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Hawks and Sharks step into spotlight for Game 1

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Much of North America will probably find themselves smacking their TV sets and double-checking their program guides after flipping on NBC on Sunday afternoon.

There's no need to adjust your set or call your cable or satellite provider -- it really is the Western Conference Finals between the top-seeded San Jose Sharks and second-seeded Chicago Blackhawks airing on national television.

For the past two seasons, the lion's share of national spotlight has been reserved for a select few teams and stars, most of them residing in the Eastern Conference -- Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. But with the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers hosting the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, it's two teams that call the West home coming into the living rooms of millions Americans on Sunday.

"I think everyone wanted to see that," Sharks star Dany Heatley said of the San Jose-Chicago series. "You always want to see 1-2, in my opinion."

How rare is it to see San Jose playing on NBC? It's the first time the Sharks have played on the network since May 2007, and it will be the first time ever that NBC will broadcast a game from San Jose. But make no mistake -- the Western Conference Finals are certainly deserving of the attention that's coming.

The Sharks and Blackhawks finished second and third in the West, respectively, in goals scored. They boast a combined 14 Olympians (eight for the Sharks; six for the Hawks) who took part in the 2010 Games in Vancouver. There's no shortage of star power between these teams, which might have more notoriety if not for playing a lot of their games when fans on the East Coast are already fast asleep.

With so many Olympians on both sides -- nine played in the gold-medal game, which was watched by more than 30 million people -- a national television audience and extra attention isn't going to do much to rattle them.

"They've been there," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of his Olympians. "Our big players have been there. They played in front of 35 million people in Canada that had no interest in anything else other than watching that game."

"I'll be hacking Johnny as much as I can," the Sharks' Joe Thornton said of Chicago's
Jonathan Toews, a teammate on Team Canada. "I loved him for two weeks in February, but, you know, that's different now."

"He's a good guy. I'm looking forward to giving him a few whacks too," Toews said of Thornton.

The West Finals could be your de facto Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks and Blackhawks have been two of the NHL's best teams this season, and they've had superb seasons in what is arguably the superior conference -- while the top two seeds are having at it in the West, the Flyers and Canadiens were the 15th- and 16th-best teams in the playoffs, respectively.

"We can throw seeds out the window once the playoffs come around," said Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, who wasn't giving out gardening tips. "On paper, maybe yeah, for the odds, the West is probably favored but as players we all throw that out the window.

"Favorite or not, it doesn't matter. That's more for the people that gamble I guess. It doesn't matter to who's favored, who's not. We're so close we can taste it right now. At the same time, we're a long ways away."

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