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Hawks punch postseason ticket by beating Nashville

by John Kreiser
For the first time in seven years, there will be playoff hockey in Chicago this spring.

The Blackhawks officially locked up their first postseason berth since 2002 with a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on Friday night. Jonathan Toews got the tie-breaking goal midway through the second period and Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 25 shots to assure the Hawks that their season won't end on Easter Sunday.

"It's a great achievement," said coach Joel Quenneville, who took over from Denis Savard four games into the season. "I know that it was our motivation from the start of the year. It was the No. 1 priority and objective."

"Everyone in this building knew what this meant. We wanted to get this done today and not wait," Toews said. "It was a nice feeling. We know what we're capable of as a team, but we need to be consistent if we want to be successful in the playoffs."

Chicago moved one point ahead of Calgary and into fourth place in the Western Conference playoff race while making the playoffs for just the second time in 11 years. Before that drought, the Blackhawks made the playoffs for 28 straight seasons, from 1969-70 through 1996-97.

With a playoff berth assured, the Hawks' next job is to lock up fourth place, which would give them the home-ice advantage in the opening round.

"The job's not done here in the regular season," forward Patrick Kane said. "I think it's pretty important for us to finish these last five games on a high note. It's big to get that fourth spot and play in front of the home crowd."

Rookie Cal O'Reilly scored the lone goal for the Predators, whose second straight loss kept them in ninth place in the West -- one point behind St. Louis with four games remaining.

"It was a very tight game, in a playoff-type hockey setting," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "I have to give the Hawks credit, as they clamped down on us defensively, especially during the third period. Both goalies played well and Khabibulin made some key saves. Injuries made us a little short, but we needed to get more points."

Chicago grabbed the lead at 5:22 of the opening period when Samuel Pahlsson slid a backhander past Pekka Rinne's right shoulder. O'Reilly tied it by banging home a rebound at 10:47, less than a minute after Rinne stopped Ben Eager on a breakaway.

Toews broke the tie when he beat Rinne with a rising one-timer from the right edge of the crease with 7:34 left in the second to give Chicago a 2-1 lead. Martin Havlat triggered a celebration from the United Center crowd when he hit the empty net with 1:13 remaining.

Nashville hosts Columbus on Saturday in a must-win game. The Preds will need a better effort than this one.

"We weren’t good enough tonight," forward Steve Sullivan said. "Chicago had us on our heels most of the game. I have to give them credit, because they kept us on the outside and couldn’t get opportunities for rebounds. Chicago has a lot of speed, and talent and we just couldn’t match them."

Wild 4, Flames 0 | Video | Gallery

Minnesota picked the right night to figure out longtime tormentor Miikka Kiprusoff. With the knowledge that one more loss could doom their playoff hopes, the Wild played desperate hockey and beat Kiprusoff three times in the first period to douse the Flames.

Kiprusoff came to the Xcel Energy Center with a 24-6-1-2 record, a 1.79 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage against the Wild, which had lost all five meetings with Calgary this season. But with their season on the line, the Wild got the job done.

"I think the desperation in our game was evident in the first period," said forward Cal Clutterbuck, one of three Wild to score in the opening period. "This was it for us as far as playoff chances. We wanted to get it, and we got it."

The shorthanded Flames, who were without injured defensemen Adrian Aucoin and Robyn Regehr, fell to 2-10 on the second game of back-to-backs. Kiprusoff made 24 saves and was briefly pulled by coach Mike Keenan in the first period.

"We needed a little bit of a timeout to get things stabilized," Keenan said. "We didn't start the game assertive enough. We were a little bit on our heels."

Andrew Brunette, Clutterbuck and Owen Nolan gave the Wild a 3-0 lead less than 15 minutes into the game. Marian Gaborik added a third-period goal and Niklas Backstrom made 27 saves for his team-record eighth shutout.

"We haven't really had any success against them this season," Clutterbuck said of the Flames. "So it was important to get on them early."

With 83 points, the Wild are still two behind eighth-place St. Louis with four games left.

The Flames dropped out of a first-place tie with Vancouver for the lead in the Northwest Division. Both teams have 94 points, but the Canucks have played one fewer game.

"It was a big game for us, too," Kiprusoff said. "So, it's no excuses. We didn't play that well."

Material from wire services and team broadcast and online media was used in this report

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