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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Report: Lupul will have ‘independent medical exam’

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Joffrey Lupul issued a statement Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t seek a second medical opinion after the Maple Leafs announced he didn’t pass his training camp physical.

A day later, reports have surfaced that the 33-year-old forward will, in fact, undergo another, independent medical test.

That is according to James Mirtle of The Athletic:

Earlier this week, Lupul made accusations against the Maple Leafs on Instagram.

“I’m ready … just awaiting the call,” Lupul wrote in the comments section of the Instagram post, per a screen grab. “haha failed physical? They cheat. Everyone lets them.”

Lupul, who didn’t pass his physical for a second year in a row, issued an apology yesterday. But those comments — which have since been deleted — seem to have grabbed the attention of the league.

Darren Dreger of TSN added to that, saying it’s the NHL pursuing a second medical opinion on this matter.

“The National Hockey League has that right to pursue the second opinion. That’s exactly what they’re engaging in right now,” Dreger reported Thursday.

“The reasoning behind it is because of the comment that Lupul made on social media. I’ll go back a year ago. The league didn’t step in a year ago but Lupul stayed quiet at that point. So they want to make sure — ‘They’ being the National Hockey League — that the medical evaluation from the Toronto Maple Leafs is 100 per cent above the board.”

Team USA won’t include NHL draft-eligible prospects at 2018 Olympics

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) General manager Jim Johannson has ruled out the possibility of the U.S. men’s hockey team having NHL draft-eligible prospects competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

Johannson tells The Associated Press he doesn’t view anyone from the 18-and-younger pool of prospects capable of cracking the projected lineup of non-NHL players, many of whom are opening this season playing in Europe.

USA Hockey’s assistant executive director says he’s also targeting a number of established college players, and would not rule out keeping a spot or two open for members of the U.S. team competing at the World Junior Championships this winter.

Johansson spoke in Buffalo, New York, on Thursday, where he is attending USA Hockey’s sixth annual All-American Prospects game. The game features the top 42 U.S.-born players eligible to be selected in the NHL draft in June.

Report: Former NHL referee Devorski to stop by Jets camp

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There is heightened focus on penalties right now and the Winnipeg Jets have taken the step of bringing former NHL referee Paul Devorski to training camp for help.

The league is cracking down on slashes and faceoff infractions right now, although according to Sportsnet, Devorski’s influence at Jets camp will go beyond just those two calls.

From Sportsnet:

The retired NHL referee will be at training camp on Friday where he will officiate the team during battle drills to give Jets players a better sense of how to stay within the rules.

NHL teams reaching out to the league to consult on officiating is not new, but having a referee work on-ice with a team is a less common step.

Currently many NHL teams are consulting with the league over more hot-button issues like slashing and faceoff violations, but the Jets focus with Devorski will be on past issues.

Around the league, it will be interesting to see if there is an increase in the number of penalties called, especially early on, and if so, the possible impact that will have on the games once the regular season gets going next month.

Per Michael Traikos of the National Post, there had been 91 slashing penalties called through 19 exhibition games in which real-time statistics were kept prior to Wednesday’s slate of games.

“It definitely changes how you have to defend. Those reactionary slashes of the stick, taps to the hands, are so ingrained in a defenceman,” Eric Gryba told Sportsnet. “If they stay as rigid on the rules as they are right now… the whole makeup, landscape of the D-corps is going to change, from top to bottom. Everyone is going to have to be a better skater to defend.”

The new tweak on faceoffs has also garnered some critics. Like Brad MarchandHe isn’t a fan.

“The slashing [penalties] is one thing, but this face-off rule is an absolute joke. That’s how you ruin the game of hockey by putting that in there. They’re going to have to do something about that because we can’t play all year like that,” Marchand told CSNNE earlier this week.

“Basically you have to be a statue. You can’t move. It takes away from the center iceman. I think there was even a play [in the game I was watching] last night where a penalty was called on a 4-on-4 before play on the first penalty had even started because of a draw.”

While the Jets are seeking the knowledge of a seasoned official to help them stay out of the penalty box beyond slashing and faceoff violations, it seems the entire league is in for quite a learning experience over these next few weeks.

Canucks, Kings ‘put on a show’ during first NHL preseason game in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) A golden dragon was held aloft on poles by skaters. Kobe Bryant appeared on video. NHL mascots gave the crowd a primer on what this odd game is all about.

NHL preseason hockey made its debut in China – a 5-2 victory by the Los Angeles Kings over the Vancouver Canucks – in a step by the league to crack an immense market.

The fans in Shanghai got a fast and physical display Thursday – 17 power plays and 57 shots on goal, all met with loud cheers. Each hard check drew a collective “oooh” or “aaah.”

“Obviously, you wanted to put on a show for the fans here and they got to see some goals, too,” said Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi, who scored the Canucks’ first goal.

An announcer came onto the ice to explain the finer points of the game as Fin (Vancouver’s killer whale) and Bailey (Los Angeles’ lion) acted out infractions such as charging, crosschecking, tripping and hooking.

A golden Chinese dragon came out next, hoisted on poles by seven skaters. A group of Chinese kids in hockey uniforms joined the NHL players during China’s national anthem.

With Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the NHL is showcasing two preseason games in a country unfamiliar with hockey. The Kings and Canucks play their second game in Beijing on Saturday.

Even if the rules remain somewhat of a mystery, the crowd appreciated the speed and collisions.

“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere,” Los Angeles coach John Stevens said. “I think the whole thing for me is we’re here to grow the game. It’s my hope that the more they see it, the more people like it.”

Tanner Pearson scored twice for the Kings and Alec Martinez and Jeff Carter each had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.

Team allegiances were hard to find in the crowd, the most demonstrative fans being rowdy Canadians waving their country’s flag.

Spectator Inge Zhang was more appropriately attired for an NBA game, wearing a Miami Heat jersey with pink letters. A media manager for the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, she was excited because she heard a certain NBA great might be there.

“So we came here actually for Kobe Bryant,” she said while her friend laughed. “But I love this sport, too.”

Bryant, in fact, did show, although in a video message to support his hometown Kings.

“I see more foreigners here tonight than Chinese, but I think there are still a lot of hockey fans in China,” Zhang added. “I think the NHL should take this opportunity to grow the sport here.”

That’s the plan now that the NHL has signed a contract to bring two preseason games to China for six of the next eight years.

“The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said before the game. “We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.”

But this is the first step in a long process.

“It’s great for China itself to see the NHL live and in person, see the speed of the game, how good the players are,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “But whenever you’re bringing hockey to a new country, it’s going to take time. I think it’s great the NHL is committed to doing that.”