Five Thoughts: Ryan Kesler breaking out just in time

We’re a bit overdue for this today, but we hope you’ll indulge us at lunchtime with our Five Thoughts.

1. The arrival of Ryan Kesler to the party during the Canucks’ series with Nashville has been just what they needed to help turn what could’ve been another dogfight of a series into one where Vancouver is one win away from the Western final. With two goals in Game 3 and a big goal in Game 4, Kesler has been a difference maker now in two straight games in Nashville. Kesler is the leading scorer for Vancouver in this series with three goals and four assists. Pretty solid work against a team that prides itself of defending.

Sure, you might want to complain about some of his exaggerations on penalties, but right now he’s playing like the guy who scored 40 goals during the year and was one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. With Kesler stepping up his game while the Sedin twins remain mostly non-factors shows how dangerous the Canucks could be if they were playing at full capacity.

2. We know we’ve been marveling at Pekka Rinne’s play in this series, but imagine where the Predators would be without him? All of a sudden Rinne’s work in Game 2 to stand on his head and steal one for Nashville is the only thing keeping this series from being another sweep. Rinne’s had to be outstanding because Roberto Luongo’s been even stronger at the other end of the ice.

We know that defense is what makes the Predators go but without a virtually flawless goalie like Rinne, they’d be dead in the water. Sure he didn’t look too hot against Anaheim and the Preds offense was able to support him in that series, but that might just speak more to how flawed the Ducks were. Against a beast of a team like Vancouver, Rinne has to be outstanding and the offense has to find a way to make it better. The latter is not happening. Unless the Canucks get complacent and the Predators get back to playing “Predator hockey” they’re toast.

3. While Alex Ovechkin is headed to Slovakia for the World Championships, his teammate Alexander Semin is not and it’s because Russian national coach Vyacheslav Bykov had strong reasons why. Dmitry Chesnokov from Puck Daddy updated via Twitter that Bykov told Sov Sport, “We won’t invite Semin under any circumstances. His play in the last Washington game was very weak.”

Now we don’t want to say that the Russian national coach noticed something that perhaps the Caps staff hasn’t, but that’s a damning statement when your own country doesn’t want to take you in for a tournament where the added help would go a long way to helping a Russian team that’s struggled. The Caps go year-to-year with contracts for Semin but he looked awfully poor against Tampa Bay after looking decent against the Rangers. Perhaps he’ll be part of a roster shake-up in Washington this summer.

4. If anyone is thinking that this year’s version of the Flyers has it in them to do what last year’s Flyers did to Boston I think you’re fooling yourself. Last year’s Flyers team showed a lot of guts throughout their first few losses against the Bruins in that series. This Flyers team hasn’t shown any of that and on top of things, they’re playing sloppy.

If nothing else though, the Flyers can be proud of how these playoffs have become James van Riemsdyk’s coming out party as an offensive force. The former second overall pick in the draft has been outstanding in the playoffs and he along with Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere have been their steady offensive guys. With Jeff Carter hurt and Mike Richards doing more to earn a poor reputation than leading the team to wins, they’ve needed it… It just hasn’t been enough.

5. Crazy to think that if all the teams that are leading win their next game, the second round will be over with. It’s a decided letdown after the excitement of the first round and while we don’t expect that every round will be bonkers, one sweep along with two potential other sweeps and a fourth series that could end in five leaves us feeling a little flat. Perhaps we’re just spoiled.

That said, the series that are setting up for the next round have us tickled, especially for what could be coming from out west with a possible San Jose-Vancouver Western Conference final.

Konecny’s OT goal lifts Flyers to another win, puts them back in playoff spot

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The Philadelphia Flyers are on some kind of a roll, and now they are back in a playoff position.

They were 2-1 winners in Washington on Sunday afternoon thanks to an overtime goal from Travis Konecny, giving the Flyers their seventh win in their past eight games.

Sunday’s win helped the Flyers jump over the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, while also bringing them to within a single point of the Columbus Blue Jackets for third place in the Metropolitan Division and just two points of the New Jersey Devils for second place.

Considering that this is a team that lost 10 games in a row between Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 it is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Since that losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 15-5-1.

The driving force behind the turnaround has been the trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. Those three were relatively quiet from an offensive perspective on Sunday (Couturier did get an assist on Konecny’s winner) but the Flyers were still able to come away with the win.

The big difference maker on Sunday was goaltender Brian Elliott thanks to his 27 stops. He was at his best in the first period when he made a handful of stellar stops on Alex Ovechkin, including this point-blank stop when the game was still scoreless.

Elliott was in need of a game like this because he had not played well over the past few weeks, giving up at least three goals in each of his past seven appearances. Only once during that stretch did he record a save percentage higher than .900 in a single game, and even that game was only .903.

Ovechkin did end up scoring his league-leading 29th goal in the second period, scoring on a power the play, but it was the only shot the Capitals would get behind Elliott.

Michael Raffl also scored for the Flyers in the win.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

[Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz

Team USA general manager Jim Johannson dies at age 53

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Sad news from USA hockey on Sunday morning as the organization announced that Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director or USA Hockey and the general manager of the 2018 men’s Olympic hockey team, has died at the age of 53.

According to the announcement, Johannson passed away in his sleep early Sunday morning at his home in Colorado Springs.

“We are beyond shocked and profoundly saddened,” Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, said in a statement released by the organization.

“As accomplished as Jim was in hockey, he was the absolute best, most humble, kind and caring person you could ever hope to meet. His impact on our sport and more importantly the people and players in our sport have been immeasurable. Our condolences go out to his entire family, but especially to his loving wife Abby and their young daughter Ellie.”

“In building the teams that achieved so much success for USA Hockey, Jim Johannson had a sharp eye for talent, a strong sense of chemistry and a relentless pursuit of excellence,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “The NHL family’s respect for Jim’s contributions to hockey, at all levels, is exceeded only by our shock and sorrow over his sudden passing. We send strength, comfort and condolences to Jim’s wife, Abby, his daughter, Ellie, and his many friends in our sport. As we mourn his loss, we will remember the positive outlook Jim brought to his tireless efforts to advance USA Hockey.”

He had been with USA Hockey since 2000. During his time Team USA won 64 medals (34 gold) at various international tournaments.

He helped assemble the 2018 men’s team which will be using non-NHL players for the first time since the 1994 games.

Johannson played hockey at the collegiate level for the University of Wisconsin and was a seventh-round draft pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1982. He never made it to the NHL but had a successful career in the International Hockey League playing for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, Indianapolis Ice, and Milwaukee Admirals.

Along with being one of the top executives for USA hockey for years, Johannson also represented Team USA on the ice as a player during the 1988 games in Calgary and the 1992 games in Albertville.

He scored two goals for Team USA in Olympic competition.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals

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PROJECTED LINES

Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Michael RafflValtteri Filppula – Jake Voracek

Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton – Tyrell Goulbourne

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Robert Hägg – Andrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

[NHL ON NBC: FLYERS LOOK TO STAY HOT AGAINST CAPITALS]

Washington Capitls

Forwards

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

Andrei Burakovsky – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Chandler StephensonLars EllerBrett Connolly

Devante Smith-PellyJay BeagleAlex Chiasson

Defense

Christian DjoosJohn Carlson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting Goalie: Braden Holtby

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.