Vancouver Canucks clearly second best, outplayed by L.A. Kings in playoffs
No riot this time, but there will be unrest after unexpectedly early exit from NHL post-season
The Vancouver Canucks bench, including Maxim Lapierre, straddling the boards, show their disappointment after losing 2-1 in overtime to the Los Angeles Kings at Rogers Arena on Sunday, April 22, 2012. With the loss, the Canucks were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in five games.
Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, PNG
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VANCOUVER — The best team in the National Hockey League over the last two seasons was the second best team in its first-round playoff series.
The Vancouver Canucks dug themselves a pit too deep to escape. It may have taken the Los Angeles Kings until Game 5 Sunday to bury them with a 2-1 overtime win, but it was the first two games of the series in the same building where the Canucks lost their season.
The Stanley Cup was achingly close to them last season, streaking past Canuck players like a comet that appears once every 10 or 20 years. The Cup seems far away now.
A team that won its second straight Presidents' Trophy two weeks ago, that amassed 111 points this season and won 105 regular-season games the last 18 months, was outplayed by Los Angeles.
The Kings were tighter defensively than the Canucks, deeper offensively and just as good in net — even after Vancouver changed goalies and its goaltending landscape by choosing Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo. And the Kings were overdue, having failed since 2001 to move beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament.
The Canucks were overdue, too. They were 4-0 in the first round since Alain Vigneault became coach six years ago, and played until the middle of June last season before failing on two chances to win one game for immortality.
They looked awfully mortal Sunday night when Jarret Stoll picked the high, short-side corner on Schneider during a 2-on-1 break at 4:27 of overtime.
At least there was no riot. But there will be unrest.
There are likely to be hard questions asked by the owners, who have funded whatever Mike Gillis needed since Francesco Aquilini hired his own general manager in 2008 to replace the one he inherited. There is already the default, statistics-be-damned demand from many fans that coach Alain Vigneault must go, despite a period of excellence unrivalled in the franchise's previous 35 years.
There will be other questions. Just as in the Stanley Cup final loss to the Boston Bruins, the Canucks' verdant offence turned arid, scoring just eight times in five games. The upgraded fourth line turned out to be a mirage, and the regular-season addition of size, grit and toughness was a mirage. Ryan Kesler failed to make a difference and top defenceman Alex Edler was shockingly erratic.
But, lest there be any question about the fickleness and parity of the modern Stanley Cup playoffs, consider that the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks were already out of the tournament by the time the Canucks lost. And it's possible that the “favoured” teams in the Eastern Conference will go 0-4.
People don't want to hear it — and some players don't want to believe it — but the competition is now so even that there is frequently a randomness to winning and losing, that the competition is determined by a key injury, a great bounce, a terrible call or a hot goalie.
The Kings were better and deserved to win, but they built their 3-0 advantage while Canucks star Daniel Sedin was out with a concussion. A lot of factors that went in the Canucks' favour a year ago were out of alignment this time.
“This is kind of how the playoffs are,” Schneider said. “Sometimes you need some magic, you need some luck, you need a few things to advance. We ran into a very good team that was playing well going into the playoffs. But the onus is on us to perform and execute and if we don't, that's our fault.”
“We never got it to the point where it needed to be to be successful in the playoffs,” veteran defenceman Sami Salo, possibly at the end of his career as a Canuck, said of the team's form. “One reason, for sure, was going down the stretch we didn't play our best hockey and you can't just push a button to start a new season [in the playoffs].”
The Canucks went 0-3 at home and depart the season riding a four-game losing streak in Vancouver that began with Game 7 against the Bruins.
Asked if Sunday's loss was as hard as the final one last June, Salo said: “It's pretty close.”
Sedin said: “To be honest with you, it doesn't matter if you lose Game 7 of the finals or you lose in Game 5 in the first round, it's devastating. We have the mindset to win every year and when you end up on the losing side, it's tough. We've got to come back and be stronger. We've been through a lot and we're going to go through a lot next year, too. It was a frustrating series.”
The Canucks were sloppy and undisciplined in the 4-2 loss in Game 1, then atrocious on special teams in Game 2, surrendering a pair of short-handed goals in another 4-2 defeat. It was almost over then.
Still, there was a sense of disbelief in the Canuck dressing room Sunday night. Players, whose singular focus since last June was earning another chance to play for the Stanley Cup, clearly believed they would find their way back.
“It doesn't feel good,” defenceman Kevin Bieksa said. “I'm sure it's going to feel even worse tomorrow when we get up and there's nothing to do.”
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