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Predators try to maintain lead over Blackhawks

by David Kalan /
BLACKHAWKS (31-23-6) at PREDATORS (31-21-8)
Last 10 --
Chicago 5-3-2; Nashville 4-4-2
Season series --
This will be the final meeting of the season for Chicago and Nashville. The Predators lead the series 3-2, however both of their home wins have come in the shootout. The Blackhawks did take the most recent game between the two, 6-3 on Jan. 16 at the United Center.
Big story -- Both the Hawks and Preds are caught in the thick of what is an absurdly tight playoff race in the Western Conference. As the season hits the three-quarter pole this weekend, any matchup is crucial, but Thursday is the last time these division rivals will meet this season, meaning it is also a rare opportunity for each to deal a tough blow to its direct competition.
Team Scope:
Blackhawks -- After such an up-and-down campaign for what has been a largely rebuilt roster for the defending champs, the Blackhawks will need to hit a far more consistent stride to get an opportunity to defend the Stanley Cup this spring. Chicago is currently on the outside looking in at the West's playoff field, but with 68 points, the Hawks are one win away from breaking back into the top eight.

If their recent play is any indication, the Blackhawks might, at long last, be getting the spring back into their step. Chicago has won three of its last four and has just one regulation loss in its last seven games, while Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp each have five points in their last three outings. The Hawks may have even more good news as coach Joel Quenneville, having missed four games due to a brief hospital stay, returned to practice Wednesday morning and could be back behind the bench in Nashville. 
Predators -- A month ago, the Predators looked like one of the few teams in the West that was safe in the playoff picture, but a recent slump and the conference's stunning logjam has put Nashville in significant danger. The Preds have 70 points, but given that all of two points separate 5th from 11th in the conference, Nashville could easily fall out of the top eight for the first time in weeks if their current slump continues through the weekend.

That slump currently is constituted by two straight losses and three defeats in Nashville's last four games. While the offense has struggled -- the Preds only have six goals in their last four games -- the usually sturdy Pekka Rinne has not been up to snuff either, surrendering seven goals in the last 119 minutes he's been on the ice.

Who's hot --
Nashville has struggled to score lately, particularly in its last outing Tuesday night when the Preds were shut out by Columbus, but Martin Erat has still managed to 8 eight points in the last six games. … Many players are chipping in for Chicago, but Dave Bolland has led the pack with 7 points in the last five games.

Injury report -- Chicago is still without Fernando Pisani, who is out indefinitely with a concussion. … Nashville is expecting to have Sergei Kostitsyn, who is listed as probable for undisclosed reasons, but the Preds may have a thinner blue line than usual, as Ryan Suter is questionable with an upper-body injury.

Stat pack -- Chicago's inconsistency has been one of the running storylines of the NHL season, but given how well they've produced offensively and defensively, it's surprising to see the Hawks in such a tenuous position. Chicago's goal differential currently stands at plus-23, third best in the Western Conference.
Puck drop --
As the final meeting between Nashville and Chicago this season, this is the last chance either team will have to directly take two points away from the other. While the Predators have gotten the better of this rivalry three times this year, both of their wins over the Hawks at Bridgestone Arena have come via the shootout, and with this season's new rule stating that only non-shootout wins will factor into tiebreakers, those victories could be more an illusion than a confidence booster. For the Preds to really make some hay, they'll need to knock off Chicago before regulation or overtime end, something they haven't done in a regulation game at home since Oct. 28, 2009.

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