St. Louis was no easy out and Minnesota is only going to get better with age.
So it may not seem like the Blackhawks caught a break in either opponent. But they did -- and their good fortune continues.
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NHL Western Conference finals scheduleThe Chicago Blackhawks will play the Los Angeles Kings in a best-of-seven game series for the Western Conference title.
Game 1: at Blackhawks, 2 p.m. Sunday (NBC/87.7-FM)
Game 2: at Blackhawks, 7 p.m. Wednesday (NBCSN/720-AM)
Game 3: at Los Angeles, 7 p.m. Saturday (NBC/87.7-FM)
Game 4: at Los Angeles, 8 p.m. May 26 (NBCSN/720-AM)
Game 5*: at Blackhawks, 7 p.m. May 28 (NBCSN/720-AM)
Game 6*: at Los Angeles, 8 p.m. May 30 (NBCSN/87.7-FM)
Game 7*: at Blackhawks, 7 p.m. June 1 (NBCSN/720-AM)
* If necessary
In catching St. Louis instead of Colorado, the Hawks avoided a goaltender they couldn't solve and a fast, fearless young team that had their number.
When the Wild beat the Avalanche, the Hawks again managed to stay out of Denver's thin air.
Now, they receive an older, beat up Kings team instead of a deeper, faster Ducks club -- and they get Los Angeles 39 hours after the Kings dispatched the Ducks in Southern California, with marathon man Drew Doughty logging 28:01 on Game 7.
"It is difficult, that's for sure," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said late Friday night. "We'll skate in the morning, we'll fly and we'll get in there (Chicago) for dinner tomorrow night and try to set our clocks and go."
There's no shame in getting postseason breaks. The Hawks got some with matchups a year ago, and they're getting them again.
Six teams entered the playoffs with more regular season points than the Hawks. Not one remains and the Hawks -- if they get past Los Angeles -- will have played three rounds with home ice when it appeared as though they might not have it for even one series this year.
But the Kings -- who won the Stanley Cup two years ago -- will be difficult to eliminate. They are well coached, unlike the Ducks under Bruce Boudreau. His teams have won six division titles and his teams have gone out three times in the first round -- losing Game 7 each time -- and three times in the second round -- losing Game 7 twice.
While the Ducks went to pieces, the Kings are relentless. Los Angeles is the first team in NHL history to win consecutive series in a postseason while losing three straight games in each series.
They have world-class players in Doughty, goalie Jonathan Quick and forwards Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik. They are strong up the middle with Jeff Carter and they play a bruising, grinding style designed to keep scores low and wear down opponents.
They're tremendous in the faceoff circle, tough on the power play and lead the postseason in hits.
But the Kings have also played two brutal, seven-game series and they come in without any rest and are banged up.
L.A. is missing defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr. Jake Muzzin played 22 minutes Friday but missed a couple shifts after Devante Smith-Pelly crushed him with a legal check, and Muzzin ultimately bouncing his head off the glass.
The Kings aren't as good on the penalty kill and they don't have the Hawks' depth of elite skill. The Hawks block more shots and don't turn the puck over as much.
And as much as his detractors have trouble accepting it, Corey Crawford takes a back seat to no one the way he has played the last two playoff seasons. He currently leads the NHL in goals-against and save percentage.
It's a good thing Crawford has been at his best because the Hawks have been outplayed in both series. They'll need to be better in a matchup of the last two Stanley Cup champs.
"Once you've won the Stanley Cup, it means a lot more to get knocked out," Quick said just minutes after the Hawks took out the Kings in five games last year. "You don't really know what you're playing for until you win the Cup. It really, really hurts to know you won't win it again."
Like Minnesota, the Kings are a better team this time than a year ago, but the Hawks get the huge advantage of rest before Game 1 and they're starting to sniff the possibility of a repeat.
"We know what we're capable of when we play our best," said the Kings' Mike Richards. "We just haven't done it consistently. We need to find it earlier in the series."
Why does that sound familiar?
The Hawks haven't played a 60-minute game this postseason, and yet they're finding ways to win. This is a dangerous, confident team facing the Hawks, and there aren't any secrets between these teams.
The Kings come in wounded and exhausted. The Hawks should jump on them in Game 1 before the Kings find their legs.
The NHL gave L.A. no time between series, and then an extra day between Games 1 and 2. Go figure.
Still, the Hawks are the better team and they should find their urgency sometime during this series.
It says here, Blackhawks in six games.
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