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BLACKHAWKS 4, PREDATORS 2

Chicago Blackhawks stifle Nashville Predators 4-2

Victory boosts chances for fourth playoff seed

By Chris Kuc

Tribune reporter

April 8, 2009

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NASHVILLE — Falling behind early to a desperate hockey team, especially one that has been dominant this season when leading after one period, isn't the best formula for success.

The Blackhawks did just that Tuesday night but kept their heads and roared back to defeat the Nashville Predators 4-2 at Sommet Center to claim their fourth consecutive victory and put them on the verge of clinching fourth place in the Western Conference to assure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Hawks exacted a bit of revenge on the Predators, who are in a dogfight with St. Louis for eighth in the West and are desperate for points. Last season, Nashville edged the Hawks by three points for the final postseason spot in the West. These two points gave the Hawks 99, but Vancouver kept the Hawks from clinching the fourth spot in the West by beating Calgary later Tuesday night.

Jonathan Toews, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Kane and Martin Havlat scored and Nikolai Khabibulin was strong in goal for the fourth consecutive game as the Hawks won for the seventh time in their last nine contests.

"That was an important game for [the Predators], especially at home," Toews said. "We knew they were going to come out hard. We hung in there in the first period and a couple of goals early in the second gave us some confidence and momentum. We built off that."

The Predators jumped to a 1-0 lead on Vernon Fiddler's goal midway through the first. That usually spells doom for Nashville opponents as it had a 15-1-2 mark when leading after the first period, second-best in the league.

Make that 15-2-2, now.

Toews ripped a wrist shot from the top of the right circle past Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne on the stick side just 12 seconds into the second period to tie it and the Hawks took the lead 38 seconds later when Dustin Byfuglien banged home a rebound of an Andrew Ladd shot. Rinne attempted to glove Ladd's shot but missed and Byfuglien pounced.

"Once we get the lead we've been doing a good job playing with [it], especially against a team that can put a lot of pressure on you," said Toews, who has a team-leading 33 goals. "Give credit to all four of our lines, our goaltender and everyone for playing smart in the third period. We've really learned as the season has come along to hang in there and play solid hockey when we're protecting leads."

Patrick Kane snapped a nine-game goal-less skid midway through the second to extend the Hawks' lead. The winger lifted a back-hander from the left circle over Rinne's right shoulder for a 3-1 lead after two.

"That was a big spurt, we needed that," defenseman Cam Barker said of the second-period goals. "I don't know if we've seen a spurt like that this year. It feels good to come out in the second when you're down one and get right back in that game. That was the turning point."

Jason Arnott cut the deficit early in the third, but Khabibulin (22 saves) and the Hawks defense clamped down even as the crowd of 17,113 stood and cheered wildly during the final five minutes of the Predators' final home game. Havlat silenced them with an empty-net goal with just less than a minute remaining.

"We knew we had to come in with a strong effort," Byfuglien said. "We battled and were ready to go. We played a very good all-around, 60-minute game."

ckuc@tribune.com