Joel Ward and Ryan Kesler put on a show, Predators edge Canucks 4-3

Going into Game 5, Ryan Kesler was the star and villain of this series. The Vancouver Canucks’ two-way center was outstanding again tonight, but he was forced to make room for a rival star. Nashville Predators forward Joel Ward stole the spotlight to help his team earn its first ever win while facing elimination.

Ward combined with David Legwand and Mike Fisher to absolutely dominate the should-be dominant Sedin line, helping Nashville stay alive with a 4-3 win.

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

It makes sense that this game followed this series’ pattern of close games. It doesn’t make as much sense that possibly the best line from the regular season is getting torn apart by a group of little-known grinders, though.

The Predators are now 1-5 in franchise history when facing elimination, while the Canucks are 1-4 in elimination games in 2011.

An unexpectedly exciting first period

In a series full of drab opening frames, this game started off with a bang and rarely slowed down.

Things looked grim for Nashville when they took an early penalty, but Mikael Samuelsson* ended up making a boneheaded mistake. He turned the puck over to Ward, who sent a gorgeous pass to Legwand for a gorgeous shorthanded 1-0 tally. That man advantage wasn’t a total disaster for Vancouver, though, as Raffi Torres took advantage of a great takeaway and pass by Jannik Hansen to tie it up moments after the PP expired.

Kesler’s rise to stardom continued late in the first as he made a great play to beat Shea Weber and finish Mason Raymond’s one-timer setup.

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A strange goal leads in to the Ward-Kesler duel

The Predators have scored quite a few weird goals from behind Roberto Luongo’s net, but Legwand’s tying goal might just be the strangest. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great night for Alex Edler. (Note: Highlights of Nashville goals can be found at the bottom of this post.)

The game remained 2-2 going into the third period, which put a huge exclamation point on Ward’s amazing playoff run. The pending free agent finished a beautiful one-timer pass from Fisher to make it 3-2. Ward then he pounced on a turnover to slam home the eventual game-winning goal.

Ward almost made it a three-goal lead when he out-skated Edler for a shorthanded goal attempt, but Luongo made the save to deny his natural hat trick attempt.  Ward’s three-point night ties him for second place in the 2011 playoffs with 12 points. His seven goals is unexpected after he only scored 10 during the regular season.

Kesler continues to dominate, but couldn’t do it by himself tonight.

While Ward was the star of the night, Kesler is earning Mark Messier comparisons with his combination of grit and goal scoring prowess. He scored yet another goal with a little less than four minutes remaining in the game, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.

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Kesler ended the game with two goals, a ridiculous 21-5 record on faceoffs, six hits and plenty of hatred from Nashville. Ward had two goals, one assist, four hits and a +3 rating in Game 5.

A quick outlook for both teams

Nashville gets an opportunity to earn a second round win at home after dropping Games 3 and 4 in their own barn. They just need to stick with it and take advantage of the nothing-to-lose energy they’ll likely take into Game 6. Their support players are coming through while Pekka Rinne remains a difference maker.

Luongo still doesn’t deserve the blame (most of those goals were unstoppable), but the Sedin twins deserve plenty of criticism for their flop tonight. Ward’s line absolutely devoured them in Game 5, leaving Daniel (-4 rating) and Henrik (-3) looking like the nobodies in this contest. The Canucks might not need them to be outright stars, but now they’re getting flat-out embarrassed.

The Canucks now must take another 12 hour flight to Nashville and play at least 60 more grinding minutes against the Predators. Even if they win in Game 6, this was a loss that could haunt them in the near future.

* – Versus reports that Samuelsson won’t travel with the Canucks to Nashville because of a lower-body injury.

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Hurricanes give Di Giuseppe a two-way deal for 2017-18

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The Carolina Hurricanes signed forward Phil Di Giuseppe to a one-year, two-way contract on Thursday.

The team announced that Di Giuseppe’s deal is worth $725K at the NHL level and $125K in the AHL in 2017-18.

Di Giuseppe, 23, was the 38th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. He’s been getting some looks at the NHL level with Carolina:

2015-16: 17 points in 41 games
2016-17: seven points in 36 games

He’s also been splitting time between the AHL and NHL lately, so a two-way deal works well enough.

Carolina doesn’t have much more to do on the free agent front, but that doesn’t mean that their off-season is wrapped up, as there’s still that whole ownership situation to settle.

Habs president Molson pens glowing farewell letter to Markov

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Another bold move by GM Marc Bergevin, another statement from Montreal Canadiens president/CEO Geoff Molson.

However Molson actually feels about the franchise’s decision to let Andrei Markov leave for the KHL, he provided quite the goodbye letter regarding the 38-year-old defenseman. One can’t help but wonder how Molson feels about Montreal’s overall makeover, whether you believe Mark Streit is really “replacing” Markov or not.

Anyway, that will need to wait. In the meantime, here’s the very kind statement from Molson to Markov:

“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to thank Andrei for his great contributions during his 16 seasons as a proud member of the Montreal Canadiens. Arguably one of the best defensemen in franchise history, Andrei was a model of dedication to the great game of hockey. A respected figure around the league and among his teammates, Andrei demonstrated leadership both on and off the ice. Andrei’s commitment to our franchise was second to none, proven by his overcoming three serious and potentially career-ending injuries. I would like to wish Andrei the best of luck in the next step of his career, and happiness with his family.”

Speaking of Canadiens all-timers, Larry Robinson had plenty of nice things to say about Markov, too.

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Markov, Habs officially part ways.

Markov is headed to the KHL.

Sabres re-sign Eichel’s buddy Rodrigues for two years

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The Buffalo Sabres might have signed Evan Rodrigues back in 2015 in part because he enjoyed so much success as a college linemate with Jack Eichel at Boston University, but the undrafted forward seems like he’s making a case that he’ll be a part of their future in his own right.

The Sabres handed Rodrigues a two-year deal that is two-way in 2017-18 and one-way in 2018-19. Whenever he’s at the NHL level, it’s worth $650K per season.

Rodrigues debuted in 2015-16, scoring a goal and an assist in two games. He managed to play in 30 regular-season contests for the Sabres last season, collecting six points.

He’s shown quite a bit of improvement at the AHL level, in particular. After collecting 30 points in 72 games for the Rochester Americans in 2015-16, he scored 30 again in 2016-17, although he only needed 48 contests to do so. Rodrigues isn’t quite Matt Moulson to Eichel’s John Tavares just yet, but it’s possible that he might at least develop into a regular NHL player.

Buffalo’s work isn’t done for the summer just yet, as RFAs Zemgus Girgensons and Nathan Beaulieu still need deals.

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

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Andrei Markov wanted to play his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens. With that option officially off the table, Markov announced that he’s headed for Russia and the KHL.

“I didn’t see myself with any other NHL team,” Markov said during a conference call wrapping up his lengthy stay with the Habs. “I didn’t see myself wearing another jersey.”

(At least not the jersey of another NHL team.)

The 38-year-old also noted that he hasn’t closed the door to a return to Montreal. That makes sense since it seems like it was largely the Canadiens’ decision to part ways with Markov, essentially replacing him with Mark Streit at a heavily discounted rate.

Beyond the comforts of home, Markov was almost certainly motivated to play in the KHL because of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The veteran blueliner did not mention which KHL team he’ll end up playing for. There were some rumblings that Markov might sign with the Florida Panthers, but that turned out to not be true.

If it’s a one-year deal, a return to the Habs is at least feasible in 2018-19. Considering his age, it sure seems like this is the end of Markov’s lengthy run with the Canadiens, though.