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Kings, Blackhawks meet in Western Final rematch

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks
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The Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the 2013 Western Conference Final on their way to the Stanley Cup. To have a chance to become the first repeat champion in 16 years, Chicago will have to beat L.A. again.

The Blackhawks and Kings, each of whom finished third in their division, will begin the best-of-7 rematch Sunday at United Center (3 p.m. ET; NBC, TSN, RDS).

The Blackhawks have been off since Tuesday, when they eliminated the Minnesota Wild by winning Game 6 of their Western Conference Second Round series in overtime. The Kings will have a quick turnaround; Los Angeles flew to Chicago after ousting the Anaheim Ducks 6-2 in Game 7 of their second-round series Friday.

The teams play vastly different styles. Chicago relies on skating, speed and puck movement; Los Angeles plays a more physical, grinding game designed to wear down its opponent. For the past two years, the Blackhawks have had much the better of their matchups; in addition to going 4-1 against the Kings last spring, Chicago swept three regular-season games in 2013-14, outscoring Los Angeles 9-4. The Blackhawks won 3-1 and 1-0 at home during a 15-day span in December before a 5-3 win at Staples Center on Feb. 3.

Going back to the 2012-13 regular season, Chicago has won nine of 11 games between the teams. It has won both postseason series; before last season, they hadn't met since the Blackhawks' five-game victory in 1974.

This series matches the past two Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders. Jonathan Quick led Los Angeles to the championship in 2012, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, and has gotten the Kings to the conference final for the third year in a row. He had some ups and downs in this season's playoffs, surrendering 17 goals to the San Jose Sharks in the first three games of their first-round series, and losing Games 3, 4 and 5 to the Ducks. But he fueled the comeback against the Sharks and allowed a total of three goals in the final two games to enable the Kings to overtake the Ducks and improve to 6-0 in elimination games this spring. Quick gets a lot of help from his defense and coach Darryl Sutter's tight-checking system, but he's capable of stealing a game by himself.

Chicago goalie Corey Crawford doesn't get the same attention or respect as Quick, but for the second season in a row, he's lifted his game in the postseason. He enters the third round of the playoffs with a League-leading 1.97 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Crawford stepped up his play in Games 5 and 6 against the Wild, just as he did after a slow start against the St. Louis Blues in the opening round, which Chicago trailed 2-0. The Blackhawks have as much confidence in Crawford as the Kings do in Quick.

Crawford and Quick faced each other in one of the three regular-season games; the Blackhawks scored five times on 30 shots in their 5-3 victory in early February. Quick has struggled against Chicago throughout his career; he is 6-12-1 in the regular season and 1-4 in the playoffs. Crawford is 6-3-0 in nine regular-season games against Los Angeles and won four of five in the 2013 conference final.

Each team has a solid defense led by a star: Duncan Keith for the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty for the Kings. Keith, a Norris Trophy finalist, teams with Brent Seabrook to form one of the NHL's best pairings; Seabrook is tied for the Chicago lead this spring with 11 points. Doughty, who's usually paired with Jake Muzzin, has elevated his game and has one goal and nine points in 14 games this spring.

The Kings, not the Blackhawks, have the top goal-scorer and point-getter in this season's playoffs. Forward Marian Gaborik, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, leads with nine goals. Anze Kopitar, his center, is tops with 13 assists and 19 points.

Seabrook and Marian Hossa are tops on the Blackhawks with 11 points, one more than forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane and 2013 playoff hero Bryan Bickell lead the Blackhawks with six goals, one more than Toews. Kane has three game-winning goals, two in overtime; four of Toews' five goals have been winners, including one in overtime.

The Blackhawks have home-ice advantage because they finished with 107 points to 100 for the Kings. They're also better rested: Chicago won each of its first two series in six games; Los Angeles played the maximum 14 games through two rounds, and no team has won three straight seven-game series to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Author: John Kreiser | Columnist

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