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Blackhawks first team in NHL to clinch playoff spot with 5-3 win

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Updated: April 7, 2013 10:34PM



In describing what it’s like to play the Nashville Predators, various Blackhawks recently have used the words ‘‘frustrating,’’ ‘‘difficult,’’ ‘‘ugly’’ and even ‘‘boring.’’

Here’s another one: fruitful.

The Hawks beat the Predators for the third time in seven days Sunday, as rookie Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews scored 55 seconds apart midway through the third period to spark a 5-3 victory. The result made the Hawks the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot. After a spotty stretch in late March, the Hawks are 4-0-1 in their last five games, with three of those victories coming at the Predators’ expense.

‘‘We’re very pleased,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘Any point you earn against them, you know you have to work hard. They’re relentless. Sometimes it can be frustrating playing those games when you’re a puck-possession team. You want the puck, but there are not a lot of direct plays out there. You’ve got to make indirect plays.’’

Toews’ tiebreaking goal was a perfect example of that. And it was Patrick Kane, of all people, doing the Toews-like dirty work to make it happen.

Moments after Saad tied the score 3-3 at 9:37 of the third, Andrew Shaw dumped the puck in. That’s not the usual style for the Hawks, who prefer to carry the puck into the offensive zone with speed.

While three Predators converged on the puck behind goalie Pekka Rinne, it was Kane who outhustled everyone to the boards, lifted a defender’s stick, turned and fired a pass to a streaking Toews, who just had come off the bench. Toews considered a backdoor pass to Saad before keeping the puck himself and firing it past Rinne for a 4-3 lead.

‘‘That should be the headline right there,’’ Toews said with a smirk. ‘‘You’re not going to see that too often.’’

It was Toews’ goal 19th of the season, finally catching him up to his buddy Kane after a seasonlong chase. But Kane scored an empty-netter with 31.1 seconds left when Saad turned down his own chance and passed to him.

‘‘Always finds a way,’’ Toews said, laughing.

Saad finished with a goal and an assist, tying the score in the third by stuffing a rebound past Rinne from the doorstep. He has 20 points in his last 19 games.

That gave Shaw an idea about how to use the promotional oven mitts the team handed out to fans attending the game.

‘‘Kid’s hot,’’ Shaw said. ‘‘Better get those oven mitts on those hands.’’

Before the mini-flurry in the third, the headline was the Hawks’ newly reconfigured third and fourth lines, which spent most of their time buzzing around Rinne and creating scoring chances. Shaw tipped in a shot by Michael Frolik at 6:34 of the first to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead. After Nick Spaling tied the score, Bryan Bickell snapped a wrister past Rinne 2:09 into the second for a 2-1 lead.

Shaw had a goal and an assist, tried to pick a fight with Hal Gill — eight inches taller and nearly 70 pounds heavier — and picked up an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after being thrown out of a faceoff that led to Shea Weber’s tying goal four minutes after Bickell’s tally.

‘‘It’s perfect,’’ Shaw said of his line. ‘‘That’s what we need to do — bring energy and get every other line to feed off it. It worked out in the end.’’

Indeed, after David Legwand gave the Predators a 3-2 lead seven minutes into the third, the Hawks stiffened and took over the game from there.

No third-period woes, no last-second chances for the Predators, no problems at all. With 10 games left, a playoff spot locked up and a cushion on the second-place Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference, the Hawks can turn their attention to May.

‘‘These wins are very important,’’ Toews said. ‘‘We want to keep our confidence and keep our momentum as a team and keep reinforcing the fact that we have high expectations for ourselves come playoff time. We’ve got to work for that, though.’’



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