Bigger matchup looms between titans of the West

Kris Versteeg and Milan Lucic scored 18 seconds apart in the first period, and the Los Angeles Kings routed the slumping Chicago Blackhawks 5-0 on Monday.

On a day when boxing analogies were being tossed around with the frequency of tape balls in the dressing room, Darryl Sutter confirmed he doesn’t have much in the way of an inner Don King. Even allowing for the fact Sutter, to be kind, takes a minimalist approach to microphones, the Los Angeles Kings coach seemed like he was being purposefully short.

Asked whether the backstory between his Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks – what with the whole combining to win the past four Stanley Cups and all – put a little more bluster in this Windy City heavyweight battle, Sutter produced a pregnant pause, followed by an answer that was only marginally longer.

“Well the history would be that they won the Stanley Cup last year and we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said before the game. “So, for me, that’s the history.”

At first blush, the brevity leaves you wanting. Then you realize Sutter, with a pair of sentences, hammered the essential ethos that engulfs the two squads who forge this rivalry – what’s done is done, and all that matters are the games still to be won.

Chicago, in particular, will be extremely anxious to move forward in the wake of a 5-0 shellacking on home ice at the hands of the league’s other signature outfit on Monday night. But even under normal circumstances, the Blackhawks – like the Kings – have one eye fixed on the long-term goal.

“Everything is toward winning that last game of the playoffs,” says Chicago defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, who played for the Kings earlier in the season. “In that way, (the teams are) very similar.”

That mentality led to Chicago paying a significant price for Andrew Ladd a couple weeks ago, in addition to smaller moves that landed Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise.

The Kings have also shuffled the deck following their aforementioned absence from the post-season last year. In the off-season, they doubled down on their rugged approach by dealing for Milan Lucic, then added more size when they brought in Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers in January. Kris Versteeg came over from the Carolina Hurricanes before the trade deadline, bringing two rings won as a member of the Blackhawks with him.

With Marian Hossa freshly back after missing 11 games with a leg injury and Ladd now in the top-six mix, it’s hard to imagine the Hawks won’t pull themselves out of a bad stretch that’s seen them go 5-7-2 in their last 14 outings.

As for the Kings, some of those guys who’ve been wearing silver and black a relatively short time demonstrated exactly what they could do against Chicago.

Versteeg, Lucic and Lecavalier all scored on Monday, emphasizing the seamless transition they’ve made playing for a team that, like the Blackhawks, has excelled at augmenting its core with crucial pickups.

“It’s pretty hard not to fit in with our group,” says Kings defenceman Drew Doughty. “We’re great friends and we love each other. We’ll do anything it takes to complete the ultimate goal.”

Impressive as L.A.’s win over the Hawks was, it’s hard to believe the thrashing is indicative of any huge chasm between the clubs. Similarly, even with some stellar campaigns being turned in by teams all around Chicago and Los Angeles, it’s difficult to fathom one of these two squads won’t be left standing when the West is won.

It’s almost like the Blackhawks, with their silly skill, and the Kings, with their enthusiasm for grinding opponents into dust, have reduced the rest of the league to the equivalent of one giant red herring: a collection of 28 teams who exist to create the pretense that anything other than a Chicago or L.A. championship is possible.

What we tend to get though, is one of these two masterful clubs – complete with deliciously contrasting styles – taking their turn with the belt. Sure, Chicago is scuffling right now. Yeah, some other organizations are likely due to punch through.

But would it surprise anyone if, two months from now, the Hawks and Kings are once again kicking off a West final we all think will decide the Stanley Cup?

“No,” says Doughty, exhibiting the same straightforwardness of his coach. “And hopefully we do.”

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