When Viktor Stalberg scored the Chicago Blackhawks' fourth goal against Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators at 8:35 of the second period, it looked as though the 'Hawks were emphatically stamping their ticket to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as they took a 4-0 lead over the Preds. Despite blowing the four goal cushion, Chicago clinched their playoff berth when Brent Seabrook was set up by Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell and netted the game-winner with 11:41 to play.
"I'm sure the fans enjoyed the game," Chicago's coach Joel Quenneville said after the win. "A little nerve wracking for the coaches, but good pace. We really helped ourselves during a tough stretch there,” he continued. “When you looked at our schedule and you looked at our opponents, the position we were in at that time, things turned around in a nice way. Obviously a huge win tonight to clinch it.”
Last year, the Blackhawks had a chance to clinch if they would've beaten Detroit on the final day of the regular season. Rather, they lost and their fate was in the hands of the Dallas Stars. Dallas could've locked into the 8th seed with a victory over Minnesota that same evening, but the Wild shocked the Stars and propelled the 'Hawks into a first round meeting with Vancouver. "This year, you still almost have to go 80 games to get in the playoffs, but you know you're there," said Patrick Kane. "Now the focus is just keep getting better as a team and get some confidence going into the postseason."
Chicago can finish no worse than the sixth seed but still have the opportunity to jump as high as fourth in the Western Conference standings. It's a hot debate in Chicago as many would rather see the 'Hawks face off against the winner of the Pacific Division (the third seed) rather than take their chances with home ice, as the fourth seed, against Detroit or Nashville.
With their victory Saturday night, the Blackhawks finished the month of March with a 10-2-2 record; as Paul Kennedy (@PK9), media relations representative for the 'Hawks tweeted, "10-2-2 is the best Blackhawks record in the month of March since an identical 10-2-2 mark in '90-'91 en route to the Norris Division crown." This is the first time in 15 years that Chicago has reached the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. They lost to Detroit in the Conference Finals (2009), won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and bowed out of the first round in a seven-game series defeat by the Canucks last season.
The good news keeps coming for the 'Hawks as coach Quenneville confirmed that Captain Jonathan Toews has been medically cleared for contact after suffering through concussion-like symptoms and missing the last 19 games. "We're hopeful that maybe we can get him in before the end of the season," he said on Saturday regarding Toews' potential return.
Kane also spoke of the return of Toews and suspended defenseman Duncan Keith. "That's the best thing about [clinching the playoffs]. We know we’re going to get better going forward and we've been playing pretty well lately, so it's a good feeling."
Although the feeling of being secured in the playoffs is a good one, the regular season has boiled down to its final week and there's still work to do.
Steve Peters is a staff writer for NHLfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_ @nhlfanchat