The NHL's last, best chance for any drama in its conference semifinal series seemed to die a dull death Thursday night in Nashville. With one series already having ended in a sweep and two others at 3-0, it was left to the hometown Predators to create at least one rubber Game 5 to this round.
Rubber, or lack thereof toward Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, is a big reason why the series tally is now 3-1 as it heads back to Vancouver. While the Predators acquitted themselves well with two highly competitive games in their first Round 2 games in franchise history at the ironically named Bridgestone Arena, a four-cylinder offense just wasn't quite enough.
Ryan Kesler's third-period goal -- on the power play, following an astonishing lapse of discipline by Preds defenseman Ryan Suter -- broke a 2-2 tie and proved enough for Luongo. It was Kesler's second straight game-winner for the Canucks, who can advance to their first Western finals since 1994 with one more victory.
In a tie game, not long after Cody Franson had evened it with a slapshot goal for Nashville, Suter decided to grab Kesler around the neck from behind with two hands and dump him to the ice. There was no other option, not even in the third period of a playoff game, but to call that one.
A little more than minute later, Kesler broke down the middle, splitting Nashville D-men Shea Weber and Shane O'Brien, and pinpointed a wrist shot to the left side past goalie Pekka Rinne. Nobody was expecting a bonanza of goals from Nashville in this series.
The team's leading scorer in the regular season, Martin Erat, posted 50 points.
The Preds win with goaltending, defense and discipline. Strangely, though, the third part of that equation deserted Nashville in Games 3 and 4. Even stranger, it was top D-men Weber (hooking of Kesler in OT, Game 3) and Suter in Game 4 whose loss of composure in key moments that hurt the Preds the most.
Is it fair to say that Kesler is officially under their skin? The Canucks center, whom many compare to former NHLer Ken "The Rat" Linseman for his sandpaper-like game, was unquestionably the first star of both games in the Music City. He added two assists in the win (on goals by Christian Ehrhoff and Henrik Sedin), giving him six points in the two games.
After going goal-less his first nine games of the playoffs, Kesler now has three in the last two. With Canucks first-line center Henrik Sedin still struggling to find the back of the net (until he scored the empty-netter Thursday, he'd been held scoreless in the postseason), Kesler's offensive contributions were most welcome by coach Alain Vigneault.
For the Predators, the offensive returns seem to be slowly diminishing to the point of expiration. The night took an ominous turn for them in the second period, when they got a 5-on-3 power play for 47 seconds, but put just one shot on Luongo.
The Canucks keyed their three-man defense at taking away the shooting lanes for Weber's cannon shot -- and it worked. Weber finished the game with no shots and a minus-2, a most disappointing showing for coach Barry Trotz after his costly OT penalty two nights before.
Suter, too, was a minus-2. For a team so offensively challenged at regular strength, one so heavily reliant on their two young stars of the blue line, those kinds of numbers just aren't enough to make a compelling case for this being a long series.