If you thought the Detroit Red Wings were a challenge for the Blackhawks, well, here come the Los Angeles Kings.
The defending Stanley Cup champions have a big and mobile defense. They're fast. They hit all over the ice. They're deep at center with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis. And they have an elite goaltender in Jonathan Quick, the reigning Conn Smyth Trophy winner.
Piece of cake, huh?
But if you're the Hawks, you've got to be thinking to be the best you've got to beat the best.
"We know this series we just played was one of the toughest series we've had in awhile," Hawks winger Patrick Sharp said after eliminating Detroit. "You look ahead to the Kings and it's only going to get harder.
"They're big, strong, fast, physical, and they're got a great goaltender who they protect very well. This time of year it really doesn't matter who you play because they're all tough."
The Kings are trying to become the first team since Detroit in 1997-98 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.
"We look forward to the challenge and we're ready for it," said Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, the Game 7 hero Wednesday when he scored 3:35 into overtime for the 2-1 win. "We think we found our game in the later games here in this series.
"You know what, we did have some learning curves in this round, definitely. Detroit played a great series. We really had to find ourselves after the fourth game being down 3-1. I thought the boys responded well. We played a very good Game 5.
"I thought we played a very good Game 6. I thought we played very well (in Game 7). Detroit gave us all they had. It was just nice to come out on the winning end of this."
No goalie has been hotter than Quick in the playoffs. He leads all goaltenders with a 1.50 goals-against average, .948 save percentage and has 3 shutouts.
But he has struggled against the Hawks this year and for his career. Quick is 6-11-1 all time against the Hawks with a .857 save percentage. The Kings lost two of three games to the Hawks this year.
Hawks goalie Corey Crawford, meanwhile, has been no slouch in these playoffs with a 1.70 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
"We've had progressively much tougher series, and they keep getting tougher," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "LA's got the Cup and they've played two tough rounds in a row. They know how to win. We've got to be well-prepared and excited about the opportunity."
The Kings haven't been rolling through the playoffs like last spring. They needed seven games to get past San Jose in the last round, losing all three games on the road. They also lost two games on the road in the first round against St. Louis before winning four in a row.
Stoll, who is still recovering from a concussion suffered against San Jose from a Raffi Torres hit, should return at some point in the West finals.
The Hawks showed tremendous character in winning their last series after being down to the Red Wings three games to one.
"So looking forward, we need to use that ability and use that confidence that winning a series like this gives us," Jonathan Toews said. "Regardless of the situation, we keep our eyes on the long-term result that we want, and we keep pushing through every moment.
"It's never over until it's over, and we proved that in this series."
It's going to be a long and grueling series. Blackhawks in seven.
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