Southern California is in hockey heaven.
The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks will meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs this weekend, taking their Freeway Faceoff rivalry into the post-season for the first time.
"People have been waiting a long time for this," said Ducks forward Emerson Etem, who grew up rooting for the Kings in his native Long Beach. "It's huge for the game down here."
And it's huge for the Los Angeles sports scene, which has never experienced a matchup quite like the series that begins in Orange County on Saturday (8 p.m. ET).
The Lakers and the Clippers have never met in the NBA post-season. The Dodgers and the Angels have never reached the World Series together. The Rams and the Raiders never reached the Super Bowl at the same time when they both called Southern California home nearly two decades ago.
But in their 20th season of head-to-head competition for the hearts of the Southland's hockey fans, the Kings and Ducks are squaring off for a trip to the Western Conference finals.
"We've been waiting for this to happen for a long time, and now it's finally here," Kings centre Jarret Stoll said.
'When two teams have played each other this many times, it just becomes more physical every time.' - Ducks forward Corey Perry on the Kings
With their rinks just 48 kilometres apart on the I-5 freeway, the Kings and Ducks have been geographical rivals ever since Anaheim entered the NHL as a Disney-backed expansion franchise in 1993. But veteran players from both teams say the matchup has always lacked the sting of true enmity without the heightened emotions of a playoff series lingering in their mutual history.
Real rivalries don't start until the post-season, and the Ducks and Kings had never even made the playoffs in the same year until 2011, their 17th season of cohabitation.
"When two teams have played each other this many times, it just becomes more physical every time," Ducks forward Corey Perry said after practice Thursday. "When you finally get to play in the playoffs, that shows both teams are really good, so it's even better then."
2 of NHL's best teams
This is a fitting season for their first playoff showdown, since the Kings and Ducks have been two of the NHL's best teams all season. High-scoring Anaheim won the Pacific Division title during the best regular season in franchise history, while Los Angeles earned its fifth consecutive playoff berth with the NHL's best defence.
Anaheim won four of the clubs' five meetings this year, including the biggest regular-season matchup in the rivalry's history: The outdoor game at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25. Although the Kings were the nominal home team, the Ducks dominated on the temporary ice in Chavez Ravine, with Jonas Hiller pitching a 3-0 shutout.
"Every game against the Kings seems to turn into a goaltending battle, so I'm looking forward to that," said Hiller, who doesn't know if he'll be in Anaheim's net for Game 1 after winning the Ducks' first-round series clincher against Dallas.
Both teams rolled into this historic matchup in dramatic fashion, suggesting they're playing their best hockey at a key moment.
The Kings became the fourth team in NHL history to rally from a 0-3 deficit to win a series, steamrolling the San Jose Sharks for four straight victories capped by a 5-1 win in the clincher Wednesday.
The top-seeded Ducks beat the Stars in six games, but only avoided a Game 7 with a superb comeback on the road. Anaheim scored two goals in the final two minutes 10 seconds of regulation before Nick Bonino got the series-winner in overtime last Sunday, wrapping up the Ducks' first playoff series victory since 2009.
After their draining first-round matchups, both teams are looking forward to a series with no significant travel. That's normal for many Eastern Conference teams, but unprecedented in the West: After all, the Ducks had to make two trips to Detroit in the first round last season, while the Kings shuttled to St. Louis and Chicago.
That extra rest is likely to translate into a hard-checking series between two teams eager to get on the road to another Stanley Cup, as soon as they escape their own neighbourhood.
"I think it's going to be good," Kings defenceman Matt Greene said. "You have to play a team in the playoffs to get a rivalry going. The distance makes it a good rivalry already, but this is going to be even better.”