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Blackhawks, Kings set up to contend for years

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Last season the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings met in the Western Conference Final, but injuries for the Kings meant it was hardly a fair fight.

Two seasons ago, the Blackhawks and Kings could have met in the Western Conference Final, but Chicago was bounced in the first round by the Phoenix Coyotes.

The 2014 Western Conference Final is a bit like a heavyweight fight three years in the making. From about late February of 2012 until now, these have arguably been the two best teams in the West. They are at close to full strength, and this series is might turn into an epic showdown befitting of the clubs' success.

"I think losing last year makes you drive a little bit harder to win," Kings forward Justin Williams said. "You don't want anyone to take anything from you, and Chicago took [the Stanley Cup] from us last year. We're trying to reciprocate.

"I know a lot of the guys on our team hate losing just as much as they love winning. We don't want anyone to the get the best of us. We feel we owe them something."

The Kings have been to the conference final three years in a row. The Blackhawks have made it four times in the past six seasons.

This is a matchup of the past two Stanley Cup champions. Toss in Chicago's title from 2010 and it is three of the past four.

Standards in the West were measured against the Detroit Red Wings for nearly two decades. That would have changed even if the Red Wings hadn't moved to the Eastern Conference this season.

These teams are the new standard in the West. The San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks have great teams, but they will spend the offseason trying to figure out how to close the gap on the Kings.

The St. Louis Blues are a great team, but they will do the same with the Blackhawks. St. Louis has won 130 games in the past three regular seasons, but each has ended at the hands of either the Kings or Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks lost in the first round in 2011 after winning the Cup in 2010 and were sitting in seventh place in the West near the end of February of the 2011-12 season. They finished the campaign on a 12-2-3, even with Jonathan Toews sidelined by a concussion.

Chicago finished in fourth place in a stacked Central Division, but had 101 points and Toews nearing a return. The Blackhawks were back to being one of the best teams in the League, though Corey Crawford had a .903 save percentage during the regular season, and Mike Smith outplayed him in a first-round loss to the Coyotes.

The Blackhawks had 61.7 percent of the shot attempts at even strength in the series, and the first five games of the series went to overtime. Chicago was some bad luck and a couple of bad goals allowed against in extra time from advancing.

It's quite feasible given the Nashville Predators' issues in the second round that season to suggest the Blackhawks would have been the Kings' opponent in the 2012 Western Conference Final were it not for losing those coin-flip games in the opening round.

The historic surge of the 2012 Kings is part of NHL lore. They became the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup. They became the first team to go ahead 3-0 in every series despite starting on the road.

They became a perfect example of how "advanced statistics" could change the way hockey is analyzed. The reality was Los Angeles had a really good team all season, but the Kings' luck when it came to shooting percentage turned in their favor in late February, and the addition of Jeff Carter before the trade deadline allowed coach Darryl Sutter to balance out the lineup and the rest is now history.

Last season the Blackhawks were the dominant force in the NHL from start to finish, essentially wire-to-wire champions after a historic start and emphatic finish after falling behind 3-1 to the Red Wings in the second round.

"They're a tough team to play against," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "They're so good. They have so many good players. They have weapons at every single position. So, yeah, it's going to be a battle out there again. We all know they beat us pretty good last year, beat us pretty handily."

The Kings were one of the best teams in the League last season as well, but two grueling series against the Blues and Sharks left them hurting when the conference finals began.

Several players were playing through injuries, and Mike Richards got hurt early in the series. The Blackhawks prevailed, knocking off the defending champions in five games, though it took double overtime and a Patrick Kane hat trick to finally finish them off.

"They're a dangerous team," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "The different personnel from last year to this year, they've improved. They're probably healthier than they were last year."

Now these teams are back in NHL's final four, and are relatively healthy. The Kings are short defenseman Robyn Regehr, but he skated Sunday and could be nearing a return. The Blackhawks missed Andrew Shaw in the first two games, but should have everyone available for selection Monday in Game 4 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).

The Kings lead the series 2-1 and have scored 10 goals in the past two games. The Blackhawks are down 2-1 for the fourth time in the past six series, but have won three straight to claim each of the previous three in six games.

"We know how good a team we're up against and what it's going to take to beat them," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We can be positive about a lot of things and remind ourselves what we're capable of as a team and where we've been before, considering this situation in the series."

These two franchises are set up to contend for the Stanley Cup for years to come, and given the new playoff format this might not be the last time they meet in the conference final.

Both organizations are blessed with talented, young cores. Neither team has particularly bad contracts and each has managed the salary cap well.

Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli have injected more talent and youth into the Kings, and Teuvo Teravainen will do the same for the Blackhawks next season. The franchises are fronted by two of the best general managers and two of the best coaches in the League.

There hasn't been a war of words or mind games or anything of the sort in this series. There have been two great hockey teams playing some great hockey and further developing a battle for Western Conference supremacy that could play out for years to come.

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