LOS ANGELES, Calif. - For a few days late in their tumultuous season, the Los Angeles Kings were on the verge of a breakthrough. They were in position to win just the second division title in franchise history, and they could have hosted a playoff series for the first time in about two decades.
With two extra-time losses to the San Jose Sharks in the final three days of the regular season, the Kings slipped all the way from third place to eighth in the Western Conference, stumbling into a first-round matchup with the Vancouver Canucks, the two-time Presidents' Trophy winners.
No wonder coach Darryl Sutter chose to emphasize the Kings' positive achievements this week before they headed to British Columbia for their first two dates with the mighty Canucks on Wednesday.
"The biggest challenge was just to get into the playoffs," said Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray in December. "To do, with 21 games left, what we had to do to get in, the players did an awesome job. That's why you do this. That's what it's about. (The Canucks) are the best team in the league, and we have to have some guys play above and beyond what they played in the regular season."
The Kings realize they've got to recover quickly from those late-season disappointments to have a shot at the defending Western Conference champions, who fell one game short of winning their first Stanley Cup last June.
Yet the Kings have ample historical precedent to suggest they can knock off Vancouver: Three of the past six Presidents' Trophy winners lost their first-round playoff series, including San Jose in 2009 and Washington in 2010.
The Kings also are meeting Vancouver in the first round for the second time in three years. After Los Angeles ended an eight-year absence from the playoffs and took a 2-1 series lead into Game 4, Vancouver finished off the Kings with three straight wins in 2010.
"This time of year there's so much pressure on us to do well, but that's what we strive for," said Drew Doughty, the Kings' $56 million defenceman. "That first series against them was a stepping stone for the organization. That was a lot of guys' first chance to be in playoffs, and if we get up again in a series, we've got to make sure they can't come back."
After the Kings' unusual season, nothing would be surprising to Doughty and his teammates. After acquiring Mike Richards and Simon Gagne last summer to boost the offence, Los Angeles spent a large chunk of the regular season as the NHL's lowest-scoring team, avoiding collapse only because of an All-Star season by goalie Jonathan Quick.
"It's going to be about making sure we're a patient team and don't force things and wait for our opportunities to make plays, and when we do get them, we've got to capitalize," Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo said.
Vancouver also hosts Game 2 on Friday night before the clubs travel back to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Sunday night at crowded Staples Center, where the Lakers will play the Dallas Mavericks that afternoon.
The Canucks steamed into the post-season with eight wins in their last nine games, but lost a major part of their identity when leading goal-scorer Daniel Sedin was sidelined with a concussion for that stretch. Sedin participated in Monday's practice before sitting out Tuesday, instead reportedly skating with teammates after practice.
"The last few days have been a good sign," Sedin's brother and linemate, Henrik, told the Canucks' official website. "He's a positive and upbeat guy. He brings a positive attitude to the dressing room, so I think it's good."
Los Angeles lost centre Brad Richardson indefinitely when he had an appendectomy Monday, recalling youngster Andrei Loktionov to take his place.
But the Kings sound cautiously optimistic power forward Jeff Carter will return Wednesday after missing the final five games of the regular season with an ankle injury. Carter's arrival in a trade with Columbus in late February immediately revived the Kings' offence, with Carter contributing six goals and three assists in 16 games.
Until Carter's late arrival, the Kings' biggest problem all season was goals. Their 194 goals this season were second-fewest in the NHL, and 16 fewer than St. Louis, the next lowest-scoring team that still made the playoffs.
Los Angeles isn't facing the Blues' dynamite goalie tandem, or imposing Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne: The Kings must beat Luongo, the Canadian Olympic hero whose inconsistent post-season play has alternately thrilled and horrified Canucks fans.
After Boston's Tim Thomas outplayed Luongo in the Stanley Cup finals, the Kings are hoping Quick can manage the same trick leading the NHL with 10 shutouts and finishing second with a 1.95 goals-against average. The Canucks expect to need every available scorer to take control of this budding rivalry.
"A lot of guys here have a lot of hunger from last year, but we know it's a long process and we know we have to prepare for every game," Vancouver defenceman Sami Salo said. "(The Kings) are a very physical team who play very well with their systems. They fight hard for every puck, and we know it's going to be a hard-fought series."