Chicago tops in NHL after grueling stretch

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Through Tuesday night’s action, the Chicago Blackhawks have played more games than any other team in the league, and three of their Central Division opponents -- St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars -- hold four games in hand on the defending Stanley Cup champions.

No team survives that sinister of a schedule quirk without a few performances in the style of what the Blackhawks turned in Tuesday against the Nashville Predators: an opportunistic effort up and down the lineup scattered with isolated moments of individual brilliance.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville may not be able to prepare each night for a game-winning goal as tailor-made for the highlight reels as Patrick Kane’s backhander off a give-and-go at 16:14 of the first period. But he took pride in his team’s defensive adjustments and 2-for-5 showing on the power play, skills the Blackhawks believe translate well to continued success.

They now sit alone at the top of the league with a 25-7-5 record through 37 games.

"I think we’re scoring different ways," Quenneville said. "You get an individual play out of a rush entry, and Kane makes a great shot, and the puck’s at the net -- rebound -- and a guy’s at the back door to bury it with another nice shot. So there’s different looks and different options.

"The patience level and play recognition from guys is high end, but it’s all because we’re shooting the puck and things happen."

The Predators supplied the bulk of the game’s early scoring chances, throwing 17 first-period shots at goaltender Antti Raanta, who was making his seventh consecutive start due to injuries to Chicago’s top two netminders.

But the Blackhawks allowed just 11 shots in the final two periods as they iced away a two-goal lead. After Nashville defenseman Shea Weber drove home a power-play goal at the 3:03 mark of the first period, Chicago’s penalty kill units turned away the Predators’ final six opportunities with a man advantage, including a high-sticking double minor on Patrick Sharp late in the second period.

"Obviously, we gave up one early in the game. And I thought we did a great job of bearing down after that on the penalty kill, so it was good to see," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "The penalty kill has kind of struggled throughout the year, but over the last four or five games, it’s been a little bit better."

Quenneville agreed.

"We didn’t get setups, and we didn’t let them do what they wanted to do," Quenneville said. "I don’t think we’ve had a game with seven [penalties] all year, so when you win those kind of games, you have to give the [penalty kill] some credit as well."

The Blackhawks exit a brutal stretch of 19 games in 34 days with a three-game homestand starting Friday that leads into a more agreeable slate in the coming weeks.

Although Kane is riding a hot streak of points in 22 of 23 games and Raanta is proving himself in his first chance at extended playing time, there’s little concern in the Chicago locker room about the dangers of cooling off when given the rare chance to decompress during their recent grind.

"It starts to wear on you after a while," Sharp said. "I know last year it suited us well with the truncated schedule. It seems like this year with the travel, it’s been even more busy, so it’ll be nice to kind of relax a little bit.

"But, having said that, we have to get our work in on the off days."