VANCOUVER – His role has shifted for the playoffs but the job satisfaction remains the same for Ryan Kesler.
The big centre scored 41 goals during the regular season. But his body-pounding, shot-blocking defensive play is one of the reasons the Vancouver Canucks have taken a 2-0 lead in their NHL Western Conference quarter-final series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
As good as Vancouver has been, the Canucks know they might have to be better when they face the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET) for Game 3.
“We need to continue to get better every game,” Kesler said. “They are going to have a pushback. We are going to be ready.”
The physical Canucks have manhandled Chicago’s top forwards during the first two games of the best-of-seven series. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp managed just one assist during the two losses in Vancouver.
A season-ending eye injury to defensive specialist Manny Malhotra has resulted in Kesler again playing a key shutdown role for the Canucks. The two-time Selke Trophy finalist has been held to just one assist so far in the playoffs, but takes pride in keeping the best Hawks from scoring goals.
“Nothing is better than scoring a goal, but shutting those guys down is fun,” Kesler said Saturday before the Canucks boarded a flight to Chicago. “When you are playing against guys that skilled you’ve got to focus more defensively.
“Even though we are still getting chances I am definitely working harder in my own zone and just trying to frustrate those guys.”
Toews didn’t have a shot on net in 22:04 of ice time in Chicago’s 4-3 loss Friday. Kane had only two shots in 20:14.
“You always want to do more in a series like this,” said Kane, who assisted on Ben Smith’s second goal on Friday. “The guys that were here last year and the year before know this is a big time and it might be our time to step up now and hopefully take control of this series.”
Captain Henrik Sedin said the Canucks will continue their strategy of trying to frustrate the Chicago forwards while taking advantage of their own opportunities.
“They are great players,” said Sedin. “They are going to have their scoring chances.
“We’ve got to keep playing the same way we have against them. Stay on the right side of the puck and don’t give them any easy chances.”
The Blackhawks have looked disorganized so far in the series. They haven’t managed much pressure in the offensive zone and their power play has floundered.
Vancouver sailed into the playoffs. The Canucks played a series of meaningless games down the stretch after locking up first place in the overall standings.
The Hawks had to battle hard just to qualify for the post-season. Chicago needed a Dallas loss on the final day of the season to back into the final spot in the Western Conference.
The last few weeks of the season sapped a lot of energy from the best Chicago players.
“They played a lot of minutes in meaningful games down the stretch,” said Sedin. “I don’t know if they are tired yet, but if we keep playing them like this, it’s tiring to play that way.”
The Canucks showed some minor cracks in Friday’s victory. On three occasions, Vancouver allowed Chicago to climb back to within a goal.
“We showed we can play,” said Hossa. “We just have to do it for a full 60 minutes.
“We have to win the third one, otherwise it’s not going to be good.”
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville hopes playing at home will give his team a boost.
“We get to change momentum with home ice, take advantage of playing in front of our fans, get some enthusiasm that way,” he said.
The Canucks had never beaten Chicago in a Game 2 in the four times the teams have met in the playoffs.
Vancouver had won the opening game against Chicago three times, including the last two seasons when the Blackhawks won Game 2 and went on to eliminate the Canucks from the second round of the playoffs.
Vancouver expects to have forward Raffi Torres back in the lineup Sunday.
Torres missed the first two games after serving a four-game suspension for a hit to the head of Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle. Torres enjoys playing a physical game, but knows he also might receive some extra attention from the officials.
“The main thing is just not to lose my head out there,” said Torres, who didn’t practise Friday due to food poisoning. “If the hit is there, I’ll throw the hit but I don’t want to be running out of position.
“It’s been nine or 10 days since I’ve played so I want to be smart.”
Vancouver forward Mikael Samuelsson missed Friday’s game due to illness. He was on the flight Saturday but did not speak to reporters.
The Blackhawks ended the Canucks’ season the last two years. Now Vancouver has a chance to back Chicago into a corner.
“They are down 2-0,” said Kesler. “We’re not going to let anything get in our way.
“We are going to keep going and keep getting better.”
Game 4 of the series will be played Tuesday.