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Predators ready for 'big test' against Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger

PREDATORS (23-9-2) AT BLACKHAWKS (24-10-2)


CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Blackhawks get caught peeking ahead to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, they might get a rude awakening in their final game before taking it outside against the Washington Capitals.

The Blackhawks play the Nashville Predators at United Center on Monday in a game pitting the top two teams in the Central Division. Nashville, which has played two fewer games, trails Chicago by two points in the standings. A win in their final regular-season game against the Blackhawks would move the Predators into the top spot.

"I don't think we're thinking about sending a message," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after the morning skate. "We're thinking about wanting to win the game. We know the importance of these two-point, four-point swings could be the difference at the end of the year from being in first place. That's the motivation. That's the thought process."

Same goes for the Predators, who are one of the Central's surprise teams after having more success than most anticipated. Nashville has a chance to split the four-game season series against Chicago, which could end up an opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's a big game for us," Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. "They came into our building last time, played a really good game and got the better of us (3-1 on Dec. 6). We've got to be ready. It's going to be a big test."

The Predators have passed a number of tests in their first 34 games. They're 11-4-0 in their past 15 games and remain the only team in the NHL that hasn't lost consecutive games. All that winning has helped with the transition from former coach Barry Trotz's system to that of first-year coach Peter Laviolette.

"It makes everything different," said goalie Pekka Rinne, who will likely start his 15th game in the past 16. "Winning is why you play this game. You come to the rink with a smile on your face, and even the tough schedule, it feels easier when you're winning. It's been a good start. We seem to play consistent every single night and that's been the key. It's been a lot of fun."

The Blackhawks will reunite their most productive second-line combination with the return of center Brad Richards from an upper-body injury. Richards missed the past three games.

"Hopefully it goes well tonight," said forward Kris Versteeg, who will play on Richards' left side. "Brad's had a lot of time off here and hopefully he's rested and ready to go. We're excited to have him back and hopefully create some chemistry where we left off."

Richards' rise up the depth chart, along with forward Brandon Saad excelling at left wing on the top line, left no spot for forward Patrick Sharp following a month-long absence with a lower-body injury. Sharp, who played at Saad's spot prior to getting hurt, is playing left wing on the fourth line.

After returning to the lineup at right wing on the third line, Sharp flipped back to the left side with the second checking line during Chicago's 5-2 victory at the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday. Sharp turned 33 that day and Monday will be his 700th regular-season NHL game. Following the skate, he was diplomatic about his assignment.

"It's a line that takes on a lot of responsibility throughout the course of a game, so playing with those guys, I'll have to focus on some different things," Sharp said. "I want them to play their style. They're very predictable. I think we're a good mix together. We've had some success together in the past, so I'm looking forward to going out there, taking on some responsibility from the coaches and having a good game."

Here are the projected lineups:


Filip Forsberg - Mike Ribeiro - Craig Smith

Matt Cullen - Mike Fisher - James Neal

Colin Wilson - Calle Jarnkrok - Olli Jokinen

Eric Nystrom - Paul Gaustad - Taylor Beck

Roman Josi - Shea Weber

Mattias Ekholm - Ryan Ellis

Victor Bartley - Seth Jones

Pekka Rinne

Carter Hutton

Scratched: Anton Volchenkov, Gabriel Bourque

Injured: None


Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Kris Versteeg - Brad Richards - Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell - Andrew Shaw - Daniel Carcillo

Patrick Sharp - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson

Tim Erixon - David Rundblad

Corey Crawford

Antti Raanta

Scratched: Joakim Nordstrom

Injured: Michal Rozsival (lower body)

Status report: Bourque was a healthy scratch Saturday in Nashville's 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers; Volchenkov has been scratched the past four games. Laviolette said if each plays, he will be a game-time decision. ... Quenneville said he expects Rozsival to return from his injury in time to play in the NHL Winter Classic on Thursday. ... Crawford is expected to start against the Capitals at Nationals Park.

Who's hot: Kane has 13 points in the past eight games (six goals, seven assists). ... Wilson has a three-game goal streak and has scored four goals in that span.

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