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We'll try not to get blinded by all the Stanley Cup bling in this season's Western Conference finals, what with the 2010 and 2012 NHL champions meeting up in a tantalizing matchup. The Chicago Blackhawks, champs in '10, have ruled since day one in this lockout-shortened season. The Los Angeles Kings are the reigning champs after romping a year ago. There's star power galore as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook of the Blackhawks share the ice with Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick of the Kings. Many of them will be in Sochi, Russia, next February for the Olympics as well, where Toews, Sharp, Keith and Seabrook could possibly join Richards, Carter and Doughty on Team Canada, while Brown and Quick could pal up with Kane on Team USA. Right now, though, their alliances are clear as day. One NHL team stands in front of the other with a trip to the Cup finals on the line. Both clubs are catching their breath after needing seven games to survive the second round, with little time to spare as Game 1 looms Saturday afternoon at the United Center. The two teams last met in the playoffs in 1974, when the Blackhawks prevailed in five games.
1. Quicksand in net
Where do pucks go to die? Into Quick's equipment. The Kings netminder has stopped 362 of 382 shots in the playoffs for a .948 save percentage, which, amazingly, is a tad better than the .946 save percentage he sported last spring while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He was the difference in a hotly contested series with the San Jose Sharks in the last round, capping a great series with a late-game save on Joe Pavelski, which said it all. "It's not like you expect him to make those saves, but you expect him to make those saves, right?" Kings captain Brown said after Game 7. Expect the Hawks to take a page out of San Jose's playbook and try to unsettle Quick by crashing the net. The refs will be on the lookout for that tactic early, however, so expect goalie interference to be an early storyline in this series. The Kings clearly have the edge in goal, with Corey Crawford giving the Hawks decent goaltending overall this season, though he did show jitters at times during the seven-game series with Detroit.
2. Doughty vs. Keith
Olympic teammates in 2010, Doughty and Keith will log team-leading minutes once again in the conference finals, with each being a staple in all facets of the game for their respective teams. And the game plan from each team will include targeting each star blueliner: pound them every time you have a chance on the forecheck, and wear them down as much as possible. Doughty and Keith might as well have signs on their uniforms saying "Hit me, please."
3. Kings' road woes
A season ago, the Kings were road warriors, opening all four series in opposing rinks and amazingly coming home with a 2-0 series lead from Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey. What a difference a season makes. The Kings are 1-5 on the road in these playoffs, a meek performance that got them in a 2-0 hole in the first round versus the St. Louis Blues and made them play a seventh and deciding game in the second round against the Sharks after dropping all three games (and scoring only three goals) on the road. "Obviously, if we're going to be able to continue in the playoffs, we have to win some road games," Quick said after Game 7. "We've got to figure out what's going on there. We've got to get better at it. We had a chance to close it out [in Game 6 in San Jose]. Sometimes, if you give those games up, it might come back and bite you. We were able to win [Game 7], but we definitely know there's room for improvement." Given the Hawks have home-ice advantage in the Western finals, it's pretty simple for L.A.: find a cure for the road woes or the season is over.
4. Stoll's return
The Kings played the final six games of their second-round series without No. 3 center Jarret Stoll, who suffered a concussion on a heavy hit from Raffi Torres (who was suspended for the series as a result). Should Stoll remain symptom-free and avoid setbacks, he could return early against the Blackhawks. That'd be a huge boost for the Kings. Stoll is a glue guy, a luxury to have as a No. 3 pivot, a faceoff whiz and a special-teams staple.
5. Hawks' adversity
It's the madness of the game, really. Veteran hockey men have talked about how uncomfortable they were with teams that breezed through a regular season as wire-to-wire leaders. Most coaches will tell you they like their team to face a little adversity along the way in order to strengthen the resolve of the team when things get tougher in the playoffs, as they always do, given the higher level of competition. It's why some were a little nervous about the Blackhawks entering the playoffs after an impeccable regular season in which they had nothing to play for over the final month. Those fears proved well-founded after the Hawks dug themselves a 3-1 series hole against Detroit, seeming a little unhinged as they faced their first real adversity of the season after losing three games in a row for the first time all season. But Chicago rose back from the brink with its season on the line, winning the final three games against the Red Wings and very possibly providing the galvanizing moment the Hawks were looking for. They might be hard to stop now.
• The goalie matchup makes you a bit nervous for Chicago, but the Kings are a beat-up squad that isn't rolling like a season ago. Still, I see this going all the way. Blackhawks in 7.