CHICAGO - The Chicago Blackhawks took their first step towards the Stanley Cup on Friday, clinching the NHL Central Division with a 3-2 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Having the big gun in front of a season-high crowd of 22,191 at the United Center, Chicago's Brandon Saad nailed the game-winner, his 10th goal of the season, past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard (16-13-5).
Marian Hossa also scored (15th) in the shootout for Chicago (31-5-4), which improved to 15-3-2 at home.
"(Winning the division) is a nice achievement, but I think we still want to finish first in the other categories until the end of the year and I think that's our motivation," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We did some good things today. Getting the win is probably the best."
Friday marked the 15th division championship in Blackhawks team history and their first since 2009-10. Doing so ensures they will have home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the upcoming playoffs.
"It's a long season, even though it's 48 games, there's still a lot of hockey to be played," Quenneville said. "We want to make sure we keep everybody into this here. And how we play is going to be our measuring stick. If we do things the right way hopefully we can come out on top until the end."
Not only was it the Blackhawks' fourth consecutive win, they swept the four-game regular season series with the Red Wings, the first time Chicago has swept a season series against Detroit since the 1976-77 season.
Detroit, which has now lost six of its last eight (including shootout defeats in its last two games), could muster just one shootout goal against Chicago goalie Corey Crawford (16-4-4), that coming from Henrik Zetterberg.
"The bottom line is I think over the last couple of years, every game (vs. Chicago) has been a one-goal game except for the blowout they had in our building," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "They're finding a way to score more goals more nights. They're a deeper team than we are, no question about it."
Although they earned one point in the shootout loss, the Red Wings remain in a very precarious position, currently holding the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference - and with Dallas, Phoenix and Columbus all within striking distance in the remaining regular season games.
"We got one point, but we wanted two," Zetterberg said. "I think we played good enough to get two."
Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Michal Rozsival all missed in their shootout attempts, while failing to score for Detroit were Pavel Datsyuk, Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist and Johan Franzen.
"At the end it comes down to the penalty shots," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "Sometimes you win those, sometimes you lose. I thought tonight we had some good opportunities to get the job done in regular time."
In addition to the four-game winning streak, the Blackhawks have also won six of their last seven games and appear headed to the playoffs as strong as they were when they opened the season with a team record 21-0-3 start.
"I think it really shows that we're hungry and we're really motivated to improve every single night," Toews said. "We want to keep working and when you have the confidence to be able to come back in games like that, I think it's a huge thing going into the playoffs."
Friday's game marked the last regular season Central Division matchup that will ever take place between both teams, who have long been each other's biggest rivals.
The two teams go their separate ways next season as Detroit moves to the NHL's Eastern Conference from the Western Conference in the league's new realignment plan for the 2013-14 season.
Instead of multiple in-division games, the teams will only play a home-and-home series starting next season.
After falling behind 2-1, Chicago tied the score at 17:03 of the third period on Toews' tip-in of a slapshot from the point by Johnny Oduya. It was Toews' 20th goal of the season, tying him with Kane for the team goal scoring lead, but more importantly sending the game into extra periods.
"I guess it's another one of those games where we don't let up and find a way to win," Toews said. "If it comes down to a shootout it can go either way. We had some great goaltending in that shootout and a couple big goals, so it was a great way to find a win against this team."
In the five-minute overtime period, only one shot on goal was recorded by both teams, coming from the Red Wings, setting up the shootout period.
After a scoreless first period, the Blackhawks drew the first score of the game at 6:11 of the second period when Viktor Stalberg tallied his eighth goal of the season with a shot that got past Detroit's Howard.
Detroit tied the game at 1-1 at 15:40 of the second period on the power play when Franzen's slapshot - his eighth goal of the season - slowly dribbled between Crawford's legs and into the net.
Detroit made it 2-1 two minutes later on an even-strength goal by Cory Emmerton, his fourth of the season.
Crawford was back in goal for the Blackhawks after Ray Emery (15-1-0) started the last three games, all wins for Chicago.
Even with the loss, Detroit still holds a commanding all-time record over Chicago of 364-265-84-12.
NOTES: The Blackhawks announced before the game that they have agreed to terms with Drew LeBlanc, winner of the 2013 Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given annually to the most outstanding player in NCAA hockey. A native of Hermantown, Minn., LeBlanc, 23, starred for St. Cloud State of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, scoring 147 points (42 goals, 105 assists) in 171 career games at the school, and also led the Huskies to their first Frozen Four appearance in program history. ... The Blackhawks play next at St. Louis on Sunday, while the Red Wings play the second game of their current four game road trip at Nashville, also on Sunday.