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Kings Can’t Master Trick

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thursday was a lost cause for the Kings.

They lost to the Vancouver Canucks, 5-2, in front of a sellout crowd of 18,422 in General Motors Place, giving up four goals in the last 24 minutes, three by Canuck captain Markus Naslund for his third hat trick of the season.

They lost a chance to clinch a Western Conference playoff berth.

They lost all hope of winning the Pacific Division championship, the San Jose Sharks wrapping up their first division title while flying home from St. Louis after losing to the Blues, 4-1, and giving the Kings an opening.

They lost their winning streak, which ended after three games.

What was not lost was their road winless streak, which reached five games. They’re 0-4-1 outside Staples Center since March 18.

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Also not lost, however, was the Kings’ ability to control their own fate. They’ll still qualify for the playoffs if they earn a point in either of their final two games, Saturday at San Jose or Sunday against the Mighty Ducks at Staples Center.

Or, failing that, they’ll make it in if the Edmonton Oilers lose or tie in either of their last two games, tonight against the Calgary Flames at Edmonton, Canada, and Sunday against the Minnesota Wild at St. Paul, Minn.

The second option, however, holds little appeal to the Kings.

“If we back into the playoffs, we’re not going to do any good when we get there,” defenseman Aaron Miller said after the Kings had lost for the second time in three games against the Canucks over the last 18 days, the other ending in a tie. “We’ve got to play better, and we’ve got two more games to do it.”

A tie or overtime loss would have been enough to nail down a playoff berth for the Kings, but they wanted to defeat the Canucks.

“Any game that we’re in and it’s the latter stages of the game, you want to keep your guard up and be smart,” Coach Andy Murray said before the game. “But if you sit back, that’s usually when bad things happen, so we could never go in with the mind-set that we’re playing for a tie. We play for the win all the way.”

The surging Canucks, meanwhile, had no other choice.

Unbeaten in their last eight games, the Canucks may be the hottest team in the league with a 12-2-1 record since March 10, but the only way they could guarantee themselves a playoff spot was to win Thursday night and again Saturday night against the Flames.

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Otherwise, they’d probably need outside help and, as the Kings could have told them, you can’t always count on the kindness of strangers.

After defeating the Dallas Stars, 3-0, on Monday night at Staples Center, the Kings could have clinched a playoff spot without playing another game but the Canucks and Oilers kept within striking distance of the Kings by winning their games Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Thursday night, the Kings’ deficit was only 2-1 with less than eight minutes to play, but the Canucks broke the game open after a neutral-zone pass by King defenseman Mathieu Schneider caromed off a door jam along the boards and bounced right onto Naslund’s stick.

The Canuck scoring leader carried the puck into the King zone and wristed a shot past goaltender Felix Potvin with 7:37 to play.

Naslund scored his 38th goal with 3:11 to play, making the score 4-1 and then, after Adam Deadmarsh scored for the Kings with 2:31 remaining, added an empty-net goal with 17 seconds left, the appreciative crowd littering the ice with hats.

“He’s a great player,” Murray said of Naslund, “but you don’t give him the opportunities we gave him. We laid a couple right on his stick.”

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Artem Chubarov brought the crowd to its feet with 9:14 to play in the first period, scoring his fifth goal of the season to give the Canucks a 1-0 lead.

Less than 21/2 minutes into the second, Mikko Eloranta pulled the Kings even, intercepting a clearing attempt and scoring his ninth goal unassisted on a shot from the top of the slot.

But after Todd Bertuzzi scored his 36th goal on a shot from the left faceoff circle with 3:53 to play in the period, the Canucks led for good.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*--* Murray’s Reign Since becoming coach of the Kings before the 1999-2000 season, Andy Murray has led them to three of their best six regular-season records since the franchise began in 1967. A look: Year Pts Record Coach 1974-75 105 42-17-21 Bob Pulford 1990-91 102 46-24-10 Tom Webster 1980-81 99 43-24-13 Bob Berry 1999-00 94 39-27-12-4 Murray 2001-02* 93 39-26-11-4 Murray 2000-01 91 38-28-13-3 Murray 1988-89 91 42-31-7 Robbie Ftorek *two games remaining

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