Solace and hope can come from odd, disparate sources, which is presumably why Vancouver Canucks’ captain Henrik Sedin was reminding everybody on Sunday about what happened in last year’s opening playoff round. Twelve months ago, it was the Canucks that held the commanding 3-0 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. Twelve months ago, it was the Blackhawks that chipped away at that seemingly insurmountable lead – first with one victory, then another, then a third – almost pulling off a miraculous, historic comeback.
“We all know what can happen,” said Sedin, shortly after Sunday’s difficult-to-swallow 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, which has the Canucks perched on the edge of playoff elimination. “We were there last year. Chicago was one goal away from doing it. We’re in the same spot right now, so … “We’ve got to come back on Wednesday and steal a game down here. That’s our only focus. If we keep playing like this, we’re going to score some goals.”
It was another game in which, on the basis of territorial play, the Canucks probably deserved a better fate. They held the Kings without a shot for the first 11 minutes of play. They finished with 41 shots of their own against goaltender Jonathan Quick, and that didn’t count the one that Jannik Hansen rattled off the goalpost in the opening period.
A goal there and it might have been a different story. Instead, Hansen’s shot stayed out and the Kings hung around in the game and then in the early stages of the third period, team captain Dustin Brown converted a Justin Williams rebound for the only goal of the game - and just like that, Los Angeles has a commanding 3-0 series lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final.
At no point in Kings’ history have they ever held a 3-0 lead in a playoff series. Moreover, the Kings were coming off five consecutive home playoff losses dating two years back to when the Canucks came in here and won two pivotal matches at the Staples Centre to win the series in six.
This, clearly is a different series, against a different Kings’ team, one that’s shored up its defensive play significantly in the past 24 months. Los Angeles entered the playoffs as the second-lowest scoring team in the league, but thus far, the Canucks have had no answer to Brown, their captain, who was immersed in trade rumors back in February, none that ever came to fruition. Instead, Brown took it as a wake-up call, picked up his game significantly and is now finding the back of the net with increasing regularity. His shorthanded goals were pivotal in the Kings’ Game 2 victory; and he was the only player to find the back of the net Sunday night, putting the rebound of a Justin Williams slap shot past Cory Schneider, who received the start in goal ahead of Roberto Luongo.
Of Brown, Kings’ defenceman Drew Doughty said: “It seems like ever since after the trade deadline, he has been playing unbelievable. He’s scoring key goals at key times. Not only is he leading offensively, but he’s making big hits and he’s playing well defensively too. That’s exactly what we need from our captain, and that’s why Brownie does the job he does.’’
So finding a way of keeping Brown off the score sheet is one part of the Canucks’ challenge. The larger is getting one or more past Quick in the Kings’ goal. Quick and Schneider were schoolboy rivals in their New England high school days, again in college in the minors and now finally, last night, in the NHL.
Quick was good for the Kings, and so was Doughty, but at the moment, Brown is setting the tone. He scored twice shorthanded in the Game 2 victory and last night, he livened up what was a game going nowhere for about the first 22 minutes by leveling Sedin with a crushing open-ice hit.
“Clean hit,” is how Sedin described it, even though his head was turned, so he didn’t see the contact coming. Linemate Alex Burrows didn’t like that, so he picked a fight with … not Brown, but Anze Kopitar, the Kings’ leading scorer. Burrows said afterward he didn’t even see what happened to Sedin, he was just reacting to seeing the captain on the ice.
As for being down 3-0 in the series, Burrows said: “Well, that’s not what we were looking for, that’s for sure. We wanted to have this win tonight, but at the end of the day, you can only control how you play. I thought tonight we did a lot of good things. It’s unfortunate that we gave up that one goal on that bounce, but we’ve got to look at the positives.
“It’s do-or-die for us now, so might as well get ready for the next one and get it going.
“The pressure’s on them now, I guess. We’ve got nothing to lose. We just have to go out and play and survive the next one and go from there.”
Asked if Vancouver was getting enough quality shots, Sedin answered: “Yes and no. A lot of them, he sees, but when you put 40 shots on net, there’s going to be some that he doesn’t see. Tonight, we got guys to the net. There are a lot of rebounds laying around; and there’s a scramble. We’re going to get those bounces, sooner or later. We’ve got to keep doing the same things and we’ve got to bring this back to Vancouver again.”
Unlike the first two games of the series, this one was a more traditional playoff game – low-scoring, minimal chances, and nowhere near the wrath or anger that you’ve seen on display elsewhere in the playoffs.
Referees Kelly Sutherland and Kevin Pollock must have been apprised of mayhem that characterized many of the weekend games, because they were trying to keep a tight lid on things. Even borderline contact – Willie Mitchell on Ryan Kesler behind the Kings’ goal – earned a cross-checking minor. Maybe the person running the Jumbotron at the Staples Centre also run the team’s Twitter feed – after Kesler’s soft landing, they showed a picture of an actual diving competition, Greg Louganis on the board.
It didn’t help matters that the afternoon’s NBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks went to overtime, meaning they had a little more than five hours to change over to hockey. The ice looked awful; the players had a hard time settling the pucks down. You always had the sense that one bad break, either way, could decide it. Of course, the Kings had a far greater margin of error, given their lead in the series. To leave it to chance the way they did left the Canucks in a precarious position – more precarious than ever now, following Sunday night’s devastating loss.