By Jim Morris, special to CBC Sports
VANCOUVER -- For much of the night against the San Jose Sharks, the Vancouver Canucks looked like a boxer that had climbed into the ring with a much better fighter.
The Canucks were able to bob and weave and duck some punches. They even landed a few blows of their own.
But as the opening game of the NHL Western Conference quarter-final progressed Wednesday, the Canucks began to fade. You knew it was only a matter of time before the bigger, stronger Sharks would land the knockout blow.
Dan Boyle put the Canucks on the ropes when he scored on a scramble midway through the third period. Four Vancouver players converged on San Jose centre Tommy Wingels, but the puck squirted to Boyle, who had a wide-open net.
"We have to find a way to be better," Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said after the 3-1 loss.
"I know our top guys can play better than they did tonight. At the end of the night, we have to play better than we did."
It was the second straight year that Vancouver dropped the opening game of the playoffs at home. The Canucks have lost five straight home playoff games, dating back to their Game 7 loss against Boston in the 2011 Stanley Cup final.
Vancouver also was beaten by a team that won just eight road games during the regular season.
A Canucks power play that had showed some life near the end of the season looked stagnant, failing to score on two chances. San Jose was quicker to the puck and won more battles along the boards.
While the Sharks danced a jig most of the night, the Canucks did a slow waltz. When Vancouver did get scoring chances, they were sucked up like a vacuum cleaner by Shark goaltender Anttii Niemi. The Canucks' only goal came in the second period when defenceman Kevin Bieksa scored on a scramble.
"We've got to bear down when we get the chances," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who like twin brother Daniel, went rather unnoticed all night.
"We spent way too much time chasing the puck tonight."
'Banging and hacking'
If it wasn't for some great goaltending by Luongo, the game could have been over in the first period when the Sharks outshot Vancouver 15-9.
One of Luongo's best saves came during the Sharks' first power play. Forward Martin Havlat blasted a shot that Luongo blocked. The rebound bounced to Marleau, who fired a bullet that Luongo stopped with his pad.
Later, on the same power play, Couture launched a rocket that Luongo calmly gloved. That produced chants of "Luuu, Luuu" from the crowd at Rogers Arena.
It was a playoff start Luongo hadn't expected. He was pressed into service because of an unspecified injury to Cory Schneider. Schneider, who had taken over as Vancouver's No. 1, didn't even dress for the game, leaving Joe Cannata as the backup.
Luongo's play hid many of the team's flaws.
"I don't think there was a lack of effort," said Luongo. "We saw the type of goals that were scored tonight.
"It was around the crease, banging and hacking away. That's the way it's going to be."
Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, the motor who can drive Vancouver, looked like a player badly in need of repair. He spent a lot of time hunched over and seemed to have trouble moving. Last summer, he underwent shoulder and wrist surgery. Two years ago, he had hip surgery.
Kesler, who didn't take the morning skate, finished the game with 21 minutes and 33 seconds of ice time, but just two shots on net and one hit.
He slipped questions about his health.
"Do I ever feel like my chipper self?" he said.
The Canucks will have a chance to redeem themselves when Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is played Friday night.
A win puts Vancouver right back in the fight. Another loss and the Canucks might be looking for a soft spot on the canvas to land.
Follow Jim Morris on Twitter @jememorris
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