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Predators pursue League-leading Blackhawks

by Brian Hunter
BLACKHAWKS (29-13-6) at PREDATORS (27-16-4)


Last 10:
Chicago 5-3-2; Nashville 8-2-0

Season Series:
Second of six meetings between these Central Division rivals. Viktor Stalberg scored 2:18 into overtime on Halloween night to give Chicago a 5-4 win over Nashville at the United Center in the only previous matchup this season. Patrick Kane added a pair of goals for the Blackhawks, while Patric Hornqvist scored twice for the Predators.

Big Story:
Nashville's recent surge has helped create some separation between the Predators and the four teams not currently occupying a playoff spot and yet very much in the mix. But with five games still remaining against Chicago, their focus can turn to pursuing the Blackhawks and Red Wings for the Central lead. The Predators have never won a division title in the franchise's history.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: The race for the Presidents' Trophy figures to be an extremely competitive one over the final few months of the season, with the top three teams in the Central separated by just two points starting play Saturday. Right now Chicago can lay claim to the driver's seat, leaping back over rival Detroit with a 3-1 win Friday against Florida. Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith scored 2:03 apart late in the first period and Kane ended a seven-game goal drought in the second, while the Blackhawks made it a fairly easy night for Ray Emery, who only needed to stop 18 shots.

"It was a good feeling," Kane said of his goal. "I kind of forgot how to celebrate to be honest with you. I didn't even know what I was doing, but it was good to put one in, for sure."

Predators: It's been a packed schedule leading up to the All-Star break, with Nashville playing 12 games over the first 24 days of January. In action for the third time in four days, the Predators had a five-game winning streak snapped Tuesday by the Rangers, but they bounced right back on Thursday and blanked the Blue Jackets 3-0 behind 38 saves by Pekka Rinne. Martin Erat and Mike Fisher scored 2:03 apart in the second period and Rinne punctuated his effort with 18 third-period saves. Shea Weber's shorthanded, empty-net goal sealed their ninth win in 11 games.

"You mentally get stronger and stronger as the game goes on," Rinne said in the Tennessean. "You make saves and it feels like the game kind of slows down mentally and physically."

Who's Hot:
Toews has 5 goals over the Blackhawks' last four games and 27 for the season, second in the NHL to Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. He carries a six-game points streak (5-3-8) into Saturday. Marian Hossa has 1 goal and 7 assists during a seven-game points streak. Nick Leddy has an assist in four straight games. … Erat has 2 goals and 3 assists over the Predators' last four games. Rinne has won six consecutive starts and given up just eight goals in the process, posting a .961 save percentage. He's won nine of his last 10 and 15 of his last 17 decisions.

Injury Report:
Chicago forward Daniel Carcillo (knee) is out for the season, while forward Patrick Sharp (hand/wrist) is on injured reserve and expected to miss several more weeks. … Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter (upper body) played just one period against the Islanders on Monday and has missed the last two games. He's day-to-day.

Stat Pack: The Blackhawks haven't come away completely empty yet this season in a game they've led after two periods, improving to 21-0-2 with Friday's victory. … Helped by a 4-0-1 record against the Blue Jackets, the Predators are 8-2-2 against the Central this season.

Puck Drop:
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville expects a tight race the rest of the way and understands there will be a lot of potential four-point swings when taking on other Central opponents.

"I'd expect it from here on out, because of the teams we're talking about," he said. "St. Louis has improved this year and they play a real tight, responsible game. Detroit's always tough and Nashville is a playoff team and looking to push to the top of the [Central Division] and you know they're not going away. So, let's make sure that we take care of our own business."
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