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Monday, April 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

On the verge of triumph, Canucks choke

VANCOUVER, B.C — Silence fell that sudden way it always does when the home team gives up so much so quickly.

Abruptly the cheering stopped. The music died. It was the deafening silence of defeat.

It wasn't supposed to end like this.

The pints of G.A.A. beer at Dick's Barbecue were cold and smooth and priced at the current Canucks goals-against average (GAA). The crowd inside was buzzing as if it were June in hockeyland.

Across the street, the early April regular-season finale was sold out, and the noise inside GM Place suggested something special was about to happen.

They came here yesterday to celebrate. The Vancouver Canucks were going to win their first division championship in a decade. Their left winger, Markus Naslund, was going to win the goal-scoring and scoring titles, and, eventually, the most valuable player trophy.

This game against the going-nowhere Los Angeles Kings was going to be the jumpstart for a wondrous Stanley Cup run.

But with so much to win, the Canucks lost. The game. The division championship. And all of that hardware for Markus Naslund.

They played scared. They made mistakes that real Stanley Cup threats don't make. They didn't look much like the team that had earned a franchise-high 104 points.

They looked more like some other recent Vancouver Canucks. Like the Canucks of 1999 or 2000, or some of those other bleak years since they last went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994.

They were in first place for the past four months. They were in first place going into the 82nd game of the season, but with so much riding on one game, the Canucks, well they, um ...

"We choked," Naslund said after the 2-0 loss to the Kings. "We had this game in our hands to take care of it. Just get a point. One point and we would have won our division. I don't want to call it a choke, but if you don't take advantage of two chances in a row to finish it off, then I don't know if you deserve to win it."

Vancouver had a 3-1 lead at Phoenix on Wednesday, but the game ended in a 3-3 tie.

The Canucks had their chances against Kings goaltender Jamie Storr yesterday, but they missed open nets and fanned on golden chances.

Two opportunities against bad teams, and the Canucks couldn't win. And, while they were losing to the Kings, Colorado was winning the Northwest Division by beating St. Louis.

Now, Vancouver enters the playoffs this week against St. Louis as the second coldest team in the West, 9-7-4-1 over the last quarter of the season.

And the delicious anticipation of the Stanley Cup season has been replaced by a pervasive unease. As exciting as this could become, it also will be over quickly if the Canucks continue this slide.

"Choke is a little too strong a word," said Naslund, who finished the regular season with 48 goals and 56 assists, second in scoring to his good friend, Colorado's Peter Forsberg. "But on the other hand, we got to face it that we didn't play well the last two games. The two biggest games of the year, and that's something we got to change. We can't fool ourselves and pretend that we did play well. Because we didn't."

They missed chance after chance. They had six power plays and managed only eight shots. And then, with less than six minutes left in the regular season, defenseman Brent Sopel gave up the puck deep in his own end.

Goaltender Dan Cloutier made two stops but couldn't make the third. Los Angeles winger Mikko Eloranta scored and silence fell.

"We played fairly good, but not good enough," said Brendan Morrison, the center of the Naslund-Morrison-Todd Bertuzzi line. "It's frustrating to get this close and not handle it. The last couple of games we've been tentative at times. I don't know, maybe it's nerves because we've never been in the position where we're the so-called favorite.

"If you ask anybody are we playing our best hockey right now, no. We've played better throughout this year. Some people might have lost a little faith in us, but in this room here we know we can still get the job done."

In the best of times, this job is difficult. The NHL West, like the NBA West, is overloaded with quality teams. If the Canucks get past St. Louis, which also is struggling, they will have two rounds left just to get into the Cup finals and will probably have to play two of these three — Colorado, Detroit or Dallas.

"It's roll the dice in every playoff series in the West," Los Angeles Coach Andy Murray said. "Nobody can act like some kind of expert and predict a winner in the West."

But at the most important time of the season, when this city was looking for something to celebrate, the Canucks didn't look like winners. And even the pints of G.A.A. beer couldn't blur that reality.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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