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Blackhawks, Kings set for Western Conference Final

by John Kreiser

Now that the Chicago Blackhawks have overcome a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in franchise history and survived overtime in Game 7, they feel they're ready to end the Los Angeles Kings' reign as Stanley Cup champions.

The Blackhawks and Kings will face off in the Western Conference Final beginning Saturday at United Center (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS). The winner of the first postseason meeting between the teams since 1974 will advance to the Stanley Cup Final against either the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Kings are trying to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98 to win consecutive Cups. The Blackhawks, who ended a 49-year drought by winning it all in 2010, are going for their second Cup in three years.

"We're excited, we're looking forward to it, we're ready to play," defenseman Brent Seabrook, who scored the OT winner in Game 7, said of the Kings. "I think we found our game in the later games here in this series, and we're looking forward to getting that one started Saturday night."

Getting here wasn't easy -- both teams had to go seven games before winning bitterly contested conference semifinal series against one of their big rivals. Los Angeles edged the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in Game 7 on Tuesday; Chicago advanced with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday, capping the first rally from a 3-1 series deficit in the history of the franchise and the 25th in a best-of-7 series in League history.

"I think progressively we've had a much tougher series from the first round, and we expect them to keep getting tougher," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "L.A., they've got the Cup, and they played two tough rounds in a row, and they know how to win. I think we have to make sure that we're well prepared, that we're excited about the opportunity."

Chicago, the Presidents' Trophy winner as regular-season champion, did have an easier time in the first round, polishing off the Minnesota Wild in five games; Los Angeles had to overcome a 2-0 deficit to beat the St. Louis Blues in six games.

After winning the first two rounds in nine games last spring, the Kings have needed 13 of a possible 14 this year. Though they're 7-0 at home in this year's playoffs and have won their past 14 games at Staples Center, the Kings are 1-5 on the road -- a huge turnaround from last year when they won their first 10 road games on the way to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

The home-ice edge could be significant -- Chicago is 6-1 at United Center this spring, and Los Angeles has managed eight goals on the road this spring.

The Blackhawks won two of three games between the teams this season -- they spoiled the Kings' banner-raising with a 5-2 victory at Staples Center on opening day and won 3-2 at Chicago on Feb. 17. The Kings outlasted the Blackhawks 5-4 in Chicago on March 25.

The teams have met once in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- 39 years ago, when Chicago captured their opening-round series in five games.

Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick was brilliant in the series against the Sharks but has had his troubles against the Blackhawks during the regular season. Quick allowed 12 goals on 84 shots, a save percentage of .857, this season and is 6-11-1 all-time against Chicago. However, he's coming off a series in which he allowed 10 goals in seven games against San Jose and leads all goaltenders this spring with a 1.50 goals-against average, a save percentage of .948 and three shutouts.

No Kings player has been especially prolific against the Blackhawks during his career. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles' leading scorer in each of the past six seasons, had a goal and two assists against Chicago in the three games this season and has seven goals and 16 points in 24 career meetings.

Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, who has played every minute for Chicago this spring, split two decisions against L.A. during the regular season and is 5-3-0 against the Kings lifetime, allowing 20 goals in eight games.

The most successful Blackhawks player against the Kings during his career has been forward Patrick Sharp, who has 18 goals and 31 points in 26 games. Sharp also had the first goal in Game 7 on Wednesday, tying him with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the most in this year's playoffs.

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews has also enjoyed success against L.A. -- he has 12 goals and 22 points in 21 career games, including a goal and an assist in each of the three meetings this season.

The Blackhawks are glad to have two days between games after ending one grueling series with another on the horizon.

"We know that this series we just played was one of the toughest we've had in a while," Sharp told NHL Network. "You look ahead to the Kings -- it's only going to get harder. They're a big, strong, fast, physical team. They've got a great golatender, they protect their net well. It's that time of year where whoever you face it's going to be a battle. We're just excited to move on."

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