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Saad, Hossa lead Blackhawks into first place with win over Predators

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Brandon Saad scored the first goal in the Blackhawks’ 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday with a filthy wrist shot. He also set up the second one with a power move and a finesse pass. This, after scoring the game-winner in the final minute against Montreal less than 24 hours earlier.

And he might lose his job on Tuesday.

That’s just how good things are going these days for the Hawks, who won their sixth straight to leapfrog the Predators and the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Central Division. They did it with their third-string goaltender in net, too, as Scott Darling made 32 saves in his first NHL start since Oct. 30. The Hawks have now won nine of 10 games, dating back to before the circus trip.

“When he plays like that, he’s at that elite level,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Saad. “That consistency is what we’re looking for. If he played like that every night, he’d be a different animal.”

But Saad’s coveted spot on the top line, to the left of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, could be up for grabs with Patrick Sharp expected to return to the lineup in New Jersey on Tuesday. Saad, after a quiet-but-steady stretch through most of November, has three goals and two assists in his last four games, making Quenneville’s decision that much harder.

“I think every coach would like to have this problem,” said Hossa, who scored twice to break out of his own slump.

Saad’s trying not to sweat his spot in the lineup.

“You can’t replace Sharpie,” Saad said. “When he comes back, he’s going to do a great job. But every line’s good on this team, really. And whoever I’m with, I”m just looking forward to keep playing well.”

He picked up where he left off Friday night, sniping a shot past Pekka Rinne from the left dot off a Duncan Keith neutral-zone takeaway late in the first period. Then, less than three minutes into the second, Saad drove hard to the net and slid a nifty backhanded pass across the goalmouth to Hossa, who — even as snakebitten as he’s been — couldn’t miss a wide-open net. It was just Hossa’s second goal in his last 16 games. After Colin Wilson cut the lead to 2-1 just 34 seconds into the third period, Hossa added an empty netter with 1:11 left.

After a couple of weeks of drawing the top defensive assignments while the second line of Kris Versteeg, Brad Richards and Patrick Kane had all the fun, the Hawks’ top line was happy to get its turn to produce.

“It [was a] great relief, and it gives you a little extra jump in energy,” Hossa said. “I thought our line felt pretty good. We had lots of chances.”

Darling, meanwhile, looked in complete control in just his fourth NHL start, corralling rebounds and filling the net with his massive 6-6 frame. The Hawks are 3-0-0 since Corey Crawford injured himself at a concert on Monday night.

“That might be a little bit deceiving,” Darling said of his preternatural poise. “It was pretty nerve-wracking to begin with. But every game gets a little better.”

The same can be said about the Hawks, who are rolling four lines — only Daniel Carcillo played less than 10 minutes — and rolling opponents along the way.

“We’re excited,” Quenneville said. “We put ourselves in the spot we were hoping to be after 20 games. But we shouldn’t be satisfied. We should be looking to improve off of these levels, which would make us a good team.”


Twitter: @marklazerus