CHICAGO -- We're just one game into the Western Conference finals, but the more you are around both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, the more you realize this really is a clash of the titans.
It is not just based on the teams' performances this season -- although that in and of itself would qualify both in "titan" class -- but historically what they have achieved.
Here's a look at seven reasons this series has serious juice:
1. Pain means gain
Every spring it seems there's a story of one player (or more) continuing to soldier on through excruciating pain and/or significant injury. Remember when Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith showed up for the 2010 Stanley Cup finals having eaten a handful of his own teeth in the previous series? Listening Monday morning to Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson speak for the first time since taking a puck to the throat in Game 2 against Minnesota, it reaffirmed that the sport simply breeds a different type of athlete. Hjalmarsson left the ice briefly but continued to play in the game. The only acknowledgment of his injury was that doctors told him to rest his vocal cords for two weeks and that he shouldn't talk, "unless it makes you money," Hjalmarsson said. The hardworking defenseman didn't miss a game and, in fact, continues to play significant minutes with partner Johnny Oduya -- the pair are tasked with shutting down the Kings' top unit of Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, who were held off the score sheet in Sunday's 3-1 Chicago victory.
"Yeah, it was pretty tough in the beginning," Hjalmarsson told reporters Monday. "I'm a guy that usually talks a lot on the ice, especially with my D partner, screaming at him and screaming at my teammates sometimes, too. I think for some of the forwards, they were pretty happy with me not being able to talk for some time."
Teammate Brandon Saad quipped later that he only hears Hjalmarsson screaming in Swedish on the ice, so he's not sure if there was much missed communication when Hjalmarsson was silenced the past couple of weeks.
Easy to have a couple of chuckles about it now, but at the time it was scary.
"It was tough to breathe there for a couple minutes," said Hjalmarsson, who was a part of Sweden's silver-medal effort in Sochi, Russia, where he also played with Oduya as his defense partner. "I was just glad that I recovered quickly and once I figured out that I'm able to breathe, it was a big relief. Yeah, I guess I was pretty lucky and I'm just glad to be able to talk again and can't wait to get rid of that neck guard that I'm still wearing."
2. Battle of the big lines
Speaking of the Kings' top line, one of the early interesting dynamics will be the battle royale between the Kopitar line and the Blackhawks' talented trio of captain Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell. Hossa is once again quietly enjoying a stellar postseason and said that, while producing offense is nice, there is also a great challenge in disrupting opposing teams' top players.
"Scoring goals, it's great. Getting points, great. But getting that challenge when you've got top players, you can steal the puck from them, that's kind of a challenge for me and I enjoy to do it," Hossa said. "And obviously you've got games when you're on top of your game. There's some games where they're a little bit better. You feel like you can do the little things to help your team. That's a great challenge for me and our line."
Hossa had two assists in Game 1 and has 13 points in 13 postseason games this spring, tops among all Blackhawks.
3. Smooth as Selke
Synthesize the battle between the top lines even further and what you have is a terrific test of will between two of the game's most complete players in Kopitar and Toews. The Chicago captain is the defending Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the game's best two-way forward and was the runner-up for the award in 2011. Kopitar, meanwhile, is a finalist for the award this year (as is Toews) and currently leads all playoff performers with 19 points. Kings head coach Darryl Sutter figures guys such as Toews and Kopitar are just meant to play at this level.
"If you're just talking about those two kids, they've both played on big stages," Sutter said. "Probably I'm going to say the process that those guys go through their whole lives, they are dominant players at their age group their whole way up; whether they're 12, 14, 16, all the way up they are dominant players, which means that they're always ready for this stage when they get there.
"I think at the end of the day, those guys are special players because there's something special there."
4. Gaborik is finding his range
The battle of the top lines has the potential to tip the scales in the series. That it should come to this is a bit of a surprise to us. We'll be the first to admit we weren't at all sure that Gaborik, tied for second in the playoffs with 15 points and the goal-scoring leader with nine, would be a good fit in Los Angeles given his lack of recent playoff productivity and lack of durability. (OK, maybe Kings fans might have been the first to point that out, but why quibble.) But his teammates have universally praised Gaborik's ability to fit in seamlessly with their tight-knit group.
"I believe Marian's skill set speaks for itself on the ice," explained winger Justin Williams, who has at times played with Gaborik and Kopitar. "But fitting in with a hockey team isn't just going out there and playing the game. To be part of a team, you want to be part of a team on the ice and off the ice.
"Marian's fit in quite easily, whereas, looking at his stats, he could be kind of a pompous jerk, but he's really a nice guy," joked Williams, who happened to be sitting next to Gaborik when he was asked about his new teammate. "He's fit in real nicely with us and I think that's why he's had a lot of success on the ice as well because everybody's taken to him."
Gaborik said one of the things that helped was a road trip to Canada shortly after the deal that helped accelerate the transition to a new team. There's an interesting parallel between what Gaborik has accomplished -- having been acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline this season -- and teammate Jeff Carter, who was also dealt from Columbus to the Kings at the 2012 trade deadline and was a key part of the Kings' run to the Cup that spring.
"It is an easy group to come into," Carter said. "There's great guys in this room. They welcome you with open arms. That's a big thing when you're coming to a new team, especially late in the year. You need to fit into that room real quick. With a guy like [Gaborik], he's got all the skill in the world and you put him with a guy like [Kopitar] and the on-ice stuff comes pretty quick. The main thing is just getting comfortable with yourself in the room."
5. Carter's line is cranking
For the most part, Sutter has entrusted the big center Carter with helping two dynamic young wingers in Tyler Toffoli, who had the Kings' lone goal in Game 1 Sunday, and Tanner Pearson. Both have been solid contributors this spring, even though Carter might suddenly feel like the old man among the group at just 29 years of age.
"I'm sure I am, but you'll have to ask them," Carter said. "It goes quick when you're in this league. It seems like yesterday that I was a young guy just going out there and wheeling around and playing hockey and having fun.
"You can definitely see that in them. When they get the puck, they create chances and they put the puck in the net. Tyler scores last night and you see them just laughing at each other. They have a blast out there and it is a lot of fun."
Carter has 12 points this spring, including three power-play goals.
6. D-men, goalies fighting it out
If the battle of the top lines isn't compelling enough, how about a battle between two Canadian Olympians and Norris Trophy-worthy defenders in Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith? Keith's hard, deflected bouncing shot ultimately turned out to be the winner in Game 1. Meanwhile, Doughty led all players in Game 1 with 26:20 in ice time and was likewise the leader for both teams with 3:18 in power-play time.
Go one more step, and the battle lines have also been clearly drawn between two top netminders: Jonathan Quick, who has already earned the accolades and established himself as one of the best money goalies in the world, and Corey Crawford, who continues to work to emerge from the shadows cast by guys such as Quick. Crawford was especially strong during the second period of Game 1's 3-1 victory, stopping 16 of 17 shots.
"I think he's so strong mentally, he's become one of the top goalies in the league," Hossa said. "He was not just good, but he was unbelievable last year in the playoffs. This year I think he's even better than last year. That's just great for our team. We try to help him. He makes really big saves for us. Somebody chanting his name in different buildings, seems like it doesn't bother him at all."
There is a tremendous sense of ease around both teams in this series, a sense of self and, of course, a sense of purpose. That's what happens when you have a Kings team now in its third straight Western Conference finals and a team that won its first Stanley Cup in 2012 facing a Blackhawks team looking to become the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as champions. Since 2009 Chicago has won two Stanley Cups and appeared in another West finals.
"I think you have to adjust to the way the game is changing and playing. I think you have to adjust to different lineups as you go forward," Kings coach Sutter said in explaining the ability of these two franchises to succeed in the NHL salary-cap world.
"I think Chicago, they won it last year. If you look at the last time they won it, the massive overhaul on their team, probably other than their young stars. If you look at them, you still have to be able to do that. You have to be able to adjust to the game, adjust to the rules, adjust to the style.
"I think that's a big reason why we're both in the conference finals again. Whether we can adjust enough to beat the Stanley Cup champions, I don't know."
Both Sutter and his counterpart, Joel Quenneville of Chicago, played in the league when the word "dynasty" was real and referred to the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers. Now, the Blackhawks and Kings have a chance to make that moniker apply in an era when it wasn't supposed to be possible.
"Well, it's been a real nice situation here," Quenneville said. "I think we're very excited. We look back to 2010, we had a real young team. The growth of these young players has been the core of our team since then. They're competitive guys. Our team has been built around these guys. Our success is attributed to their competitiveness, their consistency, their will to be as good as they can be on a regular basis.
"I think finding a way to win is what it's all about in today's game. Our guys are really diligent of doing the little things particularly that some nights give you an edge."