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Best players disappear as Canucks continue playoff losing tradition

VANCOUVER - Moaning over a Vancouver Canuck playoff exit has become a West Coast tradition much like sweeping up after the cherry blossoms and following the latest political calamity.

Consistency is generally a good thing, but not being able to move past the second round of the playoffs is a trend the Canucks want to end. To do that, Vancouver needs its best players not to disappear once the regular season ends.

A 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night eliminated Vancouver from the NHL Western Conference semifinal. The Blackhawks won the best-of-seven series 4-2. It's the second consecutive season Chicago has beaten Vancouver in the conference semifinal.

The Canucks have won the Northwest Division title three times in the last four years. For a talented team able to record 100-point seasons and set franchise records, simply making the playoffs isn't good enough.

"Winning our division means nothing anymore," said defenceman Sami Salo. "It's more what you can do in the playoffs. Losing in the second round can't be good enough."

Salo wrote himself into Canuck lore by playing Game 6 even though he was taken to hospital Sunday night after being hit in the groin by a slapshot. Along with Ryan Kesler (shoulder) and Mikael Samuelsson (back), he was one of several Canucks playing hurt.

"Players who are on the ice, they have to play the game," Salo said. "They can't make excuses about injuries."

Vancouver was manhandled by the bigger, stronger, faster Blackhawks. Veterans like Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows lost their cool and took undisciplined penalties. The Canuck defence couldn't clear the Hawks from in front of the Vancouver net. The forwards didn't get traffic in front of the Chicago goal.

The players the Canucks needed the most to beat the Blackhawks didn't deliver.

Roberto Luongo, who begins a 12-year, US$64-million contract next season, was brilliant some nights but very average others. The goaltender who backstopped Canada to a gold medal at the Olympics had a goals-against average of 3.22 and save percentage of .895, the worst of any netminder in the second round.

"Everyone can play better, including him," said Daniel Sedin. "We can't start to point fingers.

"We've got to take full responsibility."

Daniel and his twin brother Henrik couldn't shake the Chicago checking line that stuck to them like wallpaper. With the top forwards smothered, defencemen scored four of Vancouver's last five goals.

Henrik Sedin, who won the regular-season scoring race with 112 points and has been nominated as league MVP, had two goals and four assists against Chicago. Daniel, who had 29 goals and 85 points during the season, managed just one goal and three assists.

Alex Burrows, who led the Canucks with 35 goals during the season, scored three times during the playoffs. Two of those went into empty nets. Kesler, the two-time Selke Trophy nominee who had 25 goals during the season, had one empty-net goal in Vancouver's first-round defeat of the Los Angeles Kings.

Samuelsson, who was sizzling hot with seven goals against the Kings, turned ice cold when facing the Hawks.

Pavol Demitra, who earned US$4 million this season, has probably played his last game as a Canuck. He gave up the puck on Dave Bolland's shorthanded goal that was the dagger to Vancouver's heart in Game 6.

Hulking Hawk forward Dustin Byfuglien had four goals during the series. That's more than Vancouver's Mason Raymond, Kyle Wellwood, and Steve Bernier combined.

The Chicago series also exposed Vancouver's lack of depth at defence.

Willie Mitchell has been out since January with a concussion. He becomes a free agent this summer and likely won't be re-signed. Vancouver lost Alex Edler with a leg injury early Tuesday.

Christian Ehrhoff has speed and a scoring touch, but isn't physical. Shane O'Brien has size but can be undisciplined.

Having the Olympics in Vancouver forced the Canucks on a 14-game road trip this season. Vancouver still finished the season with a 49-28-5 record for 103 points and the third seed in the West. The team also set a franchise record with 30 wins at GM Place.

During the playoffs, the Canucks lost at home three times against Chicago and were outscored 17-7.

"For what ever reason, where we had been real good this year at home, we didn't play real well and we lost the series," said coach Alain Vigneault.

Vigneault signed a contract extension last fall that runs through the 2012-13 season. The contracts of his assistants comedue this year and some may not be renewed.

The Canucks' corpse had barely started to cool before callers to sport radio programs began voicing their dissent.

General manager Mike Gillis was blamed for not doing more at the trade deadline. Vigneault's coaching was questioned. Some think naming Luongo the team's captain was a mistake because it's a distraction for the goalie.

Many critics think the team doesn't have enough brawn or brains.

Vancouver has not won a Stanley Cup since entering the NHL in 1970. The last time the Canucks advanced past the second round of the playoffs was 1994, when they lost in the Stanley Cup final to the New York Rangers.

If that tradition continues much longer team owner Francesco Aquilini will likely demand some changes.

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