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Canucks take it on the chin against Kings

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo watches a shot from the L.A Kings during NHL playoff action in Vancouver April 13, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

It was a heavy amount of pressure considering it was just the third day of the two-month springtime rodeo of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Vancouver Canucks, again playing without their star scorer, the concussed Daniel Sedin, were down 1-0 in a playoff contest for the first time in five years. The captain of the two-time Presidents' Trophy-winning squad, Henrik Sedin, made a succeed-or-face-serious-peril declaration after a Friday morning game-day skate, eight hours before the evening's contest, Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings: "We can't afford to lose tonight."

Now, Vancouver's season hangs in jeopardy, the Canucks facing the potential humiliation of losing in the first round.

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The Canucks failed to fend off the upstart, underdog Kings and lost 4-2. Vancouver limps south to L.A. down two-nothing. Game 3 goes Sunday night (and expect bad ice at the Staples Center, as hockey takes place five hours after a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game concludes).

The power play on Friday night - Friday the 13th - killed Vancouver, both the Canucks' own time with the man-advantage and, near the end, L.A.'s power play.

The star: Dustin Brown, scorer of the two - yes, two - short-handed goals that put the Kings in control.

Vancouver is hardly the only favoured team in playoff history to be down 2-0. One year ago, the Boston Bruins lost two games at home in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens before eventually winning in seven (in overtime) - and going on to upset Vancouver in the Cup final, when Boston also started down two.

The solution, for Vancouver, begins on the power play.

"It's got to be a lot better, it's got to win us games - right now it's losing us games," said Henrik Sedin after the game.

(Brown, the Kings hero, actually had a hat trick for a while on Friday, after the third-period goal was incorrectly credited to him. It was the first postseason L.A. hat trick since some guy named Gretzky back in 1993 but officials changed it to Jarret Stoll when the game finished, Brown getting an assist.)

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The Canucks, somewhat reeling, took heart in several positives from Friday night, starting with solid five-on-five play against the Kings and outshooting them over the evening 48-26, including a big 23-9 burst in the third period.

It was quite the electric game, even if there wasn't a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh explosion of 13 goals. Tonnes of hard hitting, two teams fairly evenly matched, and two impressive goaltenders, Vancouver's Roberto Luongo (generally solid) and L.A.'s Jonathan Quick (very strong).

The Canucks began with vigour, delivering zest with new line combinations from the start of Game 2 that was missing in much of Game 1. Yet it didn't add up on the only arbiter that counts, the scoreboard. Through two periods on Friday night, the Canucks' biggest problem in the past three months - an absolutely terrible power play - was even worse than the usual lousy: a total disaster.

On Wednesday, in Game 1's first period, the Canucks had two power plays and one shot. On Friday, in Game 2's first period, the Canucks had two power plays and one shot - and one goal against, the first short-handed marker scored by Brown, after a steal and impressive effort by Anze Kopitar. It came with nine seconds left in the opening frame.

After the Canucks responded 17 seconds into the second, with Jannik Hansen getting on the board on a savvy puck tip past Quick, L.A. did it again to Vancouver five minutes later. Short handed, after a botched Ryan Kesler pass to Dan Hamhuis, Brown grabbed the puck and was flying, an all-clear-by-a-mile breakaway. Brown swooped in on the wing on Luongo, flew by in front, and went to his backhand, popping the puck high, the red light set alight.

"We're up 2-0," said Brown after the game. "That's what we wanted coming up here. Good teams find ways to win."

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Luongo was frustrated that he could stop Brown, especially on the breakaway.

"I've got to try to make a big save there when the game is on the line, so it was a tough one tonight," said Luongo.

The team can do nothing but forget about the past three days and ready for Game 3, Luongo insisted: "There's no real point in looking at the big picture right now, we've only got to focus on going in there and win a game."

The veteran goaltender had confidence in a team that believes it has an especially solid bond between players, a strong dressing room. Vancouver practices 11 a.m. PT in Vancouver Saturday morning, before their charter flies at 1:30 p.m. from the airport's south terminal to L.A.

"When we face adversity, we come out and we play hard," said Luongo."

Luongo played pretty well and it would be no surprise to see him again for Game 3, but given that the Canucks need any spark they can stoke, perhaps stellar backup Cory Schneider gets the Sunday start. Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault, asked about Luongo and Schneider at the end of a short four-minute press conference after the game, said: "I'm not going to discuss goaltending tonight. Goaltending wasn't the issue."

There were scatted boos from Vancouver fans late in the second on yet another weak power play (though the Canucks managed, on that one, to prevent any goals scored against).

There were some more boos late in the third as disappointed fans streamed out.

Daniel Sedin wasn't on the ice Friday - his 11th missed game - and his absence was felt. With about five minutes in the second period, Henrik Sedin's line was making a strong offensive push when Henrik, near Quick's net, made a backhand pass towards the point. The puck was stolen by L.A. and taken out, and Henrik visibly chastised himself. Where are you, Daniel?

As they went down to the Kings again, the Canucks played a far-more physical game than they had two nights previous. The team averaged about 22 hits a night during the regular season. On Wednesday, they made 26. After one period on Friday, they already had 18 and at the buzzer more than doubled their game average, counting 45 hits against the Kings' 32.

On a single, extended shift late in the second, trying to light his team, Kesler was a singular physical force, first on a rush beating both of L.A.'s top defenceman, Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty, but failing to score on Quick.

Soon thereafter, Kesler laid a rocking hit on Kopitar in the corner by the boards, and then banged twice with Doughty. The all-in effort roused a somewhat deflated crowd, big cheers to salute Kesler's hustle.

The Canucks' coaches tried a bunch of variations to shake their team from the relative slumber of Game 1. On Thursday, the off day, coach Alain Vigneault talked about looking for "answers." He was talking strategy, as he gave his players a rest with an optional practice. The somewhat-new-look lines were kept under wraps earlier Friday and featured several variations, including Hansen promoted from the third line to Sedin's first line, and a reunited American Express second line of Kesler, David Booth and Chris Higgins.

Vigneault also shuffled the defensive matchups against L.A., putting Kesler out against Kopitar, instead of Mike Richards in Game 1, matching up Sedin against Richards in Game 2. In one perhaps unexpected variation, Andrew Ebbett, a healthy scratch for Game 1, played a number of shifts on the second line of the power play, which may have shaken things up (there was some early confusion) and did little in terms of results.

After the game, Vigneault indicated he at least somewhat liked the new lines, noting that the Amex trio played with "energy." But, at the end, at the start, it was all about the atrocious power play.

"Tonight, it was more than ineffective - it really cost us at bad times," said Vigneault. "Those are our best players, and we've got a lot of confidence in those guys, and we get another opportunity to prove it on Sunday."

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