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CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have taken similar paths toward the top, hitting big in the draft and making shrewd moves after rough stretches.
They find themselves trying to knock each other out in the Western Conference finals for the second straight year.
The Blackhawks prevailed last year on their way to the Stanley Cup, and they have the early lead this time after taking the opener, 3-1. They will try to go up 2-0 when the best-of-seven series resumes Wednesday night in Chicago.
"We felt this year we're in the toughest division and conference," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We just played two real competitive series (against St. Louis and Minnesota). Every game is tight. I think finding a way to win is what it's all about in today's game. Our guys are really diligent of doing the little things particularly that some nights give you an edge."
Yes, the Blackhawks keep finding ways.
It's why they're eyeing their third championship in five years and are trying to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. In an era with a hard salary cap where players want raises, that's simply not supposed to happen. Parity is the rule, yet the Blackhawks keep rising toward the top.
The same goes for the Kings.
They're enjoying their most successful era with three straight trips to the conference finals and a Stanley Cup two years ago after following a similar path to the Blackhawks.
The Kings missed the playoffs from 2003 to 2009 and lost in the first round in 2010 and 2011 before winning their first championship in 2012. Like the Blackhawks did with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, they hit in the draft with Anze Kopitar. They also collected a strong cast to support their core and filled in the gaps with key trades, like the one that landed Marian Gaborik from Columbus in March.
"You have to be able to adjust to the game, adjust to the rules, adjust to the style," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think that's a big reason why we're both in the conference finals again. Whether we can adjust enough to beat the Stanley Cup champions, I don't know."
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs from 2003 to 2008 and landed at rock bottom, with dwindling attendance and an alienated fan base unable to watch home games on TV because then-owner Bill Wirtz believed it would be unfair to season ticketholders. They finally emerged with a run to the conference finals in 2009, losing to Detroit. A year later, they beat Philadelphia to end a 49-year championship drought, only to have to part ways with a huge chunk of their team because of cap issues.
So they reloaded.
"I think management did excellent job with the team," Chicago's Marian Hossa said. "We got a great coaching staff. I think the whole organization, it's top class. ... (Los Angeles) is a great organization also. They did an excellent job the last few years. They did it three times in a row. It's just amazing these two teams battling for the West again."
The Kings had a few adjustments to make after losing 3-1 in Game 1.
Their top line of Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Gaborik got shut down by Toews' line, managing just six shots without scoring. Los Angeles will need more from a trio with 16 goals and 24 assists in the playoffs.
Even when the Kings had their chances, Corey Crawford stopped most of them. He made 25 saves with several neat stops, turning back Kyle Clifford on a 2-on-1 rush and stopping Gaborik and Brown in rapid succession.
So it's the Blackhawks with the early lead in the series and the Kings trying to pick themselves up — again. They did it after dropping the first three games to San Jose in the first round and then rallied from 3-2 down to knock out Anaheim in the conference semifinals.
"San Jose and Anaheim had arguably the top two, three, four best home records this year. We went into those tough buildings and won," Jarrett Stoll said. "Chicago is no different. A tough building. We're going to have to figure out a way to win Game 2 and move on."