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Showdown with Kings stirs painful memories for Blackhawks

LOS ANGELES — It was cold and drafty in the cavernous Staples Center on Saturday morning as nine Blackhawks and the assistant coaches took part in a casual and optional morning skate. The breeze circulating throughout the empty arena kept catching the newest banner hanging from the rafters, the one reading “Stanley Cup Champions 2013-14” — waving it, flaunting it, seemingly taunting the players below.

Outside the Los Angeles Kings dressing room, just down the hall from the visitors’ room, was a light fixture with two Stanley Cups etched on it, one labeled 2012, one labeled 2014. And there were pictures and posters throughout the arena, serving as cruel reminders of how last season ended for the Hawks, and how close they came to a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final, to a possible second straight championship.

“You kind of see how close we were,” Bryan Bickell said. “One shot. One goal. We could have had [the banners] in our rink.”

The Hawks have moved on from their Western Conference final Game 7 loss at the United Center last June, but they haven’t forgotten. Probably never will. Jonathan Toews once said that watching the Boston Bruins hoist the Stanley Cup in 2011 ate at him, how he felt that Cup belonged to him and his teammates after a summer of toting it around Chicago, around North America, around Europe.

This time, it was the Kings who took their Cup. Who partied with it. Who drank from it. So every now and then, the image of Alec Martinez’s shot fluttering off of Nick Leddy’s sweater and past Corey Crawford in overtime flickers in their minds. They can’t help it.

“It’s there,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.

“It’s always there,” Andrew Shaw said.

Quenneville lamented lost opportunities to put Game 7 away earlier. The Hawks had erased a 3-1 series deficit with an exhilarating double-overtime win at the United Center in Game 5, and pulled off a thrilling third-period rally in Game 6 at Staples Center. But in Game 7, the Hawks couldn’t hold on to an early 2-0 lead, or a 4-3 lead in the third period. Marian Gaborik tied it in the third, and Martinez won it at 5:47 of overtime. Martinez went on to score the Cup-winning goal in Game 5 against the New York Rangers, too.

It could have been the Hawks. They were that close.

“Sour [memories], obviously,” Shaw said. “We were playing great last year in the playoffs, and we were playing against a good team. In Game 7s, you never know which way they can go. Obviously, it left a sour taste in our mouth.”

Vengeance isn’t going to come on Saturday night, no matter the result. Not in November. But neither team would be shocked to see the other again in late May. Sure, the Hawks entered Saturday night’s game in third place in the Central Division. The Kings were fourth in the Pacific. But these teams, as well as anyone in the league, know how little that matters right now.

They’re the two best teams in the NHL, the standards, the franchises everyone else is chasing. They’ve combined to win four of the last five Stanley Cups, and have met in two straight Western Conference finals, including last spring’s unforgettable seven-game clash, arguably the best playoff series in the last decade. They’re talented and deep, with battle-tested goalies and iconic coaches and championship experience that sets them apart from nearly every team in the league.

It’s a rivalry built not on blood and hate, but on a shared history and a mutual respect. On memories, good and bad.

“I’m sure it’s a lot of respect on both sides,” Quenneville said. “Two great series. Last year was as good as they come; terrible ending. There’s some disappointing at the end of it all, but we’re certainly excited about playing these guys. Our regular-season games are as intense as our playoff games. It makes for a great contest, a great showdown.”

And maybe another great preview of bigger things to come.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus