Piece of history unveiling before fans’ eyes in latest post-season.
For only the second time in National Hockey League history, the past four Stanley Cup champions have advanced to the best-of-seven NHL playoff semi-finals, which begin with two games on Saturday.
Defending champion Los Angeles, the surprise packet for the second year in a row, will open at Chicago in the Western Conference final while the Pittsburgh Penguins will entertain the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final.
Not since 1945 have the previous four Cup champions booked semi-final spots and back then the league had only six clubs.
Boston won the 2011 crown, the first Stanley Cup for the Bruins since 1972, while Chicago took the 2010 title, the first for the Blackhawks since 1961, and Pittsburgh hoisted the trophy in 2009, the Penguins’ first since 1992.
Los Angeles had never won the Stanley Cup until last year, when the Kings were the last team to qualify for the playoffs but charged to their first crown behind goaltender Jonathan Quick, who is on a roll again this year.
Quick, who underwent back surgery after winning the playoffs Most Valuable Player award in last year’s title run, went 18-13 with four drawn and a 2.45 goals-against average and has the Kings halfway to a title repeat.
“We’re only halfway up the mountain,” said Quick, whose Kings could be the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
Chicago will counter with netminder Corey Crawford, who went 19-5-5 with a 1.94 goals-against average and a 92.6 save percentage.
The Kings will have only three days of rest after outlasting San Jose in a seven-game second-round series but the Blackhawks, who matched Pittsburgh with an NHL-best 36 wins this season, will have only two days after being taken to the limit by Detroit.
The Blackhawks spoiled the Kings’ Cup-banner ceremony by winning their season opener in January at Los Angeles and Chicago split two home games against the Kings in the regular season.
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and star playmaker Patrick Kane each netted 23 goals for the Blackhawks this season while Marian Hossa has added 17. Jeff Carter’s 26 goals pace the Kings with Anze Kopitar a key set-up man.
In the East, Pittsburgh has made its deepest playoff surge since the 2009 title run after leading the NHL this season with 3.38 goals a game and having the best power-play success rate in the playoffs at 28.3 percent.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis and James Neal provide firepower for the Penguins, but their title bid did not take hold until coach Dan Bylsma replaced Marc-Andre Fleury with 36-year-old Czech goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
Vokoun is 6-1 with a 1.85 goals against average and a 94.1 save percentage since coming into the starting lineup in the first round.
Another veteran coming through for Pittsburgh is Jarome Iginla, obtained in a trade with Calgary. The two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist has four goals in the playoffs for the Penguins.
Boston is backstopped by Finland’s Tuukka Rask, who is 8-4 in the playoffs with a 2.22 goals-against average and a 92.8 save percentage.
Czech 41-year-old legend Jaromir Jagr, who led the Penguins to Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, now plays for the Bruins. The right wing was snagged by the Bruins after the Penguins landed Iginla.
“He doesn’t need to be the Jagr of 20 years ago or 15 years ago,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “He needs to be the Jags that we have right now.”
Jagr has not produced a goal or assist in the playoffs, with the Bruins’ top line handling most of the offensive duty, sparked by five goals each from David Krejci and Nathan Horton.