Ryan Kesler made sure that the Bridgestone Arena scoreboard operator stayed busy Thursday.
Directly or indirectly, the Vancouver Canucks’ center had something to do with much of what went up in lights above center ice. Most importantly, he registered the fifth — and final goal — after a high-octane dash through the Nashville Predators’ defense, which was playing a man short because of a penalty Kesler drew 67 seconds earlier.
That goal put the Canucks on top for the third time and ultimately became the game-winner (his second in as many contests) as Nashville fell 4-2 before a sellout crowd of 17,113 and dropped into a deep hole (3-1) in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series, which continues Saturday at Vancouver.
“They got a power play, he got in on a mini-breakaway and capitalized,” Nashville right wing Joel Ward said. “I don’t think it’s the Kesler show, by no means.”
His performance in recent games is at least worthy of a significant number of YouTube views, if not, as Ward suggests, a spot in network primetime among the reality television shows.
The reality of the current situation is that Kesler has six points (three goals, three assists) in the last two games, capped by an assist on Henrik Sedin’s empty-net goal which put things out of reach with 20.6 seconds to play.
That accounts for all but one of the Canucks’ goals in those games — both Vancouver victories — and more than half his 11 postseason points. He did not have a playoff goal until Tuesday night.
“Right now he’s their best player — bar none,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s the guy that’s their best player right now.”
It’s more than just his point production, though.
Two of the three times the Predators were shorthanded in Game 4 were the result of penalties committed against Kesler. The second of those was a holding call against Ryan Suter, which led to the game-winning goal. Kesler also drew a first-period cross check against Kevin Klein.
That, after he drew an overtime hooking call against Shea Weber in Game 3 and then scored the winning goal on the ensuing power play.
“He’s a good player,” Suter said. “We know he’s a good player. Whoever’s out there against him has to play hard.”
With Suter in the box, Kesler split Weber and Shane O’Brien and then beat goalie Pekka Rinne for the game-winning goal with 7:28 gone in the third period.
“It was a great breakout on the power play,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. “A real amazing goal by a player who, … obviously his will to win right now is very strong, and he’s competing real hard.”
Kesler’s goal kept the scoreboard operator busy in the 12:11 between then and Sedin’s clincher.
Down for the third time in the game, the Predators’ offense finally sprung to life. Nashville got five shots on net and had another six blocked (Kesler got the first of those blocks) over the final 12:31.
For the contest, Nashville was outshot 28-21, including 21-13 through the first two periods. It did not have more than eight shots in any single period.
“I thought in the last 30 minutes they blocked a lot of shots,” Trotz said. “We tried to put pucks [on net].”
Although they never led, the Predators came from behind twice. Ward made it 1-1 with a power play goal in the final minute of the first period, and Cody Franson evened things at 2-2 3:27 into the third.
Ultimately, though, they had no one who was the equal of Kesler.
“He’s a great skater and he has great puck control,” Nashville right wing Patric Hornqvist said. “He’s always coming full speed. It feels like he’s flying all the time. … He’s a good player and we have to shut him down next game to have a chance to win.”