The Western Conference finals get underway Saturday in Chicago, as the top-seeded Blackhawks host the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 at United Center.
Although this is the first playoff meeting between these clubs in nearly 40 years, the Blackhawks and Kings will break the ice by playing the first two tilts of this back-to-back set on consecutive days. Chicago also will host Game 2 on Sunday before the teams meet again in Tuesday's battle in Los Angeles.
Both conference finals pit two recent Stanley Cup winners against each other, as Chicago, the 2010 champs, take on last year's Cup winners in this series and Pittsburgh (2009 champs) face off against Boston (2011) in the East.
The Blackhawks and Kings both went the distance in the last round, as Chicago came back from down three games to one to defeat Detroit and L.A. also outlasted San Jose in seven games.
When the playoffs began most people believed the Blackhawks were the team to beat in the West, but the fifth-seeded Kings are out to prove that title still belongs to them.
The Kings were an eighth seed in 2012, but went 16-4 in the playoffs to secure the franchise's first Stanley Cup title. With an 8-5 mark so far in this postseason it's obvious L.A. is having a rougher go of it in 2013, but few people are counting out the Kings, who are trying to become the first team to win consecutive Cup titles since Detroit in 1997 and '98.
L.A. head coach Darryl Sutter has pretty much an identical team from his title run of a year ago and his club's best player is still the guy between the pipes.
Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring after posting a 1.41 goals against average, .946 save percentage and three shutouts in 20 games. He's currently working on a carbon copy of that performance in 2013, as the 27-year-old American has registered a 1.50 GAA and a .948 save percentage to go along with three more playoff shutouts.
"You just tell him good job, and hopefully he just stays in the zone," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said of Quick. "That's the way he's been going, and you just want him to keep going that way."
The Kings boast a balanced scoring attack thanks to a nice mix of players up front and a couple of talented blueliners who are adept at joining the rush. L.A. has eight players with two or more goals in this postseason and that list includes defensemen Slava Voynov and Drew Doughty, who have posted four and two tallies, respectively.
Chicago has possibly the deepest roster in the NHL and the lineup includes plenty of familiar faces from the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship team of three years ago. Forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland and defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson all helped Chicago lift a Cup and head coach Joel Quenneville has leaned heavily on that postseason experience this spring.
Chicago's offense is averaging a solid 2.75 goals per game in the postseason, but the club is really winning with defense and goaltending. In fact, with an average of 1.83 goals surrendered per game, only the Kings have been stingier during the 2013 playoffs.
"They protect their net well and when you do get to the net they've got one of the best goalies in the league making saves," said Sharp, who is tied for the NHL lead with seven goals in this postseason. "It's not going to get any easier, that's for sure, but hopefully we can raise our level and play well."
Although the Kings and Blackhawks are ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in team defense during this postseason, the season series between the two teams told a different story. Chicago won two of the three encounters in 2013, as the clubs combined for a sizeable 21 goals during the season series.
As a result of their high-scoring affairs, Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford posted a lofty 3.52 GAA in two outings against the Kings this year, while Quick had a 4.04 GAA while starting all three games.
Toews wreaked havoc on L.A. in 2013 with three goals and three assists, while teammate Michael Frolik added three markers and two assists. Mike Richards led the Kings with two goals against Chicago, while Anze Kopitar and Doughty tied for the team lead with three points apiece.
This is only the second playoff encounter between the clubs and the first since the 1974 quarterfinals, when Chicago beat L.A. in five games.
The Blackhawks were 18-3-3 at the United Center during the regular season and are 6-1 as the host during the playoffs. L.A. struggled to an 8-12-4 mark on the road this season and has a poor 1-5 record as the guest in this postseason.