CHICAGO (AP) — It is no surprise the Chicago Blackhawks are in the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
After all, the NHL leaders started the lockout-shortened season with points in their first 24 games – a league record.
But the Blackhawks made a strong statement Sunday in becoming the first team this season to clinch postseason berth, as they used a third-period rally to beat the Nashville Predators 5-3.
Rookie Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews scored 55 seconds apart midway through the third. Chicago (29-5-4) had fallen behind 3-2 early in the period on a goal by Nashville’s David Legwand, but Saad and Toews connected against Pekka Rinne to put the Blackhawks back ahead.
The Blackhawks defeated the Predators for the second time in two days and improved to 13-0-1 against Central Division teams.
“We obviously wanted to stay in the spot we’re in in the standings,” Toews said, “but first and foremost, our No. 1 goal coming in every season is we want to make the playoffs.
“To beat a team like Nashville twice in a row, first on the road and then at home, is a great thing. We did a lot of good things in that game, but most of all, we didn’t stop working. We found a way to win in the third.”
Patrick Kane, who set up Toews’ eventual game winner, added an empty-net goal with 32 seconds left to complete the scoring. Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell also scored for Chicago.
Kane’s hustling assist on Toews goal at 10:32 of the third might have been the pivotal mark on the score sheet.
Kane outraced two Predators to a loose puck on the back boards, then centered to Toews, who connected on a low shot from the right circle.
“That should be the headline, because you don’t see that too often. I’m just kidding,” Toews said. “It was a great play by him.
“I came flying off the bench and he saw me in the slot. My first thought was to try and find Saad backdoor because I could see him kind of going to the net there, but I went against that instinct and shot the puck.”
Shea Weber and Nick Spaling each had a goal and an assist for the Predators (15-17-8), who are 13th in the Western Conference with 38 points, five behind eighth-place Detroit at the postseason cutoff.
“It was competitive,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “They (Nashville) played both these games as they had to win. Yesterday we were maybe a little bit more efficient than we were today, but we were sticking with it.”
Nashville played with desperation after a sluggish first period, but the Predators were done in by mistakes – and a talented Chicago team.
“We got beat to the puck on the one (Toews) goal,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “It was just individual stuff.
“That’s on our D. Our D’ has got to have that puck.”
Chicago’s Ray Emery stopped 19 shots, following a 20-save, 1-0 win at Nashville on Saturday. The Blackhawks improved to 4-0 against the Predators this season.
Rinne, who leads the NHL in games and minutes played, made 35 saves as he appeared in his 29th straight contest.
The Predators have made the playoffs the past three seasons and in seven of eight, but that run is in jeopardy
“We’ve just got to play hard and see what happens,” 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.”
Both teams skated without key forwards.
Nashville left wing Gabriel Bourque, who is tied with Legwand for the team lead with 11 goals, missed his fourth game because of an upper body injury. Mike Fisher, third on the Predators with 19 points, sat out after aggravating a hand injury that caused him to miss three games last week.
Patrick Sharp, who led the Blackhawks with 33 goals last season, missed his 14th game with a shoulder injury. Dave Bolland sat out his second because of a lower body injury, believed to have been caused when a shot by Weber struck him last Monday.
The Blackhawks killed the only penalty against them on Sunday and have snuffed 17 straight chances. Chicago hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in 10 games, dating to March 18.
The Blackhawks entered the game as the third-least penalized team in the NHL, training the New York Islanders and Rangers.
Shaw opened the scoring 6:34 in on a tip-in.
Michael Frolik jumped on a rebound that Rinne had deflected to the left boards, then turned and fired on goal in one motion. Shaw deflected the puck over Rinne’s shoulder.
The Blackhawks dominated the first period, outshooting the Predators 17-7. But a turnover by defenseman Johnny Oduya in the slot set off a scramble that led to Spaling’s goal that made it 1-1 with 2:44 left.
Sergei Kostitsyn grabbed the loose puck and shot from a sharp angle to the right of the net. Emery stopped that attempt, but Spaling fired in the rebound before Emery could recover.
Bickell, who scored Chicago’s only goal on Saturday, put the Blackhawks back in front 2-1 at 2:09 of the second.
Weber tied it at 2 just over three minutes later, when he fired from the top of the right circle directly from a faceoff win by Spaling.
Legwand scored on a rebound to put Nashville ahead 3-2 at 6:54 of the third to cap a scrum around the Chicago net.
Saad tied it at 3 at 9:37 from 10 feet. After fanning on a first shot attempt, defenseman Duncan Keith swept in and fired a shot that Rinne blocked. Saad converted the rebound.
Toews put Chicago ahead 4-3 at 10:32. Kane’s goal with 32 seconds left completed the scoring.
NOTES: Before the game, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said that Sharp could return this week. When asked about Bolland’s condition, he said, “We don’t think it’s serious.” … Nashville C Paul Gaustad missed a second game with an upper body injury. … Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, who played for the Blackhawks and worked in their front office, attended the game.
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