VANCOUVER — In a game that was important only because the National Hockey League plays Santa Claus each April and awards playoff berths to the fourth-place teams, the Kings took on the Vancouver Canucks Wednesday night.
And the result, a 5-1 victory by the Canucks, would seem to indicate that the Kings may have some free time on their hands next April.
Locked in their annual battle of mediocrity with the Canucks, the Kings considered their back-to-back games against Vancouver, including a return engagement Saturday night at the Forum, to be a crucial two-game set.
But the Vancouver victory, accomplished in front of a crowd of 8,753 at the Pacific Coliseum, assured that the Canucks will remain ahead of the Kings at least through the weekend in the "race" for the Smythe Division's fourth and final playoff berth.
It also ended a six-game winless streak for the Canucks, who were 0-4-2 since winning at Buffalo Dec. 6.
For the Kings, who are 2-11-1 since beating Chicago Nov. 25, the loss extended their winless streak at Vancouver, where they are 0-5-2 since beating the Canucks Jan. 17, 1986.
"It seems like every time we come here, they play their best game," Luc Robitaille said. "I see them on TV and they aren't that good a team."
Which begs the obvious question: Are the Kings really that bad?
"We were embarrassed," Jay Wells said. "It was 5-0, really."
The Kings, playing their fourth game in five nights, avoided being shut out for the first time in 125 games when Paul Fenton beat goaltender Kirk McLean with 21 seconds left.
Otherwise, the night was a total loss for the Kings, who were 0 for 6 on the power play and have scored only 4 goals in their last 45 manpower advantages.
The Kings, who had only four shots on goal in five power-play opportunities Tuesday night against Edmonton, had just six shots in their six manpower advantages against the Canucks.
"We couldn't get the puck out of our own zone," Coach Robbie Ftorek said.
If this was the Kings' biggest game of the season, as several players had indicated, it was difficult to tell by the way they were outplayed.
"They were dominant," Robitaille said of the Canucks, who had scored only 13 goals in their previous six games and, with a 3.3 average, are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams.
Vancouver outshot the Kings, 47-21.
In the first period, the Kings were outshot, 22-3, as the Canucks equaled a 14-year-old club record for widest margin outshooting an opponent in a period.
Only the brilliant goaltending of Glenn Healy enabled the Kings to escape with only a 2-0 deficit.
Petri Skriko gave the Canucks a 1-0 lead, taking the rebound of a shot by Barry Pederson along the goal line and making a pretty move to get around defenseman Steve Duchesne.
Just 2:22 later, Greg Adams shot wide to the right of an open net but chased down the rebound and fed the puck to Doug Lidster at the right point.
Lidster's shot hit John LeBlanc, who was standing just outside the crease, and bounced between Healy's legs.
Vancouver outshot the Kings only 12-8 in the second period but added a short-handed goal to make it 3-0.
With Dave Richter in the penalty box for holding Joe Paterson, Doug Wickenheiser took a pass near the Kings' blue line from Rich Sutter and skated between King defensemen Mark Hardy and Jay Wells.
Though Hardy seemed to have a tight grip on Wickenheiser's stick, he was able to flick a shot from the bottom of the right circle that went through Healy's legs.
Rich Sutter made it 4-0 with 4:41 left, skating through the slot and taking a pass from Craig Coxe.
With 50 seconds left, Tony Tanti scored from the left circle.
"We knew it was an important game," Healy said, "but we just didn't seem to have it.
"I don't think it was a lack of effort, but after four games in five nights, our tanks were on E."
The Kings' 9-23-4 record is the worst in the National Hockey League. Vancouver's 11-18-5 record is tied with Minnesota for 18th overall in the NHL. . . . In the last three seasons, the Canucks are 12-3-3 against the Kings, including 2-0 this season. . . . Against the other three teams in the Smythe Division, the Canucks are 0-8-1. . . . Vancouver has killed 35 of its last 37 penalties and 69 of the last 75. . . . The Kings fell into last place on Nov. 27 and have been there since. . . . The Canucks outshot the New York Islanders, 25-6, in the second period of a game Jan. 26, 1973. . . . Dave Taylor was held out the game because of a slight groin pull. "I figure if I give it a few days rest, it'll be OK for Saturday night's game," said Taylor, who was injured in Tuesday night's 5-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. . . . Also Tuesday night, Phil Sykes aggravated the groin injury that had forced him to miss the previous 27 games. "I'm not as close (to being 100%) as I thought I was," said Sykes, who was scratched from Wednesday night's game. . . . Bob Janecyk was not at the game. He flew from Edmonton to New Haven, Conn., to spend Christmas with his family.