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|A healthy body and a good rapport with coach John Tortorella give Ryan Kesler plenty to smile about.|
The Vancouver Canucks center forces the puck off the stick of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and quickly dumps it into the Edmonton zone. Kesler is first in on the forecheck, forcing an Oilers turnover.
Next thing you know, Kesler and linemates Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli spend the opening minute of the game in the Oilers' zone, creating a couple of scoring chances and, more than anything, setting the tone early against Edmonton's top line of Nugent-Hopkins, David Perron and Jordan Eberle, and then eating that line's lunch all night long.
Five minutes into the second period, Kesler steps into Ales Hemsky with a heavy and clean hit, sending the Oilers winger crumbling to the ice. About six minutes into the third period, Kesler slides a perfect backhand pass through Oilers defenseman Jeff Petry for a one-timer Higgins doesn't miss, a nifty play that makes it look like Kesler had eyes behind his head.
Kesler set the tone the next night, too, with another strong effort against the rival Boston Bruins. This time it was with an opening-shift fight against Jarome Iginla en route to an ultrasatisfying 6-2 win.
Folks, Ryan Kesler is back. Or damn close to it.
Finally healthy after recovering from shoulder, wrist and hip surgeries over the past two years, the 29-year-old Team USA star is rediscovering his All-Star form of 2009-10 and 2010-11, and essentially all it required was his body finally complying.
"There's still some improvements I'd like to make, but I'm feeling well," Kesler told ESPN.com in an interview last week. "It's not so much about the points, although we are in a results-based business, but I'm just feeling like myself again out there. It's been a long way back, but it's good to be back."
And the timing, well, it couldn't be any better with the Olympics not too far off in February.
"For sure," said the Livonia, Mich., native. "Not worried about injuries or anything like that, you're just going out and playing. Especially with Sochi right around the corner, you're not so stressed, you just go out and play."
It's indicative of Kesler's impact on the Canucks that his health issues over the past two years coincided with the team's back-to-back first-round playoff exits after reaching the Cup finals in 2011.
|Ryan Kesler is leading the Canucks' best line, and will be one of Team USA's leaders in Sochi.|
"He's a highly competitive guy," an NHL scout who works mostly Western Conference games told ESPN.com. "I think his best position is center and when they use him in that role, I think he's a very effective guy for them. He hasn't scored as much as he has in the past, but he's got the capability.
"He can play big minutes, he's a gritty guy, he plays well at both ends of the rink. It looks like he's back at where he was before those injuries took some wind out of his sails. He's back playing now. He's a real important player for that team."
The trio of Kesler, Higgins and Santorelli has largely been Vancouver's best over the past month or so, at both ends of the ice.
"We take a lot of pride in playing against the other team's top line," said Higgins. "We're getting the minutes to produce offensively but we know what our job is out there. It's a lot more fun playing in the offensive end when you're playing against the top offensive players and you're not chasing the puck all night. I think we've done a good job of possessing the puck as well."
Added Kesler: "We want to use our speed to our advantage, right? All three of us can skate. We can hold on to pucks and wear you down and grind you down in the [offensive] zone, too. If we use our speed and use our bodies to protect pucks and take pucks to the net, that's where we've been successful."
Being matched up with the other team's top offensive players is something Kesler feeds on.
"It's something that I cherish," he said. "The defensive part of the game is what got me into the league. Now I can expand and not only defend the other team's top line but I want to attack and score."
There's no question that one of John Tortorella's objectives in his first year behind the Vancouver bench was getting a healthy Kesler back into form. So far, mission accomplished.
"He's been good right on through," Tortorella said last week. "Not just offensively as far as numbers on a sheet of paper, but the most important thing, and it's something him and I talked about right from the get-go, was where he was going to play, what part of the ice. And he's in the areas you need to be, he's been there consistently right on through the year."
The coach and the player are on the same page, that much is clear.
"From day one at training camp, he told me what was expected of me, and we have a good relationship that way," Kesler said of Tortorella.
"It's an open-door policy, and it goes either way. I like the way he coaches, I like how intense he is, how passionate he is, he lets you know what you need to do and how you need to do it. I like that in a coach."
A 41-goal scorer in 2010-11, Kesler struggled to get to that lofty level the past two seasons while fighting through injury. He's getting back there now, although on a team that doesn't have as much offensive depth as those Canucks of 2011.
"From personal experience, coming back from injuries is one of the hardest things I've ever done," Higgins said, giving some insight into what Kesler has been through. "Everything is off, your timing and conditioning. I think he's had a full summer of being able to get ready for this year. He's a great guy to play with, he makes me a better player, he makes Mike a better player, it's been a lot of fun."
The road back has made Kesler better for the experience.
"What I went through definitely mentally made me stronger," said Kesler. "At the beginning of the year, I couldn't score, everyone in this room could tell you that. But mentally, I stayed positive and got through it. I know there's going to be waves in the season. Just like the last two years, those were big waves. If I can get through that, I can get through anything."
And there's some unfinished business in Sochi. Kesler can't erase the memory of Sidney Crosby's golden goal after Team USA came oh-so-close to a surprise gold in Vancouver in 2010.
"Yeah, that was a tough one," said Kesler. "When you see it [Crosby goal] on TV, it brings you back to that moment. We were so close, yet so far, right? One bounce one way and one bounce the other way, it could be a different result. But we did something nobody thought we could do, win a silver, we're proud of that. But we're not going for silver this time around."
This time, though, Team USA can't sneak up on people as a young, underdog team.
"We basically have the same team with a couple of changes, a couple of big losses like [Brian] Rafalski and [Jamie] Langenbrunner, those two guys led us back then. But we'll have guys who will step up. I don't mind the underdog role, I like that," smirked Kesler.
"People will say we're not anymore, but we'll still play that card."