VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) - The Vancouver Canucks learned a valuable lesson in a scary first-round survival against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
When you have a team way down, make sure you put them out as quickly as you can. Because if you let a club hang around, things can turn around in a hurry.
The Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks lead the Nashville Predators 3-1 in the Western Conference semifinal series and can advance to the NHL's final four with a home win on Saturday. If they don't end it then, the series will shift back to Nashville for Game 6 and become a whole lot more interesting.
Vancouver blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round against the Blackhawks, and didn't knock out the champs until overtime of Game 7. Some of the Canucks admitted that they eased up, and were soundly beaten in Games 4 and 5 - outscored a combined 12-2.
The Canucks vow not to let that happen again.
"You go into most playoff games wanting to win the next one," Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "We realized last series how things went south pretty quickly, and momentum builds in the playoffs, and next thing you know we're in Game 7 overtime. So most likely we want to finish this one next game."
They know it won't come easy. Nothing has against the tight-checking, hardworking Predators. Despite the big gap in the series, every game has been close.
When Canucks captain Henrik Sedin scored into an empty net with 21 seconds left in Game 4 on Thursday it was the only time either team had led by more than one goal in this low-scoring series. Two of the four games required extra time, including a double-overtime Game 2 win for Nashville in Vancouver.
As the Predators prepared to face elimination for the first time this season - and try to win such a game for the first time in six tries ever - they took solace in the fact things are so close.
"You have to remind yourself not to make it too big," goalie Pekka Rinne said. "Our backs are against the wall but I like where we stand. We haven't played our best and we're still in it."
If there's been a difference in the series, it's been the top players.
While Nashville captain Shea Weber, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the top NHL defenseman, has partnered with Ryan Suter to quiet Daniel and Henrik Sedin on the Canucks' top line, second-line center Ryan Kesler has stepped up. Kesler, a Selke Trophy finalist as the league's best defensive forward after scoring 41 goals in the regular season, scored his first of the playoffs in Game 3. He added the game-winner on a power play he drew in overtime. He also scored the winning goal in Game 4 off a beautiful rush to convert a penalty he drew on Suter.
"If there was a mid-playoff Conn Smythe we should just give it to him right now and get it over with, right?" Bieksa joked of the playoff MVP award. "He's making something happen almost every shift. He could be in their heads right now."
Kesler, who was charged with shutting down Chicago captain Jonathan Toews in the first round, had six points as the Canucks won both games in Nashville.
"To me he's like a Mark Messier. He s a big physical guy who can score, he plays a lot of different roles, he's got a second gear for a big guy," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "Every series there's different heroes. In this series it looks like it is Kesler's turn on the Vancouver side. Now we're looking for a hero. Our hero hasn't evolved other than Peks."
Trotz pointed to role players such as Jordin Tootoo and Mike Fisher as guys that filled that role in a first-round win over Anaheim - Nashville's first series victory in 12 years and six tries. But Fisher, who had six points in that win, doesn't have any against the Canucks.
Sergei Kostitsyn, Martin Erat and Patric Hornqvist, the Predators' top-three scorers in the regular season with 61 goals and 148 points, have yet to score a goal in the second round, combining for just three assists.
"We don't have a superstar," Weber said. "We need a group of guys to chip in and score."
Trotz said part of the problem has been a refusal of some to adapt, to fight for second and third opportunities in front of the net. Veteran forward J.P. Dumont, who will play his first game of the series after Jerred Smithson was knocked out of Game 4 after taking an elbow from Kesler in the nose, agreed.
"We all saw when Chicago was all over them they scored on rebounds, battling for pucks in traffic," said Dumont, who has played 50 NHL playoff games but was scratched for all but two this postseason. "That's definitely something we look at and talk about, but we have to play our game. It's been firsts for a lot of stuff for us this year - first playoff-round win - so we're looking forward to establishing some new records. It's going to start now."