CHICAGO -- Same but not the same. Not even close.
That's the backstory to the Western Conference finals rematch between the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, who are now making an almost unheard of third straight trip to the final four.
Last spring when these two teams met, the Kings were worn down. They were coming off their Cup-winning run in 2012. They'd started slow after the lockout and had been mauled in defeating St. Louis and San Jose.
In short, the Kings' tank was sorely depleted, and the Blackhawks took advantage in dispatching them in five closely contested games.
True, the Kings will be emerging from two straight seven-game series that saw them first erase a 3-0 series deficit against San Jose and then come back from a midseries three-game losing streak against Anaheim. So fatigue may become a factor.
But what imbues this matchup with something completely foreign is the fact the Kings have a three-man wrecking crew composed of Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Kings captain Dustin Brown (although Justin Williams also fills in on the wing for Brown on occasion) that allows the Kings the luxury of not having to scrape out 2-1 or 3-2 victories every single night.
Ask the Anaheim Ducks, who watched helplessly as Gaborik and Kopitar combined for two goals and two assists as the Kings ran roughshod over them, collecting a 6-2 thrashing of the Ducks in Game 7.
In their other Game 7 road victory, the Kings' dynamic duo collected a goal and two assists with both Williams and Brown chipping in offensively in a 5-1 dismantling of the Sharks.
That neither the Sharks nor the Ducks could ultimately come up with an answer for Gaborik, who leads the league with nine postseason goals, or Kopitar, who is threatening to run away with the playoff scoring race with 19 points, begs the question of what can the Hawks do?
"Yeah, it's going to be a tough task, absolutely. The way they've been playing, I think they've got speed down the wing. They've got a guy in the middle of the ice that controls the play, is able to do things that not a lot of center-men are able to do with his size and his speed, the way he can see the game and set his linemates on," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said, highlighting the play of Kopitar, who is a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best two-way forward.
"Gaborik, the way he skates, definitely poses a threat and a problem. ... I think they got a little bit of everything on that line. We're going to have to be ready to play them tight, hard, physical, play our game against them."
Gaborik may be the most unique figure in all of the playoffs. There was no small amount of skepticism that greeted his trade from Columbus to Los Angeles at the deadline, given his lack of durability and recent playoff scoring woes.
Yet he meshed almost immediately with Kopitar and has been clutch throughout the postseason, scoring big goal after big goal.
Blackhawk winger Marian Hossa basically grew up with Gaborik in Slovakia, and the two are good friends.