(Reuters) - For the second year in a row, the Chicago Blackhawks will take on the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals, a matchup pitting one of the NHL’s most consistent teams against the ‘Kings of the Comeback’.
The Blackhawks have hoisted the Stanley Cup twice in the last four years (2010, 2013) and are bidding to become the league’s first back-to-back champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Well rested since they eliminated the Minnesota Wild in six games to reach the conference finals, fifth-seeded Chicago will look to make a winning start on home ice when they host the Kings on Sunday for the opener in the best-of-seven series.
Los Angeles, in contrast, will still be feeling a little bruised and battered after ousting the Anaheim Ducks 4-3 in a tense series between cross-town rivals that ended only on Friday night.
The Kings became the first NHL team to win consecutive series in a single postseason after twice losing three straight games, and will be eager to atone for their 4-1 series loss to the Blackhawks in last year’s Western Conference final.
“Getting back there (to the conference final) is one thing,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “There are some things that we didn’t do last year that we want to do this year.
“Obviously, the team that we’re going up against got the job done last year so we’ve got to reload now.”
Two years ago, the Kings delivered a stunning Cinderella story as they beat the West’s top three seeds in the playoffs en route to becoming the first eighth seed to win a Stanley Cup.
This season, as the sixth seeds, they clawed their way back from a 0-3 hole against the San Jose Sharks to scrape through the first round of the playoffs in seven games, then came from 2-3 down against the Ducks to reach the conference final.
“The hardest part is just getting into the playoffs every year. It’s a grind. And we earned the right to be here,” said right wing Justin Williams, who recorded a goal and an assist as the Kings overpowered the Ducks 6-2 in Anaheim on Friday.
“We beat two extremely tough teams in the Pacific Division, which is a real tough division. We’re proud of where we are, but we’re halfway.”
The Blackhawks were the only one of four teams to reach the conference finals who did not need seven games to get the job done, disposing of the Wild after a punishing first round series against the St. Louis Blues that also went six.
Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook lead the Blackhawks in scoring with 11 points each but Chicago’s offensive engine is really powered by the All-Star pairing of captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Kane is tied with team mate Bryan Bickell for second in playoff goal scoring with six while Toews is close behind with five.
Adding to his growing reputation as a clutch performer, Kane again delivered against the Wild, scoring the series clinching overtime winner in Game Six.
“He’s a special player, and guys have that instinct, have that knack of finding pucks, wanting to be out there, wanting to score,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville.
While Montreal’s Carey Price and the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist have been hogging the goaltending spotlight, Chicago’s Corey Crawford has quietly provided the Blackhawks with the rock solid netminding that wins championships.
He tops all netminders with a sensational goals against average of 1.97 and is tied with Price with eight wins.
“I don’t think we’re worried about anything right now,” said right wing Kane. “We’re in a pretty good position that not a lot of teams get to go through.
“We’re in a conference final ... so there’s no real cause for concern and we feel our best games are ahead of us.”
Additional reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Steve Ginsburg