A Fan Appreciation Night crowd of 13,951 saw the Blackhawks conclude the home segment of their worst season in 27 years Thursday with a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators.

With the NHL and the NHL Players Association far apart on a new collective-bargaining agreement, it's anybody's guess when the Hawks will return to the United Center to try to make fans forget a season in which they have sunk to the bottom of the Western Conference.

Goaltender Jocelyn Thibault envisions a prolonged lockout.

"By 10:30 tonight there might not be any hockey [here] for a long time," Thibault said at the morning skate. "The odds that there will be a season next year are not very good. I would say 90 percent—or the high 90s—that there probably will not be a season next year."

The Hawks' hierarchy is hoping that when the labor issues finally are resolved, the NHL will have a salary cap, making many of the league's best players available at bargain prices by today's standards. After trading high-salaried Steve Sullivan and Alex Zhamnov and several other veterans, the Hawks have only about $5 million in salary commitments for 2004-05.

The Hawks' 20-42-11-7 record going into their last two games Saturday in Phoenix and Sunday in Dallas suggests the rebuilding job may take more than one season. Thursday's loss was their fifth straight and stretched their winless streak to seven (0-4-2-1). They won just one of their last 12 on home ice.

This game was a microcosm of the season. Nashville took charge by scoring two goals in a 28-second span midway through the first period. The Hawks cut the deficit to 2-1 when rookie Tuomo Ruutu scored his 22nd goal midway through the second, but they couldn't get out of the early hole. With Scott Nichol serving a double minor, a goal by Jeremy Stevenson put the outcome on ice with 3:37 left.

Sullivan commemorated his first United Center appearance since he was traded in mid-February by starring for the Predators. He scored their first goal on a power play, and his pass set up their last goal, giving him nine goals and 21 assists in his 22 games with Nashville.

When Sullivan made his first appearance on the ice there were a few boos, but his goal was greeted with cheers. He forgave the boos.

"They're loyal fans, and I'm the opposition," he said. "The organization made the decision to trade me, and I hope it works out for both sides. Hopefully, the two draft picks (second-round selections this year and next year) they traded for me will turn out to be outstanding and help the organization back to good times. And hopefully Nashville will get what they want."

The Predators acquired Sullivan hoping he would provide the offensive lift that would get them into the playoffs for the first time in their six-year history. Thursday's victory put them on the verge of achieving that objective. Eight teams in the conference advance and they are in a three-way tie for seventh with St. Louis and Edmonton. They and the Blues have two games left, while Edmonton has one.