VANCOUVER – Ryan Kesler can let his motor idle for a few days.
The gritty centre is the engine that helped drive the Vancouver Canucks over the Nashville Predators into the NHL Western Conference final. Kesler and his teammates will now have some time to relax and repair after the league announced Game 1 of the next series won’t begin until Sunday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET) at Rogers Arena.
“It will be good to get some practice time and really get some down time,” Kesler said Tuesday. “Rest and recovery is going to be key because it’s not going to get any easier going forward. We need to have everyone healthy and everyone going.”
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series will be next Wednesday (CBC, 6 p.m. ET).
The Canucks will play in the conference final for the first time since 1994. It’s only the third time in the franchise’s 40-year history the team has advanced to the third round.
Forward Daniel Sedin said getting this far will mean nothing if the Canucks suddenly stall in their attempt to win the Stanley Cup.
“You play to win the whole thing,” said Sedin, the NHL regular-season scoring champion and a finalist for league MVP. “We know we have a chance to go all the way.
“We are going to match up against a tough opponent in the conference final. We are excited with the chance we have and the team we have. It will be a lot of fun.”
Kesler was like a runaway Mack truck against the Predators in the Western Conference semifinal. He set the tone for Monday night’s 2-1 victory in Game 6 by crashing into Predator goaltender Pekka Rinne early in the game, then assisted on both of Vancouver’s goals.
The game drew an audience of 3.1 million viewers to CBC.
During the series Kesler had five goals in three games. Two of his goals were game winners, one in overtime. He was on the ice for 11 of Vancouver’s 14 goals and finished the series with 11 points while playing 25 minutes a game.
When the Canucks looked lost, it was Kesler that led the way. He killed penalties, was rock solid on defence and delivered some body-bruising hits.
“He was driving our bus,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “He took charge both offensively and defensively.
“He played real strong. We need him to continue, without a doubt.”
Kesler’s face shows the price he’s paid. There’s several jagged stitches across his chin and he’s missing a tooth.
“I still think I’m a petty handsome guy,” he joked.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo looked puzzled for a moment when asked about Kesler.
“Ryan who?” said Luongo, before breaking into a wide grin.
“He’s been unbelievable. He’s taken his game to a level I have never seen before in the second round.”
Kesler’s name has already been mentioned as a potential playoff MVP. Nashville coach Barry Trotz put Kesler in some pretty respected company when he compared him to Hall-of-Famer Mark Messier.
“You play the game to be your best,” said Kesler. “For others to recognize that, especially the other team’s coach to say something like that, obviously it’s satisfying.
“But by no means am I done getting better. I want to continue to improve every game. I still think I can improve.”
Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedins may supply the beauty in Canuck games, but Kesler has always been the beast. He can steal the puck off an opponent, or crush them into the boards. He takes key faceoffs and scores big goals.
Kesler is also tough as nails. In Saturday night’s Game 5 a puck deflected into his face, knocking out a tooth and cutting his face. He returned to score his second goal of the night.
The 26-year-old from Livonia, Mich., had a career-high 41 goals during the regular season to go with 32 assists.
For the third consecutive year he is a finalist for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top defensive forward.
During the season Kesler was fourth among league forwards with 80 blocked shots, had a team-high 65 takeways, was 57.4 per cent in the faceoff circle and averaged a career-high 20:29 in ice time.
Off the ice Kesler has a sense of humour but a sometimes prickly personality. He often speaks in a near whisper, but his eyes will flash over a question he doesn’t like.
Kesler always had talent but it sometimes was masked by his yapping at the opposition. While his tongue was sharp, he’d lose concentration.
Prior to the season, Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis and Vigneault talked with Kesler. They told him to tone down the trash talk and focus on his game.
Kesler took the advise. He kept his mouth shut and let his actions do the talking.
“When you prove people wrong it’s nice,” he said. “I wasn’t the most liked guy here for four or five years. People probably hated me.
“To prove all those people wrong, to prove my dad right because my dad always knew I had it . . . just to prove myself and my family right, that is satisfying.”
The last time the Canucks advanced to the conference final they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games. Vancouver then took the New York Rangers to seven games before losing in the Stanley Cup final.
The Canucks won the 1982 conference final in five games against Chicago. They were swept in the Cup final by the New York Islanders.
The Canucks are enjoying the best season in their history.
Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best record in the NHL, setting franchise records for 54 wins, 117 points and 27 road victories. The Canucks scored more goals than any team in the league and allowed the fewest.
Daniel Sedin won the scoring title with 41 goals and 63 assists for 104 points. Vigneault is a finalist for coach of the year while Luongo is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league. Gillis has been nominated for GM of the year.
After accomplishing so much, the team is only halfway to its goal.
“We’re satisfied but we’re not going to be completely satisfied if we only make it to the third round,” said Kesler. “Now we’ve got to continue to improve and continue to have that will and drive I know we do.”