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Kings make long-awaited playoff return vs. Canucks

by Staff

This might not be the welcome-back party the Los Angeles Kings were hoping for as they return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2002.

But you won't hear the Kings complain about drawing a Vancouver Canucks team that not only won the Northwest division, but features Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo in net and Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin up front.

Los Angeles is too happy to complain. This is a coming-of-age for a franchise that used a six-year run of lean seasons to restock the cupboard. Today, the results speak for themselves.

The Kings will go into battle with five of its most important players -- high-scoring forward Anze Kopitar, stud defenseman Drew Doughty, rugged captain Dustin Brown, versatile defenseman Jack Johnson and mercurial talent Alexander Frolov -- still on the young side of 25.

For the Canucks, the time is now. As mentioned, they have the elite goalie and the big-time point producer. The Canuck also have many of the support pieces necessary to forge a championship.

So the pressure will be on the Canucks to get out of the second round for the first time in 15 seasons. The last time that happened, the Canucks pushed the New York Rangers to a Game 7 in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.

The Canucks boast the Western Conference's highest-scoring team, and it all springs from the play Henrik Sedin, who won his first Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer this season with 112 points. Sedin is a gifted playmaker, as evidenced by his League-leading and career-high 83 assists. And he's surrounded by a plethora of gifted scorers.

Alex Burrows has built on his breakout campaign of 2008-09 by contributing 35 goals in his role as a tough, gritty forward playing alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who had 29 goals in just 63 games. Offseason acquisition Mikael Samuelsson also chipped in with 30 goals, a career-high.

Don't forget U.S. Olympic hero Ryan Kesler (25 goals) and Mason Raymond (25 goals), who provide the all-important secondary offense. Pavol Demitra, who missed more than half the season with a shoulder injury, could be dangerous if he heats up in time for the postseason. He managed to contribute 3 goals and 13 assists in 28 games.

Anze Kopitar is ready for the playoffs. The talented Slovenian missed out on the Olympic party when his country did not qualify, so he is happy he is not missing this tournament. Kopitar is the brightest star on the Kings' roster, a point-per-game player with some of the slickest moves in the League. He used his arsenal of skills to put up 34 goals this season.

But Kopitar has some help. Four other players -- Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown, Alex Frolov and defenseman Drew Doughty -- topped 50 points. Brown, Smyth and Michal Handzus all reached or topped the 20-goal mark.

Versatile center Jarrett Stoll, who joined Smyth in helping Edmonton to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the quickly improving Wayne Simmonds and the rock-solid Brad Richardson give the Kings some much-needed depth.

Christian Ehrhoff is the anchor, leading the team's blueliners in plus/minus (+33), goals (14), points (41) and power-play points (23). He missed the last week of the season with a knee injury, but is expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

The 23-year-old Alexander Edler posted career-highs in assists (36) and points (41) and led the team in blocked shots.

The rest of the unit is filled out by Sami Salo, Andrew Alberts, who helped solidify the unit after arriving in a deadline day trade from Carolina, Shane O'Brien, a physical player who is looking to put his off-ice issues behind him, and Kevin Bieksa, a steady defender.

The Kings are loaded on the blue line. Want a guy that can win games on the attack? Meet Drew Doughty, the team's young superstar. He scored 16 goals and finished with 59 points, the second-highest total on the team. But this is a player who can also be used in a shut-down role. If Doughty can't be a difference-maker on offense, Jack Johnson surely can. He had 28 assist this season.
Want a guy who can shut down a top line and has been around the playoff block a time or two? Meet Rob Scuderi, who won the Stanley cup with Pittsburgh last season. Want a quiet leader? Meet Sean O'Donnell, who has also won a Cup.

Clearly, the defense is one of Los Angeles' strengths.

Roberto Luongo has had quite the uneven season and wasn't his best after the Olympic break. He allowed fewer than three goals just six times over his final 16 games of the season, including one contest in which he allowed 8 goals on 29 shots. But the knock on Luongo always has been he can't win the big game, and he proved his doubters wrong by lifting Canada to a gold medal at this year's Olympics. When he's on, there are few better.

Jonathon Quick is not entering the playoffs on a high note. After having a season to celebrate for the first five months, Quick has stumbled badly down the stretch. He has not won since March 22 and has allowed three or more goals in all but one appearance since that game, a stretch of eight appearances. To make matters worse, Quick, who is making his first playoff run, was pulled from two of those eight games. 

In four seasons with the Canucks, Alain Vigneault taken his team to the playoffs three times. He's never lost in the first round with Vancouver, but he's also never gotten past the second round. This team might be the best he's had, so anything less than a Stanley Cup will be considered a disappointment.

Terry Murray is clearly a coach who can connect with the disparate roster the Kings have put together, a roster that features both young and old and superstar and grinder. He also knows the playoffs. Murray has reached the Stanley Cup Final once (Philadelphia 1997) and the conference finals on two other occasions.

The power play for Vancouver has been great all season, but the penalty killing was below average. With all the offensive talent the Canucks boast, it's no surprise the power-play unit finished sixth in the League with a 20.9 percent efficiency. But the PK wasn't so special, finishing 18th by killing off 81.6 percent of man-down situations.

The Los Angeles Kings know their power play will have to click if the club hopes to get out of the first round of the playoffs since 2001. There is every indication it will, as the unit hit at 20 percent throughout the season. Kopitar and Smyth alone combined for 25 power-play goals. The concern, though, is that the Kings' PK units will not be up to the challenge provided by the Canucks' power-play units. LA killed just 80 percent of the shorthanded situations it faced this season.

Ryan Kesler, Vancouver --  In 10 playoff games last season, Kesler was only able to muster 2 goals and 2 assists. He looks like a completely different player this season, and if he plays with the same fire in this series that he showed in the Olympics, the Canucks will breeze into the second round.

Rob Scuderi, Los Angeles -- It is for a situation just like this that the Kings went out and got a veteran like Scuderi. The stay-at-home defenseman has been to the Stanley Cup Final in each of the past two seasons. He must teach these young Kings what it takes to win.

Canucks will win ... If they stay out of the penalty box and get a solid effort from Roberto Luongo.

Kings will win ... If Jonathan Quick plays like the goalie that earned a spot on Team USA for the Olympics and not like the goalie that struggled to win down the stretch. Plus, the Kings will have to overcome a lack of experience among many of their impact players. Staff Writers Dave Lozo and Shawn P. Roarke contributed to this report.

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