No sweating out playoff spot this season

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks have had to scratch and claw for a playoff spot the past few years. This season was a much different story.

In 2011, the Blackhawks clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the season. Last season, they achieved it with three games to go.

On Sunday, the Blackhawks became the first Western Conference team to secure a playoff spot by defeating the Nashville Predators 5-3 and improving to 29-5-4 with a league-best 62 points. With 10 games to go in the condensed 48-game regular season, the Blackhawks clinched their spot with 20.8 percent of the season remaining.

The Blackhawks appeared headed to the playoffs all along with their 24-game points streak to start the season, but it was still something they celebrated when it was guaranteed on Sunday. The Blackhawks made the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season after failing to reach the postseason from 2003-08.

“It’s a good feeling,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We obviously want to stay in the spot we were in the standings, but first and foremost our No. 1 goal coming into every season -- we want to make the playoffs. That’s a huge thing for us.”

Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, who has been on the team since 2005, had a similar reaction.

“It’s huge,” Keith said. “It’s one of our goals at the start of the year is to get into the playoffs. To be able to do that, that’s a good feeling. It gives ourselves a chance.”

With a playoff spot secured, the Blackhawks are now onto their next goals -- winning the division and finishing as high as they can in the Western Conference. They lead the second-place Anaheim Ducks by seven points in the West and lead the St. Louis Blues by 18 points in the Central.

“We’re certainly pleased that has occurred,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the playoff berth. “I know we’ve had a good year to date. We’re very happy with what we’ve accomplished. We still want to keep trying to get better in games. Playing the right way is what we’re going to be stressing here in the last 10. That’s what’s important. We want to finish as high as we can is a priority as well. That’s what the motivation is.”

The Blackhawks have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. As of Sunday, the Blackhawks would face the eighth-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs.

Toews said Sunday he believed it was OK to start thinking and preparing for the playoffs as they close out the regular season.

“We want to keep building as a team, improving on something every single game,” Toews said. “These wins are very important. We want to keep our confidence and keep our momentum as a team and keep reinforcing the fact we’ve had high expectations for ourselves come playoff time. We got to work for that, though.

“It’s right now that we start thinking about those things we want to do and we want to be solid at. Little ways to go before playoff time. We keep working on our game the way we have I think we’re going to be a confident team come the playoffs regardless of who we get in the first round.”