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Saturday, April 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Les Carpenter / Times staff columnist
VANCOUVER, B.C. They began the annual affliction with hockey here this week. Tiny Canucks flags flapped from car windows, the storefronts on Robson Street were filled with blue, red and silver, and yesterday afternoon a man drove in circles around GM Place in a chugging black car with a tin foil Stanley Cup on his roof.
Another setup for heartbreak.
Because, you see, April and hockey rarely go together well in Vancouver, like last night, when the Canucks lost 2-1 to Calgary.
For many years the Canucks never saw the playoffs and when they came along again a few seasons ago, something disastrous always seemed to happen. Like in the waning weeks of the 2001 season when Vancouver's best scorer, Markus Naslund, broke his right fibula and tibia. The postseason lasted all of four games, just enough time to be swept by Colorado.
Or the next year when the Canucks got out to a 2-0 lead over Detroit in the first round only to drop the next four. And of course there was last year's disheartening loss to Minnesota in the second round when Vancouver held a 3-1 series lead and goaltender Dan Cloutier suddenly couldn't locate the bouncing puck.
"For this core group of guys here it seems something happens every year," center Matt Cooke said with a sigh yesterday. "Some clubs are different when adversity comes along."
This year it seemed that maybe the Canucks would, in fact, be different. The adversity came right on schedule when the league banished star forward Todd Bertuzzi for the rest of the season, but instead of collapsing, Vancouver thrived. It accumulated 101 points, the second-most in club history and won a division title for the first time in 11 years.
Then for the first round of the playoffs the Canucks drew Calgary and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and his 1.69 goals-against average, which also happens to be a modern record. But in Wednesday's first game, Vancouver made Kiprusoff look about as imposing as a pipe cleaner in a 5-3 win.
At least there was one major-league team in the Northwest that could say it was enjoying the spring.
So giddy was the sellout crowd at GM Place last night that the singer brought out to sing "O Canada" stopped about halfway through, raised his microphone and let 17,000 people belt out the next several stanzas. Which would have been chilling had the Flames not been up 2-0 by "home and native land."
Last night he was like a cinder-block wall in front of the net. Everything Vancouver shot at him bounced away. In fact it took Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski knocking Kiprusoff flat on the ice and allowing Naslund a wide-open shot at the net for Vancouver to score.
It was like a blimp had deflated in GM Place. The crowd went from singing along to "O Canada" to watching in a glazed stupor as Kiprusoff stopped everything shot his way. He fell to his knees several times to snatch pucks that it is highly dubious his own defensemen even saw.
Asked if he thought last night was more indicative of his abilities, Kiprusoff nodded.
"Oh sure, yeah," he said. "I didn't do a good job the last game. Yeah, this was much better."
The Canucks went from slaying all their old demons to perhaps facing a whole new one. For while this series is only two games old, there is something haunting about a goaltender who finds his groove when the weather gets warm. And Kiprusoff is looking like he might be the kind of goalie who has the cerebral might to overcome a rough game.
Even without Bertuzzi, Vancouver's strength remains its scoring. Only six teams scored more goals this season, and if its playoff hopes lie with Cloutier it could be in trouble once again.
Vancouver had one last chance last night. It came late in the game after Calgary's Toni Lydman tried to remove a Canuck's faceguard with the blade of his stick. But the ensuing power play went flat, as did the remaining seconds.
"They got the breaks," Cooke said with a shrug.
And while it was just one game in a seven-game series, it exposed many of the Canucks' weaknesses the power play and Cloutier's postseason focus. Now it's up to Vancouver to turn away the latest adversity. Otherwise it could be a very long spring and summer for sports in the Northwest.
Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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