- Scott Burnside, NHL
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CHICAGO -- Same but not the same. Not even close.
That's the backstory to the Western Conference finals rematch between the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, who are now making an almost unheard of third straight trip to the final four.
Last spring when these two teams met, the Kings were worn down. They were coming off their Cup-winning run in 2012. They'd started slow after the lockout and had been mauled in defeating St. Louis and San Jose.
In short, the Kings' tank was sorely depleted, and the Blackhawks took advantage in dispatching them in five closely contested games.
True, the Kings will be emerging from two straight seven-game series that saw them first erase a 3-0 series deficit against San Jose and then come back from a midseries three-game losing streak against Anaheim. So fatigue may become a factor.
But what imbues this matchup with something completely foreign is the fact the Kings have a three-man wrecking crew composed of Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Kings captain Dustin Brown (although Justin Williams also fills in on the wing for Brown on occasion) that allows the Kings the luxury of not having to scrape out 2-1 or 3-2 victories every single night.
Ask the Anaheim Ducks, who watched helplessly as Gaborik and Kopitar combined for two goals and two assists as the Kings ran roughshod over them, collecting a 6-2 thrashing of the Ducks in Game 7.
In their other Game 7 road victory, the Kings' dynamic duo collected a goal and two assists with both Williams and Brown chipping in offensively in a 5-1 dismantling of the Sharks.
That neither the Sharks nor the Ducks could ultimately come up with an answer for Gaborik, who leads the league with nine postseason goals, or Kopitar, who is threatening to run away with the playoff scoring race with 19 points, begs the question of what can the Hawks do?
"Yeah, it's going to be a tough task, absolutely. The way they've been playing, I think they've got speed down the wing. They've got a guy in the middle of the ice that controls the play, is able to do things that not a lot of center-men are able to do with his size and his speed, the way he can see the game and set his linemates on," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said, highlighting the play of Kopitar, who is a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best two-way forward.
"Gaborik, the way he skates, definitely poses a threat and a problem. ... I think they got a little bit of everything on that line. We're going to have to be ready to play them tight, hard, physical, play our game against them."
Gaborik may be the most unique figure in all of the playoffs. There was no small amount of skepticism that greeted his trade from Columbus to Los Angeles at the deadline, given his lack of durability and recent playoff scoring woes.
Yet he meshed almost immediately with Kopitar and has been clutch throughout the postseason, scoring big goal after big goal.
Blackhawk winger Marian Hossa basically grew up with Gaborik in Slovakia, and the two are good friends.
"It's really impressive what he's done," Hossa said Saturday. "I think that's one of those teams that suit him really well and after he had a couple of years struggle with the injuries.
"I've known him since he was a little kid because he always played with my brother when they were little, and Marian [Gaborik] was always the sniper. Give him a little room and he can hurt you. This year and these playoffs he's been incredible and that's what happened. He's always in the right area when there's nobody around him and he finds the loose pucks, for him it's no problem to put it on. So you want to make sure we cover him really well."
The emergence of Kopitar and Gaborik as an offensive machine changes how the Kings approach games, and it will also create, if not a greater challenge than a year ago, certainly a different one for Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville.
Does he use his top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook against the Kopitar group, or Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who have proven to be a formidable shutdown pair themselves, playing often against Zach Parise's line in the series against the Minnesota Wild?
"It's a top line for them all year. You've got one of the top two-way center-men in the league. They're dangerous offensively. They're responsible defensively. They play big minutes. They've been productive in the playoffs, which not too many top lines have been scoring regularly offensively," Quenneville said of the Kings' big guns.
"It's definitely a line we've got to be concerned with. They're dangerous off the rush. They're dangerous in zone, as well. They play big minutes. It's something we've got to be aware of, but let's make sure when they're out there, hopefully we can make them spend some time in their end."
With the Kings coming off their Game 7 win Friday night and then flying across the country Saturday to prepare for an afternoon game Sunday, it would seem to behoove the Blackhawks to take advantage of their break following the Minnesota series and push the pace early in Game 1 to not let the top line get into an early groove.
"It's huge for us," Chicago forward Brandon Saad said. "They have a travel day and a tough Game 7. Coming out flying, it's what we do best in our building and, with our fans behind us, that's how we want to play."
Still, if there was a telling sign about the mindset of the Blackhawks going into Game 1 and a harbinger of what looks from the outset to be a long, tough series, it was Quenneville being asked to compare where his team was at a year ago to where his team is at heading into action Sunday.
"We like our team," Quenneville said. "We have balance. We have the four-line rotation that's solid. Our 'D' is the exact same 'D' we had last year. We have the same goalie we had last year. The comparisons, we'll let you guys dissect that.
"I think we're at the same level we were at last year. So that's where we're at. But we like the momentum we have. We like the challenge that's ahead of us. But L.A. is going to be a tough opponent. I know we talked about underestimating Minnesota going into that series. There's no way we'd think of underestimating them [the Kings]."
Like we said, same but not the same.
12dScott Burnside and Craig Custance