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Canucks, Kings ready for Pacific Division showdown

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- For the Vancouver Canucks, defeating the Los Angeles Kings on Monday (10 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, PRIME, SNP) would help in securing their spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The opportunity to derail the defending Stanley Cup-champion Kings attempt to get back to the postseason, avoid Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs in the Western Conference, or make a statement if they do face the Kings in the playoffs was a bonus few wanted to discuss.

"I don't think we're thinking about that at all," forward Chris Higgins said. "You try to keep your focus small this time of year."

That focus is bouncing back from consecutive losses against the Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets to finish a four-game road trip, avoiding their first three-game losing streak since mid-January, and taking back control of their own fate in the playoff race. The Canucks can clinch a playoff berth with a regulation win Monday coupled with a Jets loss to the Minnesota Wild in regulation.

It won't be easy with the Kings also trying to do the latter.

Vancouver is second in the Pacific Division with 95 points, two points ahead of the Calgary Flames and three up on the Kings, who have the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

Los Angeles can leapfrog the Flames and move within one point of the Canucks with a win in Vancouver, and because the Kings have one more game remaining, a regulation win on Monday gives Los Angeles control of its own outcome in the race for second in the Pacific Division and home-ice advantage to open the playoffs.

"We know if we win that game we put ourselves in a very, very good position going forward," Canucks forward Jannik Hansen said after a short practice Sunday, "But if we lose it's neck-and-neck again."

It would be hard to blame the Canucks for wanting to avoid the Kings early in the playoffs: In the past three seasons, Los Angeles has more Stanley Cup wins than Vancouver does playoff wins.

Since losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins in 2011, Vancouver has won one playoff game. It was against the Kings in the first round in 2012, but it was all the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks could manage as they Los Angeles eliminated them in five games en route to winning its first Stanley Cup. Vancouver was swept by the San Jose Sharks in 2013 and did not qualify for the playoffs last season, when Los Angeles won its second Cup.

"That's not an easy team to play against. They didn't win two Stanley Cups in three years by accident," Canucks forward Radim Vrbata said. "Some teams have teams they kind of like to play against, or their style is good to play against, and then you have teams that don't suit you well but you still have to find a way. I think L.A. is one of those teams that we have to find a way."

In addition to having a better postseason pedigree, the Kings recent dominance of the Canucks extends to the regular season. The Kings are 7-2-0 against the Canucks in the past two seasons despite a 4-1 Canucks victory the last game March 21 in Los Angeles.

Radim Vrbata
Right Wing - VAN
GOALS: 31 | ASST: 30 | PTS: 61
SOG: 258 | +/-: 4
Several Canucks talked about that win meaning more because the Kings won the first three meetings this season by a combined 12-3 score, but they downplayed any added meaning this time.

"I don't think you want to look too far ahead to sending a message for playoffs," said Vrbata, who scored the winning goal on a 5-on-3 power play early in the third period March 21. "You first want to make the playoffs and then worry about what happens after."

Like a lot of teams, those worries against the Kings include handling a physical forecheck from a big team that likes to use four lines. The Canucks have also struggled to solve Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick, who gave up four goals in four games against Vancouver last season and has a .947 save percentage with three wins this season. It took a 5-on-3 power play for the Canucks to score the winner March 21 before adding two more goals into an empty net.

"It was a good win for us against a tough team and find a way and we played pretty good in that game," coach Willie Desjardins said. "We have to make sure we are ready to bring that same type of game."

Desjardins is counting on the Kings doing the same Monday.

"They know how important it is. We know how important it is," Desjardins said. "So it's just going to be a battle."

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