Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) and Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson (33) battle for the puck in the first period of an NHL hockey game on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Joel Quenneville talked softly with his voice raspy in his return behind the bench for the Chicago Blackhawks. The coach is feeling fine, it's just the price of missing a few contests and coming back for a game in a soldout building.
"You can tell I've been away. I can't talk any more," Quenneville said.
Tomas Kopecky and Marian Hossa had goals while goaltender Corey Crawford stopped 31 shots as Chicago beat the Nashville Predators 3-0 Thursday night in their coach's first game back.
Quenneville missed four games due to a bleeding ulcer.
Not that his Blackhawks missed much of a step without him. They won three of those contests, have won three straight and four of five.
"It's all up to us what we do with it," Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said. "Tonight I thought was a great team effort.
"That's what it's going to take."
No wonder Quenneville said it was exciting to be back for such a big game.
"I felt great throughout the whole game. I could see coming after the second into the third my voice all of a sudden it seems like it's that first day of training camp or the first game back in the regular season. It's been idle for a while. You have to raise it a couple decibels. We'll get it back," he said.
The Predators just want their offence back. They outshot Chicago 31-25 but were shut out for a second straight loss and have lost three straight and four of five.
"We had some chances, but we couldn't find them," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "There were some loose pucks every period that we couldn't get a handle on."
Crawford posted his third shutout this season. Patrick Sharp had an empty-net goal with 31 seconds left and an assist. The Blackhawks won their season series with the team they ousted in the first round of the playoffs last April, 3-1-2.
With this game, Nashville and Chicago are among six teams all tied with 70 points fighting for position in the Western Conference.
"I don't think we're ever in a place where we should feel comfortable," Quenneville said. "You look at the standings, and the next opponent is right in that wheelhouse.
"Six teams at 70 points is pretty amazing."
Nashville isn't happy having wasted its lead over that pack.
"There's no more excuses," Nashville captain Shea Weber said. "There's no reason why we should make mistakes.
"If we make them, we've got to make up for them and do better from it."
The Predators opened with urgency after giving up four goals in the third period of a 4-0 loss at Columbus on Tuesday night. They took the first five shots of the game and spent much of the first in front of Crawford.
Kopecky came on as the extra attacker during a delayed penalty, and Sharp passed to him as Kopecky reached the right circle where he snapped a shot past goalie Pekka Rinne at 17:12 for the 1-0 lead and his 11th goal this season.
Chicago almost had another goal 1:25 into the second when Ryan Johnson crashed into Rinne with the puck possibly sliding past the goal line, but a review ruled no goal. Rinne had another big save, blocking Keith's shot from right in front midway through the period.
With Crawford stopping the Predators, Hossa helped seal the victory early in the third with his 14th this season. He broke up a pass, gathered the puck and scored on a breakaway with a wrist shot under Rinne's right arm at 2:35.
"Obviously, the breakaway by Hossa was a tough one to swallow," Trotz said.
The Predators thought they had scored with 5:59 left, but officials immediately waved off the goal. David Legwand brushed past Crawford, knocking him off balance before Colin Wilson tapped the puck in. Crawford also had a nice pad save on Wilson with about 1:20 left.
NOTES—Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson played only three minutes in the third. Quenneville said he had an upper body injury and would have to evaluate the severity. ... Chicago improved to 22-3-6 when scoring first. ... Kopecky's goal was only the fifth Nashville has allowed in the first period over the past 15 games. ... Sharp's assist was the 300th point of his NHL career. ... The Predators notched their 11th sellout of the season in their 28th home game and fifth in the past nine. ... Predators defenceman Ryan Suter returned after missing a game with an upper body injury.