber scored an empty-net goal with 14 seconds left for his 22nd of the season, most among NHL defensemen and tied for the Predators lead with Hornqvist and Craig Smith, who each scored Saturday.

The teams combined for four goals in the final 2:55 of regulation.

Chicago's Andrew Shaw tied the game 5-5 with 1:35 left with a slap shot from above the right circle that beat Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne through the five-hole.

Nashville center Paul Gaustad scored a go-ahead goal for Nashville with 2:55 left, converting Smith's feed from behind the net.

Nashville (37-32-12), which is 11-4-2 in its past 17 games, ends its season Sunday at the Minnesota Wild. The Predators, who will miss the playoffs for a second straight season, won the season series from Chicago 4-1 and twice scored seven goals in a victory.

Mike Fisher had three assists, Gaustad had a goal and two assists, and the defense pair of Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm each went plus-3.

Predators coach Barry Trotz was at a loss to explain Nashville's success against Chicago this season.

"Don't ask about how that happened," Trotz said. "I don't really have an answer for you. Yeah, I got nothing."

Trotz said he told his players that the game was a microcosm of Nashville's season. The Predators fell behind early, rallied, fell behind again, took the lead, gave it away but ultimately prevailed.

"The year was very challenging, especially in the first half of the year, and really we learned that, we learned resiliency," Trotz said. "… You just keep competing and you get yourself back."

The Predators took their first lead of the game, 4-3, at 7:05 of the third period when Wilson put in a rebound of Weber's shot. Weber's point was his 54th of the season, a career high for the two-time Norris Trophy finalist.

Chicago answered 55 seconds later to tie the game at 4-4. Chicago right wing Jeremy Morin backhanded the puck toward the net from behind the goal line and it squeaked through Rinne and hit the post. In an attempt to keep it out, Nashville defenseman Roman Josi knocked it over the line.

Nashville rallied to tie the game for the second time at 4:03 of the third on Cullen's 10th goal. Skating in off the rush, Fisher put a slap shot off the shoulder of Chicago goalie Antti Raanta, who could not control the rebound. Cullen got to it first and chipped it inside the left post to make it 3-3. The point was the 600th of Cullen's NHL career.

Chicago left wing Matt Carey, in his second NHL game, scored his first goal at 13:16 of the second period. Blackhawks wing Bryan Bickell, off the cycle, found Carey wide open in the slot, and Carey buried a wrist shot from close range to put the Blackhawks back on top 3-2.

Chicago led 2-0 before Nashville rallied to tie in the second period.

The Blackhawks first capitalized on a mistake in the neutral zone. Fisher's clearing attempt bounded off the boards right to Chicago's Brandon Saad, who started the rush back into Nashville's zone. Saad left the puck at the right circle for Ben Smith, whose wrist shot beat Rinne high to the blocker side at 4:11 of the first period.

Hossa scored unassisted at 12:43 to make it 2-0. Hossa stripped Hornqvist of the puck at the Chicago blue line and took off. He maneuvered diagonally across the ice and wheeled around Nashville wing Gabriel Bourque, went around the net, and banked in a wraparound off Rinne's right pad.

Hossa, 35, reached 30 goals for the eighth time in his NHL career.

"It was a perfect ending for him," Quenneville said.

Hossa, who has battled injuries as he has aged, said he was pleased with how his season went. He played in 72 games and missed some for personal reasons.

"I think that's pretty good," Hossa said. "… I'm just glad I played so many games and I feel pretty good."

Smith pulled Nashville within 2-1 14 seconds later with his 22nd goal. He won a faceoff to Gaustad, who fed the puck back for a rising wrist shot over Raanta's glove hand.

Ellis tied the score 2-2 with his fifth goal of the season at 6:32. Trotz started mixing up his lines and put Bourque on the left wing in Cullen's spot with Fisher and Hornqvist. Bourque did not receive an assist on the play but he helped with some possession in Chicago's zone, working the puck around to Hornqvist then Fisher, who found Ellis wide open in the slot for the goal.

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