The Los Angeles Kings were Stanley Cup champions last season. The Chicago Blackhawks know the feeling; they won the Cup two years earlier.
One of the two will have an opportunity to raise it again this year.
The Blackhawks and Kings earned this opportunity by finishing off emotional seven-game series in the Western Conference Semifinals. But this is the first time they will face each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1974 -- an irrelevant piece of information to every player and coach that will take part in the series.
What is relevant, depending on how much weight someone really wants to put into the regular season at this time of the year, is how close they were when they played this season.
The Blackhawks won two of the three meetings, including a 5-2 win in the season-opener at Staples Center, and held a 12-9 advantage in total goals. However, they each had 84 shots and they were even with two power-play goals in the three-game season series.
Jonathan Toews, who has struggled so far in the playoffs, led the Blackhawks with six points in the season series against Los Angeles. Jonathan Quick, who has been sensational in the playoffs, wasn't during the regular season against Chicago with a .857 save percentage in three appearances.
On paper, Chicago is favored since it was the top team in the NHL during the regular season and has home-ice advantage in the series. But when it comes to intangibles and experience, the Kings and Blackhawks appear to be even.
The good news is both have scored recently.
Sharp netted the first goal in Game 7 against the Red Wings, his first goal since Game 1 of the conference semifinals. He had six goals in the five-game first-round series against the Minnesota Wild, so maybe he is about to hit another hot streak.
Toews scored his first goal of the playoffs in Game 6 against the Red Wings. He was held off the score sheet in Game 7, but he was still noticeable.
Chicago may be a bit thin at center behind Toews, but Michal Handzus has given the Blackhawks more than they probably thought they were getting, Andrew Shaw offers a lot of grit and he was very noticeable in Game 7 against Detroit, and Dave Bolland can do a little bit of everything.
Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger are both strong on the penalty kill and effective in their bottom-six roles at even strength. Frolik has skill that doesn't always come out, but can be noticeable -- as it was on the penalty shot he scored on in Game 6 against Detroit.
The Kings have the four components necessary to make for a healthy group of forwards: size, strength, speed and skill.
Mike Richards is the shortest of all their forwards -- and he's 5-foot-11. Dustin Penner is 6-5, Dwight King and Jeff Carter are both 6-4, and Anze Kopitar and Jordan Nolan are each 6-3.
The average weight for the 12 forwards expected to be in the lineup for Game 1 is 211 pounds, including Penner at 245, King at 232 and both Kopitar and Nolan at 225. That's not including Jarret Stoll (concussion), who is 6-1 and 212 pounds. Stoll's status is questionable.
As for depth, which is equally as important as the other four groups, consider that Dustin Brown was L.A.'s third-line right wing going into Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks. Brown, who has three goals in the playoffs, returned to play with Kopitar and Justin Williams in the second period of Game 7, and they created the winning goal.
Williams scoring two goals in Game 7 is big. It snapped an eight-game goal drought for him.
Either way, the Kings' forwards will have to score more in the conference finals. They've combined for 20 goals in 13 playoff games. Carter leads with five and Williams has four.
Faceoffs will be important, and the Kings are below average in the playoffs. Kopitar is the only forward better than 50 percent (50.6 percent). The Kings as a whole are winning 45.7 percent of the draws. Chicago is only slightly better at 47.6 percent.
Brent Seabrook scored the series-clinching, overtime winner in Game 7 Wednesday night. Niklas Hjalmarsson thought he had scored it with 1:47 left in regulation, but referee Stephen Walkom said no because he had blown his whistle to call matching roughing minors on Saad and Kyle Quincey prior to the shot. Duncan Keith has nine points in the playoffs, the same amount as Kane and three more than Toews.
The point of all this is the Blackhawks get a lot of offense from their back end. They rely on it and will need it to move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
Seabrook, in particular, was struggling in the playoffs until late in the series against Detroit. He started to play with Keith again and it helped make him play better. He scored the winner in Game 7 and that sends him into the conference finals with confidence, but even before the goal, he had played a team-high 36 shifts and was spectacular with his physical play and his offense.
The size of Seabrook and Hjalmarsson and the quick puck-moving ability of Keith, Oduya and Leddy will be essential against the big and aggressive Kings.
The Kings have gotten offense from their back end to make up for some of the scoring problems their forwards have been having. Slava Voynov has four goals and Drew Doughty has two. They combined for three assists in Game 7 against the Sharks.
The lack of scoring puts more pressure on this defense to be solid in front of Quick. They've handled it well and have contributed to the team allowing a League-low 1.54 goals per game. L.A. scored 14 goals in the conference finals, but gave up 10 -- the same amount it gave up in the conference quarterfinals against the St. Louis Blues.
Doughty eats a lot of minutes (27:57 per game) and he takes chances because he know his partner, Robyn Regehr, will be there to back him up. The same can be said for Voynov and Rob Scuderi, who is second on the blue line with 22:36 of ice time per game. The third pair now is Matt Greene (stay-at-home) with Jake Muzzin (join the rush), but Alec Martinez and Keaton Ellerby are there to sub in when and if necessary.
Martinez played in every game during the Cup run last year. He hasn't played since he was a minus-3 with four penalty minutes in Game 2 against the Sharks.
Corey Crawford has spent two rounds turning heads and changing opinions. If he can be the better goalie in the Western Conference Finals, it'll mean he will knock off the hottest goalie in the playoffs and the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Considering the way Crawford has been playing, it's absolutely possible for him to go save-for-save with Quick. Crawford posted a .948 save percentage and a 1.50 goals-against average (six goals allowed on 117 shots against) in the last four games of the conference semifinals. He has a 1.70 GAA and .938 save percentage in the playoffs.
He was at his best in Game 7 against Detroit, when despite facing waves of pressure he gave up one goal on 27 shots. Crawford made 35 saves against 38 shots in Game 6, including 26 saves on 28 shots over the first two periods. The skaters in front of him finally gave him some goals to work with in the third period en route to a 4-3 win.
The hockey world is running out of adjectives to describe Quick's play in the postseason. He has simply been sensational again, and it was never more evident than in Game 7 against the Sharks, when he had to make several show-stopping saves to preserve the 2-1 victory. His stretched-out glove save on Joe Pavelski with 5:04 left in the third period may be the snapshot moment of the series.
Quick is 8-5 and leads the League in goals-against average (1.50), save percentage (.948) and shutouts (3). For as good as he was against the St. Louis Blues (1.58 GAA, .944 save percentage, one shutout), he was that much better in one more game against the Sharks (1.44 GAA, .951 save percentage, two shutouts). He has allowed 20 goals on 382 shots.
Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy last season with three shutouts, a 1.41 GAA and .946 save percentage. He's on pace for similar numbers this year.
Two-time Stanley Cup champion Joel Quenneville did not lose his composure at any point in Game 7 against Detroit, even after the Hjalmarsson goal was waved off. He showed his veteran poise behind the bench and that's something his team copies from him.
As important is Quenneville's ability to push all the right buttons with the Blackhawks this season.
When they started hot, Quenneville wasn't satisfied. When they went on to set a NHL record with points in their first 24 games, Quenneville knew all it meant was they were good for half the season. When Chicago was down 3-1 against Detroit and appeared to be unraveling, he helped sew his team back together.
Darryl Sutter is a man of few words and lots of facial expressions. He doesn't go out of his way to praise anyone, and he's honest with how his team is playing. It's working, so why stop now?
Sutter isn't afraid to tinker with his lineup. He has a good sense of what's working and what isn't, and he'll make the necessary changes.
For example, taking Brown away from Williams and Kopitar and replacing him with Clifford may not have looked like the best move, but he knew the Kopitar line had gone stale, so he had to make a change.
However, Sutter went back to that Brown-Kopitar-Williams line after a TV timeout with 6:28 left in the second period of Game 7 against San Jose. Forty seconds later, they came up with the game-winning goal.
He'll be coaching against his former team.
With the talent the Blackhawks put out on the power play (Toews, Hossa, Shaw, Keith, Seabrook, Kane, Sharp, etc.), they should be better than 16.2 percent in that department this postseason. But they were barely better in the regular season, when they were 16.7 percent on the power play.
However, just like the regular season, the Blackhawks have made their inconsistent power play almost irrelevant with a fantastic penalty kill.
Chicago has yielded one power-play goal on 41 times shorthanded in 12 playoff games. That's a League-best 97.6 percent, which is actually 5.5 percent better than the Kings' PK from a year ago -- the PK that helped Los Angeles forget about its struggles on the power play so it could go on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Boston Bruins also won the Stanley Cup in 2011 with a solid penalty kill that rendered their inept power play irrelevant. Chicago would prefer that didn't happen, but getting the power play going against the Kings will be tough. L.A. is 86.0 percent on the PK, including 18-for-19 in seven games at Staples Center.
The Kings have won the special-teams battle by a 7-6 margin during the playoffs. Their power play is clicking at 20 percent (7-for-35) and their penalty kill is 86.0 percent (37-for-43).
The key stat, though, is how the Kings' PK is different at home vs. on the road. They are 1-for-19 in the playoffs at home, including 12-for-12 in the seven-game series win over the Sharks. But they have yielded five power-play goals on 24 opportunities (79.2 percent PK) on the road.
Los Angeles' power play at home and on the road is exactly the same at 20 percent. L.A. is 4-for-20 in seven home games; 3-for-15 in six road games.
The Kings won the Stanley Cup last season with a League-best penalty kill at 92.1 percent. They'll have a good chance to get back to the Stanley Cup Final if they get their overall PK percentage back up over 90 percent.
Brent Seabrook: He dealt with adversity against Detroit, but came through and got the last laugh with the overtime winner in Game 7. Now Seabrook again becomes a huge factor for the Blackhawks because he'll have to use his size against the Kings’ talented and physical group of forwards. Seabrook played a career postseason-low 12:03 in Game 4 against Detroit, but his ice time climbed to 26:13 in Game 7. He'll probably be closer to 25-26 minutes per game against the Kings. Seabrook has to be an anchor for the Blackhawks, who will have to deal with the Kings' aggressive forecheck.
Justin Williams: Not only did Williams help put Los Angeles into the conference finals with his two goals in Game 7 against the Sharks, now he goes into Chicago feeling good about his game, which is a huge bonus to the Kings. Williams snapped an eight-game goal drought in Game 7. He looked confident shooting the puck and generated several quality scoring chances in addition to his two goals. The Kings need some extra oomph from their forwards, and Williams is just the guy to provide it. He could help get Brown and Kopitar going as well.
Blackhawks will win if ... Crawford stands up to the Quick test and they play faster than the Kings. Los Angeles will try to use its size as an advantage, but the Blackhawks can win if they use their speed and skill, especially up front. Toews has to produce. Sharp has to carry his solid Game 7 against Detroit into Game 1 against the Kings. Kane has to be dynamic. Hossa has to be a factor. Shaw has to be a pest.
Kings will win if ... Quick stays hot, they continue to play well at home (14 consecutive wins at Staples Center) and they get some more offense from their group of forwards. Quick is obviously the most important factor in the Kings' ultimate success, but he would be under a lot less pressure if they could score more than two goals a game. The Kings need more from their best players if they are going to have a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer
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