CHICAGO -- One team is going to make history Sunday night at United Center, and one is going to spend the offseason wondering what might have been.
This Western Conference Final has been an epic showdown befitting the hype that preceded it, and Game 7 is one of the most anticipated NHL games that isn't part of a Stanley Cup Final in years.
There are so many positive numbers for the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings that's it is hard to sort through them all. These are the two most successful franchises of the past three NHL seasons, and both are set up for future achievements at this level as well.
"Being a part of it we know it's been a special series, a lot of ups and downs, fast, high-paced games," Chicago forward Ben Smith said. "You want to be on the winning side of it. The loser of this series probably won't be remembered… you want to be the guys who come out on top of what's been one of the best series in a while."
These are the past two Stanley Cup champions. The Kings have the most playoff wins since the start of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 36, while the Blackhawks are second with 29.
Chicago is 13-0 the past two seasons in Games 5, 6 and 7 of a series, and 25-4 since Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane joined the franchise. Los Angeles is 6-0 in elimination games this season, and the Kings' players expected to dress for this game are 64-2 in Game 7s.
These were the two best possession teams in the regular season. For every statistic about how great one team is, there's one about the other. Something will have to give Sunday night.
"I think it has been a great series, but it is a series we want to win," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "Looking back on this, obviously for the fans we want this to be a great series, but we also want to the see the L.A. Kings as champs too."
The Kings moved out to a 3-1 series lead, but the Blackhawks have rallied with back-to-back wins, and both have come in pretty incredible fashion. Much like the series Los Angeles waged with the San Jose Sharks in the opening round, after six games the overall numbers are incredibly close despite the roller coaster path to this point.
Los Angeles was able to slow down San Jose and the Anaheim Ducks as the series wore on, but Chicago has been able to surge forward, scoring nine goals in the past two games and pushing the pace to a higher level than the previous four contests.
"They've got a lot of top players, a high-powered offense," Kings defenseman Alec Martinez said. "They've got a really good puck-moving, playmaking D-corps and a good goaltender. They've got a lot of heart and character too, not that the other two teams didn't. They're the defending Stanley Cup champs and there's something to be said about that."
Both of these teams have a rivalry filled with distaste. The Kings and the Sharks were public with their dislike for the other, and the vitriol between the Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks in recent seasons has been at a high level.
This will be the 12th playoff game between these two franchises in the past two years, but there has been very little post-whistle shenanigans or verbal jousting.
"I think there's a healthy respect between both teams," Martinez said. "We've faced them a couple times, and that's the way it's going to be in the playoffs if you want to keep making it all the way to the end.
Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said, "There hasn't been a lot of 'bad blood' so to speak. It's been a pretty honest series. Hard-working, a lot of physical play, a lot of nice goals. A fun one to be a part of. Both sides have respect for each other and it should be a heck of a game."
There will be NHL history made Sunday night. The Blackhawks can become the first team to win a series after falling behind 3-1 in back-to-back postseasons. The Kings can become the first club to play 21 games in the first rounds and reach the Stanley Cup Final, and the first to win three Game 7s on the road in one year.
This will be the conclusion to a wonderful series, but it might not be the last chapter between these two sets of players. Both franchises will be considered top contenders for the Cup next season as well, and given the amount of key players locked into contracts with some additional young talent on the way, beyond 2015 as well.
"You're going to run into a lot of the same hockey clubs, especially with the way the playoffs are now," Martinez said. "The California teams are going to have to battle just to get out of the state. That's what the playoffs create.
"I guess if you look at it from a spectator standpoint, this is what they want. As a player, you wants are much different. It's good hockey clubs battling and we're all tied up now. It's down to a one-game playoff. We knew it was going to be a battle. We have to bring it [Sunday] night."
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