Kesler is Canucks’ hero and Predators cry foul

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The call was iffy. The goal was lucky. The scene was ugly.

First, Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler(notes) drew a hooking penalty on Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber(notes) 10:05 into overtime Tuesday night, trapping Weber’s stick under his right arm as they battled along the boards, selling it, selling it, selling it … until the whistle.

Ryan Kesler (R) celebrates with goalie Roberto Luongo after Game 3 victory.
(AP)

Then, Kesler parked himself in front of stellar goaltender Pekka Rinne(notes). When Mikael Samuelsson(notes) fired a shot from the point, Kesler tried to jump out of the way. The puck struck him, slipped past Rinne and gave him his second power-play goal of the game 10:45 into OT. Just like that, Kesler was back to making a big impact, and the Canucks had a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 lead in this second-round series.

Predators center Jerred Smithson(notes) cracked his stick over the crossbar, breaking it in two, giving new meaning to the term “Smashville.” The fans rained boos and beverages and yellow rally towels onto the ice. The Canucks celebrated over the stain of a spilled drink in the Nashville zone.

To the Predators, this was an injustice. This series has been so tight. The Canucks won Game 1, 1-0. The Predators won Game 2, 2-1, in double overtime. Now, in the first Western Conference semifinal game ever played at Bridgestone Arena, the Predators had taken the Presidents’ Trophy winners to OT again, and this was the difference?

“I think it’s a horrible call,” Predators center David Legwand(notes) said. “Obviously they’re going to think it’s a good call, but Kesler’s obviously holding his stick. I don’t know if [referee] Timmy Peel had a date or something, but he wanted to get out of here pretty quick, it looked like. It’s a tough way to lose a game.”

But Kesler wasn’t about to apologize for anything.

The penalty?

“He was hooking me,” Kesler said. “I thought it was a good call.”

The victory?

“We were the harder working team tonight,” Kesler said, “and we deserved that one.”

As iffy, lucky or ugly as the ending was, it was the Canucks who carried the play most of the night. It was the Canucks who fired more pucks from more places, who set up more screens in front of the net, who had more scoring chances and more shots (47-30).

And it was Kesler who was the best player on the ice.

This was his breakout season. He scored 41 goals – 15 more than ever before – and was named a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. He was such a heart and soul player that some of the hockey cognoscenti thought he was the Canuck who deserved to be a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

Henrik Sedin(notes) had won the Hart last season after leading the league in scoring. Now his twin brother, Daniel, was a finalist this season after leading the league in scoring. But Kesler, at least some argued, did even more for the league’s top regular-season team. He scored and did the dirty work, too.

Then came the playoffs. Kesler entered Tuesday night with zero goals in nine playoff games this year – with only three goals in 32 playoff games in his career.

Going scoreless was one thing in the first round, when he was assigned to stop Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews(notes), another of the game’s top-way players. He held Toews without a goal until late in regulation of Game 7.

The puck touched Ryan Kesler on its way past Predators goalie Pekka Rinne for the overtime game-winner.
(AP)

But now it was the second round, the Predators had no such threat to which he had to devote so much energy, and the Sedins … well, what the heck happened to the Sedins? They entered Tuesday with no points in their past three games and a combined minus-13 rating over the past six games.

On a night when the Sedins went a combined minus-4 and Daniel earned their only point – a secondary assist – Kesler took charge.

“I didn’t lack any confidence,” Kesler said. “I never thought for once I couldn’t score. It was just one of those things where you do all the right things. … I didn’t change my game at all tonight. I put the same game on the ice, but I finally got the results.”

Kesler went to the net on the power play early in the second period and tapped in a pass with Rinne out of position, tying the game, 1-1. He went to the net again early in the third, getting off a shot on the rush, sending Rinne scrambling out of position and setting up a goal by Chris Higgins(notes) that gave the Canucks a 2-1 lead. Finally, after drawing that penalty in OT, he went to the net one more time and was rewarded once more.

That seemed to be the only way to beat Rinne – to go at him hard, draw him out of position, take away his vision and maybe get lucky.

“It has to be the theme from the entire team,” Kesler said. “We’ve got to get in front of him. We’ve got to crash the net. We’ve got to get those dirty ones.”

Iffy, lucky, ugly, dirty – when you work hard and win in the playoffs, all the adjectives are the same.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 4, 2011