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Blackhawks clinch playoff berth with 5-3 win over Predators

The SportsXchange

CHICAGO -- Jonathan Toews is called Captain Serious inside and outside the Chicago Blackhawks locker room for his demeanor.

But Toews can crack a smile, and sometimes a joke. Sunday night was one of those times, for one item on the Hawks' long punch card was taken care of in their 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators.

The Hawks qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the first NHL team to do so this season. Since the team's league-record start of 24 games with a point, it was a matter of time, not a question of whether it would happen, but it was still good to get out of the way. And Toews, the ultimate hard-working jock, could afford to be jocular after the game.

When someone asked about Patrick Kane's hard work in outmuscling a pair of Predators defenders for the puck to set up Toews' game-winning goal, Toews said, "That would be the headline, because you don't see that too often."

A half-beat later, with no drummer to provide a rimshot, Toews said, "I'm just kidding."

Toews gave Kane full marks for corralling the puck and feeding it back into the high slot, where Toews, some eight strides after coming off the bench, drilled it past Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne for a 4-3 lead with 9:28 left in the third.

The goal came 55 seconds after Toews had fed a puck into the low slot, with Brandon Saad and pinching defenseman Duncan Keith flailing at it before Saad belted it into the net, tying the game 3-all.

And that score eliminated the lead the desperate Predators had built. Nashville had tied the game for the second time on Shea Weber's goal 5:54 into the second, and took the lead on David Legwand's 10-footer 6:54 into the third, threatening to became the second Central Division team in as many Chicago home games to erase a Hawks' lead on United Center ice.

Instead, the Hawks rallied behind the goals of rookie Saad, a Calder Trophy candidate, and Toews and Kane, who collected an empty-net goal with 31.1 seconds to play.

Playoffs? Yes for Chicago (29-5-4 for 62 points). And less likely than before the weekend started for the Predators (15-17-8 for 38 points). Twelfth in the Western Conference, they have only eight games remaining and trail eighth-place Detroit, the last playoff team at the moment, by five points with four teams to climb past.

"We've just got to play hard and see what happens," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "The chances are remote, but you've got to play hard. You're not going to do anybody any favors if you don't. You'd just embarrass yourself."

The mood in the Predators' locker room was funereal.

"We're in a do-or-die situation," Legwand said. "Every time you lose the lead in the third it's tough to swallow. But we've got to move on and get (St. Louis) on Tuesday. Tonight's over. We didn't get what we wanted, and we've got to move on."

The Hawks, which dominated the first period, had opened the scoring with Andrew Shaw's slot tip of a Michal Frolik slapshot 6:34 into the game. Nashville tied it when Nick Spaling beat Emery on a rebound of Sergei Kostitsyn's drive after Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya lost the puck.

From that point the game was more even. Brian Bickell's wrist shot beat Rinne and gave the Hawks a 2-1 advantage 2:09 into the second, but Weber replied for the Predators just under four minutes later, snapping a shot by Emery from 30 feet after Spaling beat Frolik cleanly on a faceoff.

Legwand's goal, coming on the rebound of Matt Halischuk's stuff attempt, gave the Predators a glimmer of home. Then the defense broke down, much to Trotz's displeasure.

"We had three guys back and got beat to the puck on the (Toews) goal," Trotz said. "It was just individual stuff. They dump the puck in 2-on-3 and beat us to the end boards and made the play. That's on our D. Our D's got to have that puck. Hal (Gill) has to have that puck. Hal stood up. (So) his partner's got to get the puck."

Instead, Kane got it, fed Toews, and a split-second later, the 22,044 fans in the United Center went batty, not for the first time this season, and not for the last.

NOTES: Spaling's multiple-point game broke an eight-game pointless streak and was only his second such game of the year (one goal, one assist vs. Minnesota on Jan. 22). ... Nashville's left wing Gabriel Bourque and center Paul Gaustad missed the game with upper-body injuries. Bourque was out for the fourth straight game since being crunched by the Blackhawks' Dan Carcillo on Monday. Gaustad missed his second game. Predators' center Colin Wilson, on injured reserve, was out for the 15th game in a row. The injuries prompted the emergency recall of forward Austin Watson from Milwaukee. He made his NHL debut in the first period. ... Nashville starts a four-game home stand against St. Louis on Tuesday, and plays five of its last eight games at home. ... Chicago's Dave Bolland was scratched with a lower-body injury for the second straight game. Patrick Sharp (right shoulder) missed his 14th straight contest, but is expected back this week, the first time the Hawks have put a timetable on his return. ... Chicago visits Minnesota on Tuesday, its last 10 games split equally between the United Center and the road.
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