Ryan Kesler provides big boost in strong return to action
Healthy, happy centre looks dangerous again despite missing nearly a year with injury-related issues
Dallas Stars' centre Cody Eakin (left) fights for control of the puck with Vancouver Canucks' centre Ryan Kesler during Friday's National Hockey League game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The Stars won 4-3.
Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press
Except for the score, it was a great night to be a hockey fan in Vancouver.
It began as the night Ryan Kesler came back. Then it got better.
Friday was when Henrik Sedin surpassed Markus Naslund as the Vancouver Canucks’ all-time leading scorer. It was when the Canucks and Dallas Stars — teams with little recent animosity between them — were angry enough to stage three fights in three seconds late in the second period, which was no reflection of the actual duration of the bouts, and compete like it was the playoffs. It was a night of spotty officiating, ferocious hits and terrific entertainment.
It ended with a third-period charge by the Stars and a 4-3 Canuck loss and easily the most exciting, edgy and entertaining evening of hockey in Vancouver since the National Hockey League unveiled its new sub-contact schedule for 2013.
Kesler not only makes the Vancouver Canucks go, apparently he makes hockey better, too.
Injured for most of the last two years, and out of uniform since undergoing shoulder (expected) and wrist (unexpected) surgeries last summer, Kesler’s speed and enthusiasm were infectious. The Stars had an awful lot of both in the third period when they scored twice to complete a comeback from a 3-1 deficit.
There was enough exuberance and entertainment inside Rogers Arena to eclipse the sadness of Canuck Manny Malhotra’s sudden potential retirement at age 32 due to lasting damage from the gruesome eye injury he suffered 23 months ago.
The timing of Malhotra’s forced exit from the lineup just as a roster spot was required for Kesler led many to conclude the two transactions were linked. But Canuck general manager Mike Gillis was ready to retire Malhotra last spring soon after the club got a truer idea of the player’s diminished eyesight.
Malhotra, who has undergone numerous operations, pleaded for one more off-season to train and a few more games to prove Gillis’s instincts wrong. He was granted his chance, but after nine games Gillis had seen enough.
So Malhotra is gone from the lineup for good, and Kesler is back. The Canucks hope that is for good, too.
Kesler is the Canucks’ turbo boost.
As defenceman Keith Ballard said after the morning skate: “He is a huge part of our team. He plays the most minutes of any forward and in every important situation — first power play, first penalty kill, down by one goal, up by one goal, big faceoff. He is involved in everything we do.”
And so it looked against the Stars.
On his opening shift, Kesler’s speed and directness with the puck drew a penalty from Dallas defenceman Brenden Dillon, the rookie from Surrey who later marked his first NHL game in B.C. by burying the game-winner over Cory Schneider’s shoulder.
The struggling Vancouver power play at least looked dangerous with Sedin teeing up one-timers for the right-shot Kesler, who nearly scored on his next even-strength shift.
The Stars got the victory and Sedin the glory — in time, his record and the joyous response from the crowd it generated is what will be remembered from Friday — but Kesler’s debut couldn’t have been much better after 10 months of inactivity.
He finished with 17:27 of ice time, four shots, four hits and a 9-3 record on faceoffs.
Even if Gillis eventually trades backup goalie Roberto Luongo, no player will arrive in Vancouver with the potential impact to match Kesler’s.
He is the best player the Canucks will add this season.
“It’s been a long time,” Kesler said of his quest for full health, something he never had last season when he returned from major hip surgery, then injured his wrist.
“Last year was hard, going into practice and games and not being able to do what you want to do. That’s why I’m excited right now. I’m waking up feeling good, wanting to go to the rink and get better because you’re able to get better — your body will allow you to. Every day is another step in the right direction.”
Kesler and coach Alain Vigneault seemed out of step the last two weeks, the boss overtly optimistic and predicting a swift return while the player tried to squash the coach’s enthusiasm.
Their relationship already has some baggage after Kesler childishly bristled last season when Vigneault suggested he should better utilize his wingers. The coach later stated emphatically that Kesler’s scoring problems were not due to injury. Then we learned he had played hurt all season.
So their little disagreement the last couple weeks had the potential to be not so little.
“If I was in his shoes, I guess he saw the way I was skating out there, saw the way I was playing and obviously he wants me in the lineup as soon as possible,” a conciliatory Kesler said after Friday morning’s skate. “I don’t blame him. I would be the same way. That was just AV being excited.”
Vigneault was certainly excited Friday, right up until his team blew a two-goal lead and lost.
“When he is in the lineup, playing the way he can play and the minutes he usually plays, he’s a huge part of our team,” Vigneault said. “Without a doubt, having him back in good form is obviously a big boost.”
It will be.
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