Ryan Kesler

Ryan Kesler confirms villain status, scores highlight reel goal as Vancouver takes 3-1 series lead

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If you ask many hockey people, Ryan Kesler is just as big a part of the Vancouver Canucks’ success as the Sedin twins. Some will even say that he is their true MVP.

He’s also a wildly different player than those Swedish siblings. While Henrik and Daniel Sedin aren’t likely to make an impact on a game if they aren’t scoring (or creating a lot of chances), Kesler’s two-way play and agitating presence requires attention even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard.

After struggling to score goals for a big chunk of the playoffs (but doing just about everything else), Kesler is finding the net against the Nashville Predators. His tendency to draw penalties and score heart-breaking goals is making him perhaps the first true villain for the still-relatively-young Predators fan base.

Vancouver 4, Nashville 2; Canucks lead series 3-1

Kesler drew a penalty (and plenty of ire) in overtime of Game 3 before scoring the game-winner on the ensuing power play, but that image won’t live on in hockey history. Not compared to his absolute beauty of a game-winning goal from Game 4. Rather than spilling a bunch of digital ink explaining his great defense-splitting move, I’ll just let you enjoy the footage in its jaw-dropping glory.

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Yup, that’s pretty amazing. Kesler’s goal (and boisterous celebration) was the only truly captivating moment in this muck-and-grind Game 4. Let’s give you a quick rundown of how it all happened, though.

An “explosive” first period

Christian Ehrhoff’s point shot gave Vancouver a 1-0 lead in the first period, although the biggest moment of interest revolved around Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s angry reaction. Rinne thought that Alex Burrows interfered with him on that goal, but if you ask me, Burrows was far enough outside the crease that the goal was OK.

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Joel Ward is becoming quite the success story in this year’s playoffs. He tied things up with less than minute left in the first period. To give you an idea of how tight this series has been, the opening frame’s two goals provided more offense than the three previous games’ first periods combined total of just one.

Predators don’t give up

Alexander Edler gave the Canucks a 2-1 lead through the second period, but the Predators have been a resilient group in this series. Cody Franson’s point shot beat Roberto Luongo to make it 2-2 early in the third, even if the two teams’ non-reaction reminded many of the confusion surrounding Patrick Kane’s 2010 Cup-winning goal.

That 2-2 tie set the stage for Kesler’s star-making moment. He forced a tired Ryan Suter to take a holding penalty and then scored that gorgeous goal. Henrik Sedin finally scored his first playoff goal on an empty net and also provided two assists, but the Sedin twins weren’t as effective as their improved stats would indicate in this game.

Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, though, as Kesler is carrying the mail himself.

Outlook for both teams

The Canucks must feel great about their 3-1 lead, but they better not take Game 5 lightly. They took their gas off the pedal in the first round and were an overtime period away from humiliation. Vancouver seems content to sit back on leads in individual games, too, so they need to avoid taking this situation for granted.

That’s especially true if the San Jose Sharks make short work of the Detroit Red Wings. A well-rested Sharks team would be a tough match for them anyway, but if Nashville forces an extra grinding game or two, it could be a big problem. The Sedin twins obviously need to get it going, as well.

The Predators cannot be happy right now, but they can find solace in how close these games have been. Chicago was close behind Vancouver and broke through when the Canucks relaxed. Obviously it wasn’t enough to win that series, but if Barry Trotz needs to find a light at the end of the tunnel, that might be it.

Perhaps Nashville could steal Game 5 and then see how it goes? We’ll find out Saturday night on Versus at 8 p.m. ET.

Khudobin delivered an encouraging performance for the Bruins

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) and left wing Brad Marchand (63) celebrate with goalie Anton Khudobin after he blocked a shot by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jeff Skinner to win the game, 2-1, in a shootout during an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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Anton Khudobin gave the Boston Bruins a much-needed win last night.

He also gave Tuukka Rask a much-welcomed night off.

The Bruins beat the Hurricanes, 2-1, in a shootout at TD Garden. Khudobin made 29 saves, plus two more in the shootout, including the game-decider on Jeff Skinner.

It was an encouraging performance by Khudobin, who returned to the Bruins net for the second time since a conditioning stint in the AHL. It was the first time this season that a Boston goalie other than Rask was credited with a win.

“Very good,” head coach Claude Julien said of Khudobin’s play. “He deserves a lot of accolades tonight, for the way he played, the way he responded after being out such a long time. I think the fact that he went to Providence and played some games there really helped him get back on track. Tonight, he showed that he was ready to play.”

Julien added, “No doubt, there’s a lot of confidence that grew in that dressing room by watching his play and knowing that we’ve got two goaltenders that can play extremely well for us.”

The Bruins did not feel they had good enough backup goaltending the past two seasons, both of which ended outside the playoff picture. And so they bid adieu to Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson, bringing Khudobin back into the fold on a two-year contract.

Granted, one win isn’t enough to conclude that Khudobin will be fine. He’s now 1-3-0 with a .902 save percentage, and those numbers could still be much better.

But he’ll be back in there soon enough. The Bruins have 15 more games in December, and Rask isn’t going to play them all.

Blues ‘need more’ from Lehtera, who could be healthy scratched

Jori Lehtera
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Jori Lehtera received one of his lowest ice times of the season in Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay — just 11:21 — and was demoted to the fourth line at Friday’s practice.

If that didn’t send a message, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock delivered it shortly thereafter.

“We’re going to need more from him,” Hitchcock said, per NHL.com’s Lou Korac. “The position we have him in, we need more from that position.”

Lehtera was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million extension after a solid ’14-15 campaign, in which he scored 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games. His offensive production sagged a bit last year (nine goals, 34 points in 79 games) and he’s gone through some difficult stretches this year.

The 28-year-old Finn had just three points through his first 15 games of the year, but did look as though he’d turned the corner recently. Prior to the Bolts game he had four points in four contests, including his first multi-goal effort of the season (potting a pair in a 4-2 win over Boston).

Clearly, though, Hitchcock thinks there’s more to give.

Per the Post-Dispatch, Hitch said he’s unsure if Lehtera will play on Saturday, when the Blues host the Jets. Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie both sat out against Tampa Bay, and either one could draw into the lineup.

The Lehtera development comes with the Blues playing some of their best hockey of the year. They’ve won seven of their last eight, and are just four points back of Chicago for top spot in the Western Conference.

Pre-game reading: Some advice for Nolan Patrick

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— Up top, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones discuss the Penguins’ two-goalie situation, which GM Jim Rutherford recently admitted was not working as well as he’d hoped.

Nolan Patrick, the likely first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, is currently out with an injury. Tyler Benson, a top draft prospect last year who battled injuries, has some advice for Patrick: “I don’t think he should be worrying about the draft. People know what kind of player he can be. He’s played two years in this league already and he’s dominated. I think he should worry about making sure he’s 100 per cent when he comes back.” Benson was eventually selected 32nd overall by the Oilers. (The Province)

— A couple of weeks ago, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk got mad at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper after an editorial called on him to push for an outdoor game at TD Place. Yada, yada, yada, Melynk is now pushing for an outdoor game at TD Place. (Ottawa Sun)

Hampus Lindholm has been good defensively in his return to the Anaheim Ducks, but with only two assists in his first 11 games, you have to think he’ll want to start contributing more to the offense soon. Lindholm is now the highest-paid defenseman on his team, with a cap hit just over $5 million. And if the Ducks have to trade Cam Fowler at any point, they’ll need Lindholm’s offense even more. That’s just the pressure that comes with a big contract. We’ll see how he fares. (OC Register)

— In 2015-16, no Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1969-70. So, how are things looking this season? Long story short, quite a bit better. Three of the seven Canadian teams are currently in a playoff spot, and the other four aren’t out of it yet. (TSN)

— What a surprise, the Winnipeg Jets hurt themselves with too many penalties last night against Edmonton. “Those early penalties and how much time we spent in the box early on killed us,” said Bryan Little. “Our PK couldn’t get it done.” This has been a problem for way too long now. Over the last three seasons combined, the Jets have gone shorthanded 686 times, the most in the NHL. Clearly, they aren’t good enough to play with such poor discipline, so perhaps they should figure it out. (Winnipeg Sun)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: It’s Chad Johnson’s net in Calgary

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Chad Johnson #31 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Chad Johnson, the Flames’ goalie of record in eight of their last 10 games, will once again be in goal when Calgary hosts Minnesota on Friday night.

Johnson, as we’ve written about on numerous occasions, was terrific for the Flames in November, going 7-3-0 with a 1.80 GAA and .939 save percentage. He essentially wrestled the No. 1 gig away from Brian Elliott, and closed out the month in style by posting a 39-save shutout against Toronto on Wednesday.

As a result, Calgary has clawed back from a disappointing start to draw within one point of Nashville for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference (granted, the Flames have played four more games than the Preds).

For the Wild, Devan Dubnyk‘s in goal.

Elsewhere…

— Just one other game this evening, as Montreal takes on the Sharks in San Jose. It promises to be a quality matchup as both teams are rolling with their No. 1s: Carey Price for the Habs, Martin Jones for the Sharks.