It’s crunch time for the Chicago Blackhawks. If the defending Stanley Cup Champions want to make the playoffs they’ll have to continue their strong play from the last two games.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he watched every second of the past four games. He’ll have a better view for the next one.

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After a week-long hospitalization, Quenneville is expected to return to the bench Thursday night when the Blackhawks visit the Nashville Predators.

Quenneville went to the emergency room last Tuesday after feeling discomfort at his suburban Chicago home. He was admitted the next day with gastrointestinal bleeding caused by a small ulcer.

The Blackhawks (31-23-6) won three of four games with assistant coach Mike Haviland filling in for Quenneville, concluding that stretch by scoring four second-period goals Monday in a 5-3 victory at St. Louis.

“It was a great result the last couple of games and a great ending to that St. Louis game,” Quenneville said. “There’s a lot of momentum coming out of that game, so that was fun to watch.”

With 68 points, Quenneville’s team is locked in a competitive race for one of Western Conference’s final postseason berths. The Blackhawks have helped themselves by earning at least one point in six of their last seven games (4-1-2). Chicago is also 2-0-2 in its last four on the road.

“It doesn’t matter who’s here, who’s not here, we need to win games,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “It’s tough when (Quenneville was) gone. You’ve got extra things to worry about. He was real good about making sure that none of us were worrying about him and just focusing on hockey.”

Along with Quenneville’s return, the Blackhawks could get forward Fernando Pisani back from a head injury. He had missed five straight games after being knocked into the Dallas Stars’ bench Feb. 11.

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A third straight win overall and a first in Nashville this season would help the Blackhawks. They are 2-1-2 against the Predators in 2010-11, but have suffered two shootout losses at Bridgestone Arena.

Nashville might need a better offensive performance to avoid a third consecutive defeat.

The Predators (31-21-8) have totaled 24 goals over their last 12 games, salvaging 10 points during that stretch thanks to one of the league’s best defenses (2.33 goals per game allowed).

Nashville’s defense couldn’t stop Columbus long enough Tuesday, when Pekka Rinne gave up all four goals in the final 18:49 of a 4-0 loss.

“We had too many turnovers and a lot of it was just soft on the puck,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “They kept forechecking, and I don’t think we managed after the first goal.”

Rinne has a 2.35 goals-against average in 12 career games against the Blackhawks, including both home victories this season. Chicago’s Corey Crawford has a 1.96 GAA in three matchups with Nashville this season but couldn’t outduel Rinne on Jan. 15.

Jerred Smithson and Shea Weber scored in the third period of that contest to force overtime, and Rinne stopped all three shootout attempts in the Predators’ 3-2 win. Rinne also stopped all three attempts in the tiebreaker of a 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks on Nov. 13.

Nashville has alternated losses and wins in seven home games this month.

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