By Greg Beacham
AP Hockey Writer
The last two NHL champions don’t 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 champion 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 postseason 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’s 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 postseason.
They’ll have to get in gear quickly against the Blues, who are wildly overdue for playoff success to match their regular-season prowess. St. Louis has 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 postseason attitude than the Kings, who won two Stanley Cup titles and 10 playoff series from 2012-14 with a gritty, relentless mindset. Los Angeles barely missed the playoffs last season, but sat atop the Pacific for most of this year.
Here are some more things to watch in the Western Conference when the playoffs begin Wednesday:
STARS FELL ON MINNESOTA: Dallas’ reward for its best regular season and first division title in a decade is a trip back to the franchise’s former home in Minnesota. The series looks like a mismatch on paper after the Wild slumped into the playoffs with five straight losses in their turbulent season, but they’ve got more playoff experience and less pressure than Jamie Benn and the 109-point Stars, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2008.
DUCK DYNASTY: After falling one game short of the Stanley Cup Final last summer, Anaheim heads into the postseason with ample momentum from its stunning midseason turnaround. The Ducks were 29th in the NHL at Christmas, but went 34-10-5 after the holiday break to win their fourth straight Pacific title. That surge could carry into the playoffs, or it could lead to a letdown and an opportunity for the resilient Predators.
LATE START: Keith, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in the Blackhawks’ title run last season, will miss the series opener in St. Louis under suspension. Chicago is already a bit thin on defense, although a similar problem didn’t hurt last season. If the Blackhawks could steal Game 1 without Keith, a world of pressure would sit squarely on the Blues, who haven’t always handled it well.
JUMBO’S RENAISSANCE: Joe Thornton is hiding his face under a shaggy hipster beard these days, but his game is golden. The 36-year-old forward scored 82 points in 82 games, propelling the Sharks back to the postseason after they stayed home last spring for the only time in his 11 years in teal. Thornton has never played in a Stanley Cup final, and he has ample motivation for a deep run after the Sharks’ 3-0 series collapse in the first round against Los Angeles two years ago.
ELLIOTT’S TIME: St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott quietly led the NHL in save percentage (.930) while playing five fewer games than Jake Allen. The Blues have had playoff troubles with goaltending before, but Elliott is in position for a breakthrough postseason against the mighty Blackhawks.