Ryan Kesler, Canucks grind their way to Western Conference finals with 2-1 win vs. Predators

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For most of this series, the focus revolved around what the Vancouver Canucks couldn’t do. They couldn’t get results from the Sedin twins. Some misguided media members thought that Roberto Luongo couldn’t win big games. With a 1-4 record in elimination games coming into tonight, there were many who wondered if this team lacks a killer instinct.

In many cases in which a favorite struggles, the underdog’s problems tend to go unreported. Ultimately, the Nashville Predators were booted from the second round of the playoffs because they couldn’t score on the power play, couldn’t get results from some of their big guns and couldn’t beat the Canucks at home.

Perhaps most of all, they couldn’t stop Ryan Kesler. (Kesler ended up with 11 points in the series and was strong defensively as well.)

Vancouver 2, Nashville 1; Canucks win series 4-2.

There’s some dark humor to the fact that the Predators were ultimately undone by a power-play goal that resulted from a diving penalty. After all, Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa called out his own team for embellishing calls against the Preds, yet Nashville was betrayed by the NHL’s renewed emphasis on those penalties. Daniel Sedin ended up scoring what would be the series-winning goal on that first period man advantage to make it 2-0.

Kesler received credit for an assist on that play, but his greatest effort came on the first goal of the contest. The all-everything forward took advantage of a lethargic play by Ryan Suter, who made a predictable pass to Shea Weber that Kesler forced into a turnover. Kesler eventually sent the puck to Mason Raymond, who scored his first goal of the playoffs.

That 2-0 first period lead would stand through the whole game, as the Predators were only able to score another weird goal from behind Roberto Luongo’s net. David Legwand continued his great run with that tally, which survived the goal review process.

The Predators have some reason to complain about the Jordin Tootoo penalty that lead to that Daniel Sedin goal, but still must accept the fact that they couldn’t overcome a two-goal deficit from the first period. They failed to score on five power play opportunities and rarely threatened on any of those chances.

With all the heat sent toward the Sedin twins, the Predators’ most explosive players struggled mightily as well. Sergei Kostitsyn earned one assist in the entire series while Patric Hornqvist went without a single point. Perhaps most disturbingly, Norris-level defenseman Shea Weber went pointless in this series, as well. You can’t really fault him for a lack of effort (six shots in Game 6, consistently feisty defense throughout the series), but Weber was tied with Hornqvist for third place in team scoring with 48 points in 2010-11. They expect more from him, even if they generally ask for too much.

Outlook for both teams

The Canucks can sit back and watch the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks slug it out in one or two more games. Vancouver played 13 games so far this postseason, so getting a brief break could be very useful for a weary team. There’s been a lot of criticism sent their way, yet they continue to earn accolades. Perhaps the most interesting recent milestone is that they reached the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1994, when Pavel Bure was captivating hockey fans all over the world.

I get the feeling that the Sedin twins will have a little more room to operate in the next round, regardless of which team they face. They’ll need it, too, because Kesler might not be able to carry the offense alone against a more powerful opponent.

The Predators have a lot of positives to take from this defeat. They made the second round for the first time ever and also survived one elimination game (another franchise first). Nashville played Vancouver tough even if they frequently trailed in puck possession and scoring chances.

The challenge will be to add creativity to their blue collar approach. Their power play was ineffective and many of their goals were fluky in this series. If they want to be more than just a charming story, they’ll need to find a way to take that next step. At some point, fans and pundits might not be so patient with their slow-but-steady approach.

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The Buzzer: Thornton moves up all-time scoring list; Kings snap six-game losing skid

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Players of the Night:

Brian Elliott looked solid in Philadelphia’s overtime win over the Capitals, as he turned aside 27 of 28 shots. This was the first time in eight games that the Flyers netminder allowed fewer than three goals in a game, but he’s still been victorious in three of his last four outings.

• How about that goalie duel between Connor Hellebuyck and Anders Nilsson. The Jets won the game, but both goaltenders were fantastic during this all-Canadian matchup.

• Sticking with the goalie theme, Aaron Dell was fantastic between the pipes for in San Jose’s win against Anaheim. Even when starter Martin Jones comes back from a lower-body injury, Dell should continue to be a factor for the Sharks.

• Sharks forward Mikkel Boedker had a solid night at the office, as he racked up two goals and an assist against the Ducks. That’s impressive considering he only had 12 points on the season coming into tonight’s action.

• The Kings’ power play isn’t a player, but it came to play tonight against the Rangers. Los Angeles got three goals on the man-advantage from Jake Muzzin, Michael Amadio and Tanner Pearson. Those three power play markers helped them snap their six-game losing skid.

Highlights:

Poor Markus Granlund never saw Hellebuyck coming:

That’s a pretty sweet shot from Kevin Labanc:

Here are two pretty sweet backhand passes leading up to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare‘s goal:

Alex Ovechkin scored a power play from his favorite spot on the ice:

Non-called Penalty of the Night:

That’s a pretty dangerous hit by Dmitry Orlov on Claude Giroux. No boarding call?

Factoids:

That’s a lot of power play goals for Ovechkin:

Joe Thornton keeps movin’ on up:

The Rangers have received some balanced scoring this season:

The Golden Knights simply can’t be stopped. What a season they’re having:

Scores:

Flyers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

Golden Knights 5, Hurricanes 1

Jets 1, Canucks 0

Sharks 6, Ducks 2

Kings 4, Rangers 2

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Fight Video: Kempe comes to Lewis’ defense by dropping gloves with Smith

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It’s not every day that you see Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe drop the gloves, but he did so against the Rangers tonight.

Things got chippy at the end of the first period between the Rangers and Kings. As both teams were mixing it up, New York’s Brendan Smith shoved Trevor Lewis from behind. Kempe wasn’t impressed with Smith’s move, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Here’s Smith’s shove on Lewis:

And this is the fight between Smith and Kempe:

(h/t: hayyyshayyy on Twitter)

As you can tell from the above video, Smith is the more experienced fighter. Also, Kempe has great hair, but it’s clearly not practical when dropping the gloves.

Thanks to Smith, the Kings got a power play to start the second period. Defenseman Jake Muzzin cashed in on the man-advantage to cut Los Angeles’ deficit to 2-1.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Expansion Golden Knights are officially in first place (Update)

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Just like we all predicted in September, the Vegas Golden Knights are sitting in first place in the NHL.

The Golden Knights’ 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes allowed them to collect their 65th and 66th points of the season, which moved them one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for top spot in the league (both teams have played 46 games).

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote a terrific piece about Golden Knights’ amazing first season to date.

It’s only fitting that Vegas got a good amount of production from some of their most pleasant surprises tonight. Jonathan Marchessault, Colin Miller and James Neal also found the back of the net.

As you’d expect, the Golden Knights’ Twitter account is having fun marking this occasion.

“Maybe a little unexpected, right?,” Marc-Andre Fleury said of his team’s success, per NHL.com. “It’s been a lot of fun. We started this team from scratch and chemistry was built very quick between us. Every night, all the guys bring their best effort. I’m proud of our team to be where we’re at right now.”

We’ve had over three months to come to grips with everything the Golden Knights have done, but it’s still amazing to see how some of the players on their roster have produced during Vegas’ inaugural season.

 

43 points in 43 games for Marchessault? 25 goals at the midway point of the season for William Karlsson? Nobody saw those things coming. What makes this even more impressive is that they’ve had to roll four goalies (Fleury, Oscar Dansk, Malcolm Subban and Maxime Lagace).

“Early on in the year, I think we surprised some teams. Now I think every team will get up to play us. It’s just something that will be another test for this group,” Miller told NHL.com.

Now the question is, how far can this pesky expansion team go?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Struggling Lightning lose Ondrej Palat for indefinite period of time

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been going through a difficult stretch lately and things got a lot more difficult on Sunday. The team announced that Ondrej Palat is out indefinitely after taking a spear from Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon on Saturday night.

The Bolts, who are on an eight-game road trip, have confirmed that Palat will head back to Tampa on Monday for further testing. He’s accumulated eight goals and 30 points in 46 games this season.

Although the video isn’t the clearest, this is the play that led to the injury:

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Lightning have been slumping badly of late. They’ve dropped three games in a row to Calgary, Vegas and Minnesota.

Their once giant lead atop the Atlantic Division has dwindled to three points over the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand.

“We’re just out of synch, it’s unreal,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half. We’re just out of synch. One guy zigs, the other guy zags. It’s crazy that in the last week and a half, we kind of lost our swag.”

The Bolts will continue their road trip in Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia before the All-Star break. On top of their difficult schedule, they’ll also be without number one defenseman Victor Hedman for the next few weeks.

Their spot in the playoffs isn’t in any danger, but the number one seed in the league (Vegas is coming in a hurry) and top spot in the division is in doubt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.