Blackhawks, Predators ready to square off in playoffs
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators believe how they finished the regular season doesn't matter in the playoffs.
With two Stanley Cup titles in the past five years, the Blackhawks think they know how to ramp up their game for postseason intensity.
Center Brad Richards, who signed a one-year deal with Chicago after helping the New York Rangers reach the finals last season, says it's not like the Blackhawks haven't done it before. He says everyone knows what the pace will be and the level needed for Game 1 of their opening series in Nashville on Wednesday night.
The Blackhawks lost their final four games of the regular season, while Nashville went 0-4-2 after clinching its first playoff berth in three years.
Chicago took the season series with three wins, though the teams last played Dec. 29. Blackhawks star Patrick Kane also is expected to return for the playoff opener after breaking his collarbone in February.
''It comes down to execution,'' Richards said. ''You have to prepare yourself best you can to execute, and hopefully that goes our way.''
Each of the Blackhawks' last four losses were by one goal, and coach Joel Quenneville doesn't sound too concerned by the slide.
Quenneville feels his team played well in those games knowing what is next and focused on getting healthy. Chicago won the NHL title in 2010 and 2013, and made it all the way to the Western Conference finals a year ago.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette keeps saying he thought his Predators played well in their losing streak even if they didn't get wins. The slide cost the Predators their first division title; they were either first or second in the West between Jan. 4 through March 13.
''Regardless, we're past all of it whether it was good or bad, we're going to have to make our own way come tomorrow night,'' Laviolette said. ''There's been teams that won nine out of 10 down the stretch and lost in the first round and vice versa. There's no set rule to it. History has proven that that ultimately your team has to play well on Wednesday night and through the first round to advance.''
Some things to watch in this series starting Wednesday night:
KANE'S BACK: Kane missed the final 21 games of the regular season, and the All-Star forward still finished second on the team with 27 goals and 64 points. The original timeline for his return was 12 weeks, but he made it back well ahead of that estimate. How quickly he is able to return to form could have a big impact on the series.
WE MEET AGAIN: It's the second playoff series between these rivals. Chicago advanced in six games in a 2010 series remembered in Nashville as the one that got away. The Predators were up 4-3 with 63 seconds left while on a five-minute power play in Game 5 in Chicago. Kane tied it up with 13.6 seconds left, and Marian Hossa, who was serving the penalty, scored the game winner 10 seconds after he left the box.
EXPERIENCE FACTOR: Plenty of Blackhawks remain from those championship rosters. This is Nashville's first playoff series since losing to Arizona in five games in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals. The Predators have only five players left from that 2010 series with Chicago, with two - defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli - brought back by trade in February.
HOW'S RINNE? Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne was terrific this year, tying for second in the NHL with 41 wins and ranking among the league leaders with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. But the 6-foot-5 Finn dropped his last four starts of the year, recording a 3.42 goals-against average and .857 save percentage in that stretch. The Predators need him to return to form to make a deep run in the playoffs.
NASHVILLE ICE: The Predators had the best home record in the Western Conference this season, going 28-9-4. They also set a franchise record by selling out 30 games, including the last 12 of the regular season.
AP freelance writer Matt Carlson in Chicago contributed to this report.