CHICAGO – After seven long years, the Chicago Blackhawks are back in the playoffs.
Nikolai Khabibulin made 25 saves, Jonathan Toews scored his team-leading 32nd goal, and the Blackhawks clinched their first post-season berth since 2002 by beating the Nashville Predators 3-1 on Friday night.
Samuel Pahlsson scored in the first period and Martin Havlat added an empty-net goal for the Blackhawks, who qualified for the playoffs for only the second time in 11 seasons.
“It’s a great achievement,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “That was our motivation at the start of the year. Our No. 1 priority and objective.
“We said that this morning, ‘We’ve got to take care of our own business today.”‘
Chicago took a 2-1 lead on Toews’ second-period goal, and the Blackhawks and Khabibulin then held the Predators at bay.
“It was exciting at the end,” Toews said. “The crowd was going and it was exciting to them, but it means even more to us. We didn’t want to wait for Sunday or anything later.”
The Blackhawks also are squarely in the race for home ice advantage in the opening round.
Chicago moved one point ahead of Calgary and into fourth place in the Western Conference playoff chase. Before their drought, the Blackhawks made the playoffs for 28 straight seasons from 1969-70 through 1996-97.
“Our goal is to get into and stay in that fourth spot,” Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook said.
The Blackhawks are vying with Calgary and Vancouver for that key position, and those clubs are duelling for first place in the Northwest Division. The winner of that race will be the No. 3 seed.
Rookie Cal O’Reilly scored for the Predators, whose second straight loss kept them in ninth place in the West. Nashville is one point behind St. Louis and the playoff cutoff with four games remaining.
Injury-depleted Nashville is 5-2-3 in its last 10. Pekka Rinne blocked 29 shots in his 10th straight start.
“We knew this would be a tight game,” Rinne said. “Obviously, this is disappointing for us. We need to get every point we can get.
“This puts us in a position where we need to win (Saturday) night. We have no choice.”
The Predators play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday in Nashville.
“We going to have to win,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “Columbus is sitting there waiting. We’ve got to play the game of our lives.”
Chicago forward Patrick Sharp left the game in the first period and didn’t return. Sharp missed 16 games due to a left knee injury from Feb. 17 until March 22. Quenneville said Sharp has a new undisclosed lower-body injury and is day-to-day.
Pahlsson opened the scoring 5:22 in with a backhander from the right circle that slid past Rinne’s right shoulder. The goal was set up following a turnover by Steve Sullivan at the Predators blue line.
Rinne stopped Chicago’s Ben Eager on a breakaway at 9:49.
Less than a minute later, O’Reilly tied it at 1 on a rebound. After Khabibulin made a pad save on Joel Ward’s shot from the right circle, O’Reilly knocked in the loose puck.
In his first seven NHL games, O’Reilly has three goals and two assists. He was called up from Milwaukee of the AHL on Feb. 28 for two games, then brought back on March 26.
Toews scored on a rising one-timed shot from the right edge of the crease with 7:34 left in the second to give Chicago a 2-1 lead. Havlat fed a pass from behind the net to Toews, who scored into the upper left corner.
Rinne made a point-blank glove save on Patrick Kane with 4:23 remaining in the second.
Khabibulin and Rinne were sharp in the cautiously played third period. Havlat scored into an empty net with 1:13 left.
“They clamped down defensively in the third period and both goalies played well,” Trotz said.
Notes: Nashville C Jason Arnott, out with a concussion since March 10, has resumed skating. Following the game, Trotz said Arnott could return as early as Saturday night. Also out of the Predators lineup were RW Martin Erat (fractured leg), RW Wade Belak (lower body), C David Legwand (fractured cheekbone), LW Antti Pihlstrom (upper body) and RW Ryan Jones. Pihlstrom and Jones are day-to-day. Legwand could return in two weeks. Chicago C Dave Bolland returned after missing one game because of an injured foot. RW Troy Brouwer missed his third game with a knee injury.