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Hawks clinch playoff spot with 5-4 win over Preds

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE – The Chicago Blackhawks clinched their fourth consecutive berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday with three games remaining in the regular season – taking a lot less dramatic route to the playoffs than they did last year.
It just happened instead that the playoff-clinching victory was larded with drama. Despite allowing the Predators to rally from a four-goal deficit to tie, Chicago survived on Saturday with a 5-4 win in regulation at Bridgestone Arena to pull within a point of Nashville for fourth in the Western Conference.
Last year, Chicago needed a victory by Minnesota, already eliminated from playoff contention, over Dallas in the season finale to back in to the playoffs and to be able to defend their 2010 Stanley Cup.
"I think it's great. This time, we don't have to wait for someone else to do it for us," said Chicago right wing Marian Hossa, who had an assist. "We did it for ourselves. It's a huge win on Nashville ice."
It marks the first time in 15 years the Blackhawks will make four consecutive postseason appearances.  The Blackhawks reached the Western Conference Finals in 2009, won the Cup in '10 and fell in a seven-game Western Conference Quarterfinals series in 2011 to Vancouver.
Chicago tied Detroit for fifth in the West at 97 points, though the Red Wings hold a game in hand now on both of their Central Division foes, Chicago and Nashville.
To get there, Brent Seabrook one-timed a pass in deep from Andrew Shaw with 11:41 left in regulation.
"Nice play on the backdoor," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said, then alluded to a nine-game losing streak in January in February that began, oddly enough, with Chicago owning the League's top record. "And at the same time, I just think you have some bad stretches, you have some long, long stretches. We hope we can get some positive confidence, as well, going into these last three games."
Sixty-nine seconds before Seabrook's goal, Preds defenseman Shea Weber knotted the game at 4-4 with his second goal of the game. He stepped into a slap shot on the power play for his 19th of the season.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said the result was disappointing after coming back from such a deep deficit.
"I thought we showed great character coming back," Trotz said. "We get it to four-four, you want to make sure you're getting points."
The win helped the Blackhawks to avenge a 6-1 home loss to Nashville less than a week ago. Before the game, Chicago goalie Corey Crawford talked about the need for the Blackhawks to demonstrate to themselves they could beat the Preds – something they had not done since a 5-4 overtime win on Halloween. Nashville won the season series nine points (4-1-1) to four (2-4).
Crawford (29 saves) made some huge saves early that ended up being huge later on. In the first period, he made a glove save with a flourish on Patric Hornqvist from 17 feet, as Hornqvist wheeled with a backhander. Then he went from post to post and got his arm on the puck when Nick Spaling one-timed a rebound from the slot.
"These guys kind of embarrassed us a couple of times the last couple of games, so to come into this building and play a solid game and come out with a win is big for us going into the playoffs," said Crawford, who has played in nine straight games, winning seven of them.
The Hawks helped to build their lead by scoring twice with the man advantage. Chicago connected on its first power play chance with only 13 seconds remaining on a penalty to Matt Halischuk, which he received for high-sticking Patrick Kane. After Nashville failed on several chances to clear the zone, Shaw stick-handled in close but lost control of the puck. Patrick Sharp backhanded it towards the goal and it glanced off Hal Gill and went inside the far post at 3:25 of the first period. The goal was Sharp's 32nd of the season.
David Legwand took a costly penalty with 11 seconds left in the first period, hooking Chicago's Nick Leddy in Nashville's offensive zone and pulling Leddy down. Chicago cashed that in 65 seconds into the second period for a 2-0 lead. Hossa, just feet from the right post, passed the puck through the goalmouth to the left circle and David Bolland banged it in.
Fourteen seconds after Nashville's first power play expired, Kane scored on a breakaway to make it 3-0 at 6:50 of the second, as Nicklas Hjalmarsson sprung him with a long lead pass.
Viktor Stalberg made it 4-0 at 8:35 of the second with his 20th. He made a power move to the goal that Rinne stopped, but from along the boards behind the net he threw the rebound off Rinne's back shoulder and into the net.
Nashville got two goals in 49 seconds to cut the lead in half in the second period. Martin Erat finally got Nashville on the board at 9:29 with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle as Hornqvist screened Crawford. Then at 10:18, Weber earned his 18th of the season with a snap shot from just inside the blue line that beat Crawford with Alex Radulov screening him.
Radulov then pulled Nashville within 4-3 at 4:38 of the third, splitting Chicago defensemen Sean O'Donnell and Seabrook and then roofing a backhand over Crawford. Radulov has three goals and three assists since rejoining the Preds after four seasons in the KHL.
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