The Vancouver Canucks have reached their first Western Conference Final since 1994 and they have one man to thank.
The 26-year old Michigan native has emerged this playoff season as an early Conn Smythe Trophy favorite and one-man wrecking crew for Vancouver, helping lead his team – usually renowned for choking on hockey’s biggest stage – to new heights. While the Sedins traditionally steal the headlines in Van City, it’s Kesler who has stepped up as their best player, giving the Canucks their first legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup in 17 years.
Kesler, who leads the NHL’s playoff scoring race with 15 points (thru May 11th), single-handedly finished off Nashville in the Conference Semifinals by figuring in on 11 of the Canucks’ 14 goals vs. the Preds, highlighted by 4 straight multi-point games (5G, 5A) in the Canucks’ final four games of the series.
Despite leading the NHL Playoffs in Points, it’s all of the other little (and big) things that Kesler’s doing that has the Canucks winning right now.
Kesler currently leads the league in road points (9), is tops on his team in Plus-Minus (+6), ranks 2nd in the NHL Playoffs in Powerplay Points (6) and is T-3rd in the NHL in Powerplay Goals (3), Game Winning Goals (2) and Shots on Goal (47).
Perhaps more importantly for the Canucks, thanks to Kesler, Vancouver has been able to cope with the loss of 3rd line Center Manny Malhotra this postseason. He’s excelled in the role of checking forward, as evidenced by his ability to shut down reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews in their opening round series win.
Mr. Everything for the Canucks has also filled the void on the penalty kill and faceoffs too. He currently ranks 1st in the playoffs in faceoffs taken (344), faceoffs won (185), and shorthanded faceoffs won (30), good for an overall winning percentage of 53.8% (4th amongst Centers with 200+ faceoffs). To put things in perspective, Kesler’s taken a whopping 76 more faceoffs than teammate Henrik Sedin, who is actually ranked second amongst all NHL Centerman in draws taken this postseason (Hank has only won 48.1%).
But Kesler’s biggest achievement may very well be in his ability to take the heat off the underperforming Sedin twins. There’s a prevailing feeling that something’s not quite right with Daniel, who despite scoring the GWG in Game 6 vs. Nashville, played merely 14:00 in that game (Kesler, on the other hand, was on the ice for nearly 23 minutes, with Henrik playing 17:47). If Daniel is indeed battling through injury, that would go a long way in explaining the decreased production in Round 2 for both he and brother Henrik.
And it makes Kesler’s exploits all the more impressive.
While the Wings and Sharks slugged it out until the bitter end, there’s no question the week off prior to the commencement of the Conference Finals will help the Canucks immensely. Kesler will continue to be the key to their success, and if he can maintain playing at this ungodly level, Vancouver has a real shot at making it back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since ’94. Ironically enough that was the same year Defenceman Bryan Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the NY Rangers, the last (and only) time an American-born player has ever received the award for playoff MVP.
With his inspiring play, it appears that Kesler is on a mission to add both his name and his team’s name to the history books this postseason. Hockey fans north and south of the border would like nothing better.