Underdogs need not apply -- this spring's Stanley Cup playoffs are for legitimate heavyweights only.
When the Western Conference final gets underway Saturday afternoon (4 p.m., TSN), we will find the NHL's best regular-season team, the Chicago Blackhawks, against the defending Cup champs, the Los Angeles Kings.
Favourites both, the Hawks and Kings have eight and 19 players respectively with their names on the Cup; among the 56 players remaining overall in these playoffs with that credential.
Adding to the legitimacy of this spring's quality is the fact it's the first time in the NHL's modern era the teams in the final four have accounted for the most recent four Cups. It hasn't happened since 1945.
Both participants in the west come off difficult seven-game series in Round 2. Winning Game 7 should be worth some momentum, but don't forget about the Rangers.
Space figures to be hard to find in this year's third round and now expect there will be the added factor -- it was somewhat present in L.A.'s first-round tussle with St. Louis -- of increased over-the-line play.
While so many seem so obsessed with the co-incidental penalties handed out late in regulation time in Chicago's Game 7 win over Detroit, you've heard nary a word about the borderline and dangerous boarding foul by Hawks' Dave Bolland that assisted Brent Seabrook's overtime winner.
This is simply how it is in these playoffs. Player safety has become secondary, late hits and head blows are commonplace and rules that were nit-picked almost to death during the regular season are out the window save for a random appearance about once a week.
This is referred to as "playoff hockey" and "rulebook optional" and expect it to continue in a full-blown way in the west, especially with some of the league's most devious, dangerous and disrespectful players taking part. That list includes Los Angeles's Dustin Brown and Kyle Clifford and Chicago's Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Daniel Carcillo. Even poster boy Jonathan Toews, the Hawks' captain, slipped over to the dark side for a game in the second round.
This series, which comes right back with Game 2 on Sunday night at United Center, has the potential for some brutal acts and a lot of scars by its finish.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (1) vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS (5)
HEAD TO HEAD:
The Hawks won two of the three regular-season games, including ruining L.A.'s banner-raising day to start the season in January. The games were all about a month apart, with the Kings prevailing in the final contest in March.
WHY THE HAWKS WILL WIN:
Chicago was buzzed with its rally back from down 3-1 against the Red Wings.
It is the team in the West final that may require the bigger adjustment, given that part of Round 2 was trying to stymie the creative and talented Red Wings.
The Hawks weren't successful at that all the time, and aren't without their danglers, but now they will be the more creative team in the next series, so the onus will be on them to use their assets and do more than just chip and chase.
That the Hawks are quick needs to be a factor in this series and it goes without saying their prominent defencemen, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson must be at their best to move pucks away from the large and persistent L.A. forwards.
Chicago has had some trouble unleashing its offence, with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp leading the charts so far with 11 points. That's only tied for 10th in NHL playoff scoring.
Toews has been relatively quiet that way in the post-season, even came in for some heat before producing a big goal in Game 6 vs. Detroit.
What could well put the Hawks into the Cup final, however, is their man in goal.
Corey Crawford has been lightly regarded in many corners of the league, but having faced tougher opponents than his counterpart in this series, Jonathan Quick, he has put up excellent numbers, a 1.70 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage.
WHY THE KINGS WILL WIN:
The Kings' stifling, often uninteresting style was a winning play one year ago, when the team lost just four games in the post-season.
L.A. has been defeated five times already, and the job's only half done, so you can see a repeat will be a monumentally tougher task. After having won six straight series, the Kings have clearly figured out how to go about their business.
It's especially effective business at home at Staples Center, where the team has won 14 straight games, and all seven so far this spring.
The Kings had the most home victories of any NHL team this regular season, 19.
What will need to improve is play away from home. The Kings are just 1-5 in that department, their only playoff win so far in overtime in St. Louis. That includes an 8-12 goals for/goals against chart.
Without home-ice advantage in this series, improvement in this area will be critical.
There's plenty enough skill to pull it off. Mike Richards leads the Kings so far in these playoffs in offence, with 10 points, while Jeff Carter has five goals. Others like Anze Kopitar, who has two goals, need to do a little more.
The Kings' backbone, Quick, will also need to remain strong. Last year's Conn Smythe winner has been very much on his game in very tight series with the Blues and Sharks. Both were not lacking contact and interference, but that's one of the perils of Quick's style since he insists on being outside his crease so often.
Despite the distractions of his continuing puck-handling gaffes and some Hollywood reactions to minor contact, his style can simply be described as winning.
Gary Lawless picks: Kings in seven
Ed Tait picks: Kings in seven
Tim Campbell picks: Blackhawks in seven