Thu, Apr 14, 2016 - Page 19 News List

Blackhawks, Kings face daunting first-round matchups


The last two NHL champions do not exactly have a gilded path back to the Stanley Cup.

The Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings each need to beat a bitter rival just to get out of the first round in the Western Conference playoffs.

The defending champions Blackhawks meet the St Louis Blues in an early meeting of regular-season powerhouses, while the two-time champion Kings face the rival San Jose Sharks for the fourth time in six years when the Stanley Cup post-season begins this week.

Top-seeded Dallas faces Minnesota in the other Central Division matchup, while the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks host the Nashville Predators, who will cross over from the Central with the top wild-card seed.

All eyes in the first round will be on the Blackhawks as they chase their fourth title in seven seasons and the first back-to-back Cups in the salary cap era. That is a heavy burden on the shoulders of captain Jonathan Toews, do-everything defenseman Duncan Keith and NHL scoring champion Patrick Kane, but few players have ever been more capable of lifting their team in the post-season.

They will have to get in gear quickly against the Blues, who are wildly overdue for playoff success to match their regular-season prowess. St Louis have put up more than 100 points in each of the last four full NHL seasons, but has won exactly one playoff series — way back in 2012.

“We know that we are going to have our hands full,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “They are as good as any team in the league.”

Another first-round rivalry series is set on the coast after the Kings blew a three-goal lead and the Pacific title in their 82nd game, losing to Winnipeg and allowing Anaheim to snatch the division banner by a point.

“We’re going to have to change our attitude before the playoffs start, or else we’re not going to last long,” Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin said.

Few teams in recent NHL history have had a better post-season attitude than the Kings, who won two Stanley Cup titles and 10 playoff series from 2012 to 2014 with a gritty, relentless mindset.

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