SAN JOSE, Calif. - From early on this season, the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks seemed to be on a collision course toward the Western Conference final.
With 14 Olympians, seven gold medallists , two silver medal winners and plenty of other talented players, these two teams spent much of the season battling for the top spot in the conference.
"We played them four times and there was always a big buzz around those games," Chicago forward Patrick Sharp said.
The buzz has only gotten bigger this week, with a berth in the Stanley Cup final on the line. The best-of-seven series opens Sunday in San Jose, all because the Sharks beat the Blackhawks by one point for the top spot in the conference on the final weekend of the regular season.
The Sharks got here by beating Colorado in six games in the first round and two-time defending Western Conference champion Detroit in the second. The Blackhawks are in the conference final for the second straight year after beating both Nashville and Vancouver in six games.
This is just the sixth time since the current playoff format began in 1994 that the top two seeds have made it to the conference final.
"It's going to be a great series," Sharks centre Joe Thornton said. "I think everybody, at least in our locker-room, thought it's going to come down to one of us in the conference final going to the final. It's just going to be an exciting series. It's going to be a lot of fun to play in."
Both teams are eager to get this started. The Sharks will have had seven full days off since beating Detroit, while Chicago will have had a four-day break since dispatching Vancouver.
The Sharks geared up, backed off and picked up the pace again as they waited to find out when this series would open. The Blackhawks took a day off Friday to tour Alcatraz before returning to the ice Saturday.
"Both teams might come out a little sloppy, but I'm sure we'll find our game pretty soon in the series," Chicago forward Patrick Kane said. "I think it's going to make for a great series. I think there's a lot of great players."
Seven of them won gold medals for Canada earlier this year. Thornton was joined on the squad by linemates Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley and defenceman Dan Boyle. There they were teammates with Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
They will now be on opposite sides with another big prize on the line.
"I'll be hacking Johnny as much as I can," Thornton said. "I loved him for two weeks in February. But you know, that's different now."
Those temporary alliances from Vancouver are clearly a thing of the past for both sides.
"I'm looking forward to giving him a few whacks, too," Toews said.
Toews has been brilliant this post-season, leading all players with 20 points. He has gotten plenty of help from Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, who has four goals and provides a big presence in front of the net. There's not much drop-off to the second line of Sharp, Marian Hossa and Troy Brouwer.
San Jose presents a similar challenge with the gold medal line that had seven goals and 12 assists in five games against Detroit, followed up by Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe, who have 16 goals and 17 assists this post-season.
While this meeting may have seemed to be inevitable, all it takes is a look at the Eastern Conference, where seventh-seeded Philadelphia is taking on eighth-seeded Montreal in the conference final, to show that's not the case.
The Sharks can look at their own history as well. Despite having the second-best record in the league the past five seasons, San Jose was unable to make it past the second round in that span.
The Sharks have never made it to the Stanley Cup finals, losing their only appearance ever in the conference final in six games to Calgary in 2004.
"You appreciate how long it does take to get there and how hard it is to get there," said Marleau, who along with goalie Evgeni Nabokov are the only players remaining from the 2004 team. "You have to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself, being this year."
The Sharks have begun to shed the label of post-season underachievers after losing in the first round as the top seed last year and in the second round the three previous years.
The Blackhawks have an even longer run of post-season disappointments, having not won the Stanley Cup since 1961—the longest drought for an Original Six team. Chicago has only been to the final once since 1973, getting swept by Pittsburgh in 1992.
For the second straight year they are one step away from a return to the Stanley Cup final.
"We shouldn't feel satisfied," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We shouldn't feel like we've accomplished anything. I know getting back to where we got to last year, it's where we wanted to be. But getting to the next round is what we're all about."