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Blackhawks, Marian Hossa face Predators in opening-round playoff series

CHICAGO - Marian Hossa knows how difficult it is to get to the Stanley Cup finals. He also knows how heartbreaking it can be once there.

Two years ago, playing with Pittsburgh, his team lost to Detroit. Last season, while with the Red Wings, he fell short against the Penguins. Two straight trips to the championship round, two straight losses.

Now he's in the post-season for the third season in a row with a third team after signing a 12-year, US$62.8 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, who open Friday against the Nashville Predators.

"You're always hungry," Hossa said. "In one way it was disappointing. ... But I consider myself lucky because not too many players go to the final anyway. It was a great experience, a tough finish and I'm looking forward for a better finish this year."

Hossa, who needed shoulder surgery after joining the Blackhawks, finished with 24 goals and 27 assists in 57 games this season. After scoring 40 goals for the Red Wings last season, he played with the sore shoulder during the playoffs and managed just six goals in 23 post-season games - none in the finals.

"He's a guy who wants to win and play for good hockey teams. He's done that his whole career," Nashville centre David Legwand said. "That's something to say about him. He always wants to play for a winner. ... He played through pain in the playoffs last year."

Hossa and top scoring threats Patrick Kane (30 goals, 88 points) and Jonathan Toews (25 goals, 68 points) will have to deal with Nashville defencemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and try to solve six-foot-five goalie Pekka Rinne. Game 2 is Sunday at the United Center before the series shifts to Nashville.

Weber tied for second among NHL defencemen with 16 goals this season, including three game-winners. Suter has been an ironman for the Predators. He played in every gem this season and has a streak of 203 straight games dating to Jan. 23, 2008.

And Rinne posted seven shutouts this season - four after the Olympic break when he was 12-4-1.

"They play well defensively. They play a team game and they try to kind of frustrate you," Hossa said. "They try to play a simple game. Nothing is open basically because they play so tight."

Nashville, which scored and also gave up 225 goals this season, went 14-6-1 after the Olympic break. The Blackhawks initially struggled following the Vancouver Games, losing eight of 11 at one point. They regrouped for a late six-game winning streak before losing the season finale to Detroit and finishing second instead of first in the Western Conference.

Even though the Blackhawks and Predators are in the same division and played six times this season, they haven't seen each other since Dec. 27.

The Predators were 2-4 against Chicago this season with one victory at the United Center. Their biggest challenge starting Friday, other than handling the din of the Blackhawks' home crowd, will be their own playoff history - they are 0-10 in road playoff games.

"They're going to be jacked up, their crowd and the noise factor's going to be extremely high," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We've got to control our emotions and execute our system. When things are all noisy and people are flying around ... your security blanket is your system."

Rookie Antti Niemi has taken over as Chicago's No. 1 goalie and like his counterpart and countryman Rinne will be making his playoff debut.

Niemi's laid-back demeanour is one of the reasons he was able to take the top spot from Cristobal Huet.

"He's zero or as no-maintenance as any guy out there, especially for goalies," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.

Chicago, which lost to Detroit in the Western Conference finals last year, likes to play a puck possession game to take the heat off its goalie.

During the regular season, the Blackhawks led the league with an average of 34.1 shots per game and also gave up an NHL-low 25.1 shots.

"Defensively, they've given up the fewest shots of any team in the league," Trotz said. "There's a couple of factors. A, they've got a very skilled puck-possession team, and they have the puck a lot. B, they don't take a lot of penalties, and C, they've got a mobile defence that can get them out of trouble."

Nashville had a 30-goal scorer in Patric Hornqvist, who tied for the teams points lead (51) with ex-Blackhawk Steve Sullivan. Hornqvist is ready to go after taking a slap shot off the upper body April 7.


AP writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.


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