Nashville Predators right wing Joel Ward (29) scores against Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo (1) in the first period of Game 4 of a second-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series, Thursday, May 5, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. Defending against Ward is Canucks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff (5), of Germany. At left is Predators defenseman Jonathon Blum (7). (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Vancouver Canucks have learned the importance of closing out an opponent the first chance they get.
Ryan Kesler broke a tie with a power-play goal at 7:28 of the third period, and the Canucks beat the Nashville Predators 4-2 on Thursday night to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series.
The Canucks, the Presidents' Trophy winners for the NHL's best regular-season record, can win the series Saturday night in Game 5 in Vancouver. They needed overtime in the seventh game to oust Chicago in the opening round after blowing a 3-0 series lead.
"Absolutely, that's why we came here," Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin said. "Every game has been close, but I think we had the upper hand in shots and scoring chances too, so we feel good about ourselves."
Christian Ehrhoff scored a power-play goal and had two assists, Kesler also had two assists, and Alexander Edler had a goal. Henrik Sedin had his first points in the series with two assists and an empty-net goal with 20.6 seconds left.
Joel Ward and Cody Franson each had a goal and an assist for Nashville. The Predators lost consecutive games for the first time this post-season, but coach Barry Trotz isn't conceding.
"We've been on death's doorstep a couple times," Trotz said. "In the Anaheim series, we were there, and we found a way to come back and win. In Vancouver, we were there, and you know we find ways. And as I said, we've dug ourselves a hole, but we've been in a few holes this year, and this group has been able to do it all year."
If Kesler keeps playing the way he has, the Predators likely will return home to pack up for the off-season.
"Right now, he's their best player bar none," Trotz said.
Kesler has six points in the past two games, and he scored his second straight winner with a power-play goal off a penalty he drew.
This time, Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter yanked him down with an arm around his neck for a holding call, and Kesler scored 1:07 later with a beautiful goal. Kesler sliced through a couple of Predators and beat Pekka Rinne with a wristshot from the slot. In Game 3, Kesler scored in overtime.
"It was a great breakout on the power play," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "It was an amazing goal by a player whose will to win right now is very strong, and he is competing very hard."
Nashville tried to rally, finally getting Rinne to the bench with about 30 seconds left. Vancouver took its timeout with 29.3 seconds left, and Nashville couldn't hold the puck in off the ensuing faceoff. Henrik Sedin clinched the victory with his first goal this post-season.
"It's a tough position to put ourselves in, but it's definitely not over by any means," Nashville captain Shea Weber said.
The Predators opened with plenty of energy with yet another sellout crowd armed with T-shirts to paint the arena gold and fan noisemakers.
But Vancouver has been outshooting and outskating Nashville in taking both games in Music City. The Canucks went up 1-0 with 4:56 left in the first as Ehrhoff scored with Burrows screening Rinne at the edge of the crease. Nashville wanted a call for goaltender interference but didn't get it. The Canucks outshot Nashville 11-6 in the period, and Trotz later called it a good no call.
The Predators got the edge they needed when Vancouver defenceman Sami Solo, in the lineup for the first time since getting hurt in Game 6 of the Canucks' opening series against Chicago, went to the box for knocking the puck over the glass with 1:42 left. Franson fired a shot that Roberto Luongo blocked with his pad, and Ward wristed it through the goalie's legs with 41.6 seconds left.
The Predators can blame themselves for wasting prime opportunities to score in the second.
Luongo lost his stick after stopping a flurry at the net. Nashville finally got the puck only to be called for offsides at 8:40 of the second, giving Luongo a break to grab his stick in the far corner. The Canucks came right back and went up 2-1 when Edler ripped a slapshot from near the blue line through traffic past Rinne at 9:43.
The Predators also squandered 47 seconds of a 5-on-3 late in the second when Aaron Rome slashed Erat with Maxim Lapierre in the box for interference. Trotz took Nashville's timeout. But Suter had the Predators' lone shot, and Luongo easily knocked it away with his left pad. They couldn't finish off the final 1:13 with the man advantage either, prompting fans to boo.
"They were in striking distance, and we got a couple big plays from our goaltender," Vigneault said. "And we had a great job from Dan Hamhuis, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler who were out there for almost the whole 5-on-3. They were in the right place doing the right things."
Trotz had talked to his team about throwing pucks at the net to create extra chances.
"We refused to do that," Trotz said.
Franson tied it at 3:27 of the third, snapping a shot cleanly through Luongo's legs for his first goal this post-season. The lead didn't stand long.
NOTES: The Canucks improved to 4-3 in Game 4s in the second round on the road. ... Ward has at least a point in eight of Nashville's 10 games this post-season. ... Nashville scratched Steve Sullivan because of a lower-body injury, and Colin Wilson got his first playing time this post-season after appearing in all 82 games of the regular season.