The Los Angeles Kings blew their last two games of the regular season, matches that were basically playoff games, losing twice to division rival San Jose, and not only lost both battles but let leads slip away each time.
And so the Kings, after several months of strong play, stumbled into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Yet all the chatter ahead of Game 1 of the playoff against the Vancouver Canucks made little of L.A.'s late troubles and instead was all about a team whose so-so regular-season record belied a team with the potential to make a long run this spring.
L.A. delivered on the hype, and the Canucks-Kings Game 1 tilt delivered on expectations: a hard-fought affair, with each team heavily reliant on their ace goaltenders, L.A.'s Jonathan Quick and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo.
Who didn't deliver? The Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks were really only in the game because of Luongo, the superior goalie, facing a barrage of shots and strong scoring chances, from start to finish, especially fending off a heated attack in the third. It was a different night for Quick as Vancouver didn't really manage anywhere near the same press on the L.A. netminder, though the Canucks did demonstrate some signs of offensive life in the third.
But Luongo wasn't enough to save the evening for Vancouver. Although the Canucks went up early on a scrappy Alex Burrows goal, scored on the winger's 31st birthday, L.A. was the dominant team for much of the evening. The Canucks managed to tie the game at two with seconds left in the second but L.A. kept up its push in the third, winning the match 4-2.
The chorus of explanation from the home team after the game was one-note: fewer penalties would have produced a very different outcome.
"Five on five, I think we did an all right job," said captain Henrik Sedin in the locker room, speaking more quickly than he usually does, agitated.
Coach Alain Vigneault said all the penalty killing sucked vital energy from his squad.
"Of course it does," said Vigneault after the game and repeated himself, as his voice trailed off: "Of course it does."
The winning goal was a beauty, with Jeff Carter, the recent arrival in L.A., playing a crucial role. Centre Mike Richards passed it to Carter and Carter made an awesome move, forgoing his stick and deflecting the pass off his left skate to a wide open Dustin Penner, who played an excellent game and easily put the puck home, Luongo having no chance.
"I just kind of tried to direct it on net and it worked out. It went right to [Penner's]tape," said Carter after the game.
The game marked Carter's return to action after missing the final five of the season, sidelined by an injured ankle. He laughed at a reporter's suggestion his foot refuses to stay out of the news.
Richards wants more out of the L.A. power play but felt good: "We played well. We didn't do anything special but get pucks in deep and try to make them make mistakes."
Goals arrived in odd ways, another credit to the goaltenders. A long Willie Mitchell slap shot, the Kings defenceman a former Canuck, beat Luongo near the end of a major penalty toward the conclusion of the second, the shot going high after it was slightly deflected by Jannik Hansen's reaching stick. It put the Kings up 2-1. Three minutes later, as the period was set to expire, much the same happened to Quick. Vancouver's Alex Edler blasted a long shot and the puck deflected slightly off a defender's stick.
Two years ago, when the Canucks and Kings faced off in the first round, the gap between the teams during the regular season was a mere two points. This year, it was more of a chasm, 16 points. But on Wednesday night, it might has well been two years ago, forget about Presidents' trophies and whatever. From the start, the visitors mostly controlled the play.
Midway through the game, one wag on Twitter stated what most Vancouver fans were thinking: "Someone needs to tell the Canucks the playoffs have started."
The Canucks tried to play a physical game, starting with a cracking hit by winger David Booth, fiery in his first ever playoff game, on Kings defenceman Drew Doughty behind the Kings net on the opening shift. Yet it seemed to make little difference, save for the Canucks taking several bad penalties, particularly Byron Bitz's five-minute major for boarding in the second period, which led to the Kings taking a 2-1 lead. By the end of the second, the Kings were outshooting the Canucks 29 to 14 and the Canucks were lucky to limp into the third period tied at two.
"This locker room believes we can win every game," said Booth. "I think everyone on the bench felt good going into the third period. We bounce back really well."
With the gas tank dropping to empty, it wasn't enough. Booth, and the second line centered by Ryan Kesler, continued to struggle. Kesler didn't score in the last dozen regular season games, though he did put two assists on the score sheet Wednesday, the second off his faceoff win. Booth, who scored one goal in his last 11 regular season games, had no points but was tied for the team lead with four shots. In the first period, he had a spectacular move where he put a puck through Doughty's legs - but the push failed.
"We need to generate more offense, staring with our line, and me, trying to get going there," said Booth. "It was a fun experience playing my first [playoff]game but got to do better."
The Canucks' biggest problem over the last three months of the season – a nearly comatose power play – extended into the playoffs. The Canucks had gone 13.3 per cent on the power play since a big game in Boston in early January, a percentage that would have been the worst in the NHL if extended over the whole season. In the first period Wednesday night, the Canucks were terrible on two man advantages, managing just a single shot on Quick. A power play early in the third period was much the same: no shots.
Game 2 comes Friday night in Vancouver, and Game 3 goes Sunday night in Los Angeles at the Staples Center, a 7:30 p.m. PT start. The Canucks' first road game of the playoffs promises potentially terrible ice conditions, given that the Los Angeles Lakers play host to the Dallas Mavericks in an NBA game earlier in the day. Basketball concludes about five hours before the hockey starts.