Back at full strength, Canucks almost back in series with Kings

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The Vancouver Canucks, routinely pilloried in victory and mocked in defeat, a franchise that can't seem to win even when it wins, has avoided the ignominy of being the first Presidents' Trophy-winner to be swept from the playoffs. Their persuasive 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday was a display of gumption and goaltending and special teams that could be the harbinger of something maybe historic. The Canucks can't play four games at a time, of course, but three more like this, after a lethargic first period, would be most acceptable, thank you. There was a surfeit of skill and will in Game 4 that served as a reminder of why the Canucks went to the Stanley Cup Final last spring and had the best record during this regular season in what seemed to have been an off year for the picky fans in Vancouver.

The Canucks scored two power play goals after going 0-for-14 in the first three matches, but the process was as impressive as the result. In the third period, they moved the puck so dazzlingly with a man advantage, the only thing missing was a rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown. Ridiculed for their alleged proclivity for embellishment, they played it straight, with a chaser of irony: in the second period, Dustin Brown became entangled with Daniel Sedin, who had not played since March 21 because of a concussion, and Henrik Sedin, who had been wallpapered by the Kings' captain in Game 3, delivered a little drive-by love tap to Brown's head.

(Henrik said after the game that he had no memory of the play, which is supposed to be Daniel's line.) "Actually I thought we played better than we did the last game," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "The difference was 22's (Daniel's) and 33's (Henrik's) performance."

"You get a guy back like Daniel and have that extra threat and to have the power play come alive, maybe it'll make them think twice about taking penalties or being too aggressive," Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider said. "Maybe it just plants those little seeds. We don't have a whole lot to feel good about. It's still a 3-1 hole. But having Daniel back balances out our lineup and makes our power play better."

The Canucks goaltending certainly is better in the wake of Schneider's first career playoff win. He stopped 43 shots, including Brown on a penalty shot in the third period in what amounted to a two-goal swing. Brown, who had a pair of short-handed goals in Game 2, almost got his third but was hauled down by Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, whose pocket Brown had just picked. Brown faked a shot when he hit the high slot, veered wide to his right and tried to slip the puck five hole, but Schneider kept his stick there and foiled the attempt, which would have tied the score. The stat sheet suggests that Henrik Sedin scored on the power play 22 seconds later, but in real time it might have been two minutes and 22 seconds later. With the additional rest provided by all that accompanies a penalty shot, the Sedin twins stayed out on the Vancouver power play and Henrik scored on a chip over Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.

"My first win, so that's exciting," Schneider said. "But it doesn't mean much if we don't win the next one."

Indeed. If Game 4 was a mirage, an old tungsten filament light bulb that burns brightly for a few moments before it dies, then the Canucks will slink off soon. Their Presidents' Trophy will be the parting gift for an ultimately lost season, like a case of Rice-a-Roni or a matched set of American Tourister luggage that used to be handed out to game-show losers a few decades ago.

That luggage might be just the thing for Roberto Luongo.

Luongo had the best, or worst, seat in the house, on the right end of the Canucks' bench, baseball cap tugged low. He's been given a lot during his Vancouver years: money, a letter (C, as you might recall), some hardware (he shared a Jennings Trophy with Schneider), but this was the first time he earned splinters in a critical game.

The Luongo era in Vancouver effectively ended on Tuesday night. Coach Alain Vigneault met with his two goaltenders and told them that while his head said thatLuongo should start Game 4, his gut said Schneider. He would go with his gut.

"Lou," Schneider said, "couldn't have been more supportive."

While Vigneault, a Luongo loyalist throughout the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, had a freebie in starting his nominal backup in Game 3 after a pair of home losses -- Luongo had played acceptably, but no better in Vancouver -- the coach was serving the divorce papers by ignoring his erstwhile franchise goalie in an elimination game.

The Canucks and Luongo are linked by a history of disappointment and a contract that meanders for another 10 years, one of those salary-cap skirting things in which the money drops off dramatically but the cap hit stays constant. Luongo is on the books for another decade at $5.33 million annually -- at least in terms of the cap. At first glance, the contract seems as toxic as Three Mile Island. During the next six years, he will earn an average of $6.7 million. And yes, Luongo also has a no-trade clause.

That doesn't mean Luongo won't be traded. If he decides he wants to stay in Vancouver, he will be staring at the face-losing prospect of being the world's most expensive backup to Schneider, a restricted free agent who surely will be well-compensated. At best, Luongo would have to split starts with Schneider, who has been as good a goalie as he has been a soldier in support of Luongo, whose save percentage was .18 poorer than Schneider's during the season. (In the last 21 games of the season, they divided the minutes evenly.) Those terms would likely be unpalatable for a 33-year-old with portfolio, which includes an Olympic gold medal for Team Canada.

The question, then, is can Vancouver find a locale to which Luongo might accept a trade? While Toronto is in need of premier goaltending, Luongo would have to leave one over-caffeinated hockey market for another. Not good. There are two franchises, however, that would suggest a softer landing place. Luongo, who played comfortably in Florida, could go home again -- or at least to his wife's home. (He met her while playing for the Panthers.) And Tampa Bay is even more strapped for goaltending than the Panthers, who have subsisted comfortably with the tandem of José Théodore and Scott Clemmensen. Steve Yzerman, the Lightning's GM, won an Olympic gold medal with Luongo; there could be a fit there. Canucks GM Mike Gillis might have to take a bloated contract in return for one of his own, but Luongo has some value on the market.

The Canucks will jump off that bridge when they get to it. Now at least they go home for a Game 5, not far from the Capilano Suspension Bridge.