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Vancouver Canucks Ryan Kesler (17) scores the game-winning goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, in overtime of Game 3 of a second-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series Tuesday, May 3, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. At left is Henrik Sedin (33), of Sweden. The Canucks won 3-2 to take a 2-1 lead in the series. (Mark Humphrey)
Vancouver Canucks Ryan Kesler (17) scores the game-winning goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, in overtime of Game 3 of a second-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series Tuesday, May 3, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. At left is Henrik Sedin (33), of Sweden. The Canucks won 3-2 to take a 2-1 lead in the series. (Mark Humphrey)

Canucks starting to look like old selves Add to ...

They are 10 games into their Stanley Cup run, and still the Vancouver Canucks have yet to play to their optimum.

Entering Game 4 of their best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final series against the Nashville Predators on Thursday, the Canucks have six wins in the NHL playoffs: Five by one-goal margins, and a 2-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in their postseason opener.

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Rarely has Vancouver looked like the dominant regular-season team that won the Presidents' Trophy by a wide margin, though it seems to be inching towards that team - and that 'A' game - after a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3.

"You've seen spurts of it," centre Ryan Kesler said.

If the conditions are right for the Canucks to break out and finally start flexing their muscle, then it begins with Kesler, who scored twice Tuesday. He's a streaky scorer, and he has the capacity to carry his team when others, say the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, aren't playing well. When Kesler is on and complemented by others, the Canucks can be scary good.

But there are other signs the Canucks are approaching something resembling their best.

For starters, the pressure is off after winning Tuesday, which means they will go home for Saturday's Game 5 with no worse than a tied series, and could have a chance to clinch if they win Thursday. They responded to the adversity of three consecutive losses with a Game 7 victory over Chicago, but prior to that, Vancouver was always a better front-runner, a club that would channel momentum rather than reverse it.

"In Game 4, we can really make a statement that we want the series to end," forward Chris Higgins said.

There are other clues as well.

The power play is finally firing, netting two goals Tuesday, after going scoreless in the previous five games, while Vancouver's penalty killing has been perfect against the Predators this year through seven games. The latter stat is key, because the Canucks have resigned themselves to the reality this series is going to be extremely defensive and driven by goaltenders.

"I just think it's a different game than you usually see from us," defenceman Christian Ehrhoff said. "This is a different series, and this [low-scoring, tight-checking]is the way it's going to be against these guys."

Even with less margin for error, goaltender Roberto Luongo seems far calmer against Nashville than he was against the Blackhawks in the first round. He has allowed five goals in three games, but hasn't dwelled on mistakes - such as Ryan Suter's game-tying goal in Game 2 - as he did when pitted against Vancouver's arch-nemesis.

Beyond the crease, there are also signals the Canucks are heating up.

Maxim Lapierre is doing his best Manny Malhotra impersonation as an effective fore-checker and penalty killer. The former Montreal Canadiens forward also won 11 of 17 faceoffs in Game 3 (another trademark of the injured Malhotra).

Mason Raymond is starting to threaten with his speed, while Higgins has been extraordinary on the other side of Kesler. Theoretically, when Kesler's wingers are dangerous and when the Sedins are contributing, that gives Vancouver two lines which can score at even strength.

Follow on Twitter: @mattsekeres

 

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