Power Play for Whom? : Hockey: Canucks win, 6-2, twice scoring when the Kings have the man advantage. Sandstrom returns but injures wrist.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lately, the Kings have been struggling with their penalty-killing. Tuesday night, they certainly didn't expect their own power play to rise up and strike them down.

The Vancouver Canucks scored shorthanded goals by Pavel Bure and Tom Fergus during a 21-second span in the first period to defeat the Kings, 6-2, at the Forum before a sellout crowd of 16,005. With the loss, the Kings (20-11-4) remain two points behind first-place Calgary in the Smythe Division.

Calgary's victory over Edmonton on Monday pushed the Kings out of first place for the first time since early November.

And Vancouver (20-10-3), supported by a 29-save performance from goaltender Kirk McLean, pulled within one point of the Kings.

Suffering from a number of injuries, the Kings are 1-4-2 in their last seven games and haven't won since Dec. 12 against St. Louis.

"I'm finding out about our kids," King Coach Barry Melrose said. "You don't learn about guys when you're winning. We'll learn from this game."

Right wing Tomas Sandstrom's return to the lineup should have been an inspiration, but his comeback was cut short by the end of the second period. Although Sandstrom assisted on Luc Robitaille's first-period power-play goal, which pulled the Kings to 2-1 at 16:09, he later left the game after falling on his left arm and injured his left wrist. Preliminary X-rays were negative.

"It's pretty sore," Sandstrom said. "I had lost all the strength in my hand. I didn't want to take any chances."

Sandstrom had been out of the lineup for more than four weeks because of a broken left forearm after Toronto center Doug Gilmour slashed him.

Also out of the lineup for the Kings was defenseman Rob Blake (broken rib) and center Corey Millen (strained groin). By the end of the game, the Kings' top line was Robitaille-Jari Kurri-Tony Granato.

From the start, it was clear the Kings were in for a long night. Sixteen seconds into the game, King goaltender Kelly Hrudey was beaten on the short side by a slap shot by Canuck defenseman Dana Murzyn from the top of the left circle.

For Hrudey, it was a rare shaky outing. He had some difficulties with long-range slap shots. The Canucks' second goal came on a 35-footer by Geoff Courtnall at 6:51 of the first period and their fourth goal was a 50-footer by Tom Fergus with 1:24 remaining in the first.

"I really struggled in the first period, and that was it," Hrudey said. "I've done it before and I'll do it again. I've struggled before and I've always survived."

But Hrudey couldn't be blamed for all the Kings' shortcomings.

What really hurt them was Bure's shorthander at 18:15. The Kings' Marty McSorley committed a turnover at his own blue line to create the scoring opportunity. Bure, coming down on the left wing, was able to get his own rebound to beat Hrudey.

King Notes

For the first time since training camp, Wayne Gretzky practiced with his teammates Tuesday morning. He skated for less than an hour, but it was a hard, active workout. If he continues to progress ahead of his timetable, there is a possibility Gretzky could return to the lineup before the end of January. "I can't wait," Gretzky said. "I feel really anxious and I feel like I can play right now." Before then, he plans to start traveling with the Kings. With a one-game trip to San Jose on Saturday, the next time Gretzky will skate with his teammates is Sunday or on Monday at the Kings/L.A. Times Open Practice. Tickets for the event are sold out. Gretzky is scheduled to have another MRI scan today.

Forward Jim Thomson and center Marc Fortier, acquired from Ottawa on Saturday in the Bob Kudelski deal, will join the Kings in San Jose for their game against the Sharks on Saturday. . . . Just when Dave Taylor was wondering about his future, he started experiencing a significant decrease in the dizziness from the concussion he sustained last month. "I wouldn't want an injury to be what ends it for me," he said. Taylor has another visit with his neurologist Dec. 28.

NHL COLUMN: League's best should play in '94 Olympics. C10.

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