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Blackhawks tune up for playoffs with win over Flames

The SportsXchange

CHICAGO -- You can sense the feeling and anticipation with the Chicago Blackhawks. They're ready and primed for the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.

After closing out the home part of their regular season with a 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Friday night at the United Center, the Blackhawks will put a cap on the overall regular season with Saturday's game at St. Louis.

From there, Chicago will begin preparations against one of three likely opponents in the first round of the Western Conference quarterfinals: Detroit, Minnesota or Columbus.

The Blackhawks, who are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, come into Saturday's final game of the 48-game regular season at 36-6-5 (77 points).

"We knew we had to get off to a hot start with the short season and everything," Hawks forward Patrick Kane said. "We knew that was going to be crucial.

"It went by pretty fast that's for sure. It feels like it's December or January still and we still have a few months left in the regular season before we head out to play in the playoffs. It's going to be a quick turnaround here heading into the first round. I know we have one left, but I think you have to be really happy with the way the season went."

While eagerly looking ahead, the Blackhawks can't help but look back. A year ago, they were heavy favorites going into their first-round matchup with the Phoenix Coyotes, only to lose in six games and watch a promising season come to an abrupt end.

Chicago also lost in the first round of the playoffs the previous year to the Vancouver Canucks.

"Playoff hockey, especially in the first round, can be pretty chaotic sometimes and very fast-paced, a lot of hitting and sometimes some teams will take you off your game, and no matter what, you have to stay with it," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "The mistakes we made (against Phoenix), the difference between this team and that team, we have to understand that and know the opportunity we have and take advantage of it."

The Blackhawks appear stronger than last season at this time, if for nothing else their outstanding record heading into Saturday's finale against the host Blues.

"I think we have a lot of confidence and a great foundation to our game," Toews said. "This next week or so, we definitely have to bring to light some of our past mistakes and remind ourselves of the good things we did this year that made it successful, and make sure we focus on those things and keep that going, that we don't get away from our game plan."

By winning the President's Cup on Wednesday -- the first time since 1991 -- the Hawks assured themselves of home-ice advantage throughout the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.

And while he hates to make predictions or look ahead, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville couldn't help but give a brief analysis of where his team is at right now.

"I think we're happy, I think we're pleased," Quenneville said. "I don't think we've had a stretch where we've been disappointed with our team.

"I think we've had some endings there that definitely got our attention. We came out of the Vancouver game a little disappointed with the compete level, but I think over the course of the year you probably get four or five of those where you're flat or not there. (Just) one of those over the course of the whole season is probably abnormal."

Chicago made it look easy in Friday's game. Not only did it get goals from Kane and Toews, but Marcus Kruger's fourth goal of the season in the third period put the icing on the win.

What's more, the Blackhawks didn't even draw one penalty in the entire game; Calgary had just two.

Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford stopped 25 of Calgary's 26 shots, while Flames counterpart Joey MacDonald turned back 35 of 38 Blackhawks shots.

"I thought (Crawford) was outstanding, sharp, quick and had some high-quality opportunities against him," Quenneville said. "He seemed to be very sharp and anticipated well, real good.

"He had a good finish. The last couple of games have been outstanding. I think that's one area that we've been very pleased all year long, and the consistency of our goaltending has been the strength of our team."

Toews and Kane scored Chicago's first two goals as it took a 2-0 lead midway through the first period. Ironically, both players are tied for the team lead -- and in the running to win the Hart Trophy -- with 23 goals each.

"When he scored the first goal of the game, and I guess it was his 23rd and I was able to get a nice garbage goal there right after, I kind of gave him a look and he knew, he was smiling," Toews said of Kane. "It's been a good little thing we've had going."

Added Kane, "There's always been a friendly competition there and it's good for the team. We've played on different lines all year, to have that balance on a first and second line, where guys are pretty much similar with each other is huge for the team."

Calgary's lone goal came on Chris Butler's first tally of the season in the second period, a shorthanded effort with Blair Jones in the penalty box for hooking.

Calgary, which played its final regular-season game Friday and will miss the playoffs, has now lost its last 13 games in Chicago dating to the 2007-08 season. The Flames finished with a 19-25-4 (42 points) record.

"That's a good team there," Calgary forward Lee Stempniak said of the Blackhawks. "They dominated us for stretches, but I thought we never gave up and played hard.

"I think we did all of the little things right, but a loss is a loss. We certainly didn't embarrass ourselves and I think we can walk out of the rink with pride tonight."

Chicago outshot Calgary 38-26 in the game.

NOTES: Chicago not only is tied for the NHL lead with seven shutouts, it also is one of only three teams that has not been shut out this season. ... Although it didn't have any penalties Friday, Chicago's penalty kill has been an outstanding 43-of-45 in its last 18 games. ... Attendance was 22,048. ... The Blackhawks announced Friday that they recalled eight players from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League: forwards Jimmy Hayes, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri and Ben Smith; defenseman Adam Clendening, Shawn Lalonde and Steve Montador, and goalie Henrik Karlsson. ... Friday was the 70th birthday for NHL Hall of Famer and longtime Blackhawks great Tony Esposito.
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