When he goes, they go
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Ryan Kesler goes, so go the Vancouver Canucks.
Perhaps it’s not fair to place such a tag on a guy who through most of his career has been viewed as a third-line centre with limited offensive capabilities.
But there’s something about Kesler that makes him one of those players – maybe the one player more than any other on the roster – that allows you to take the temperature of the Canucks based on his performance.
He came out flying in October with three goals in his first five games. The Canucks came roaring out of the gates winning three of those first five contests of the season.
Kesler had four goals and six assists in the Canucks’ first 11 games and was one of the big reasons why the team was a respectable 6-5 to start the year despite playing eight of the first 11 games away from home.
And now in the past three games, Kesler has found the back of the net five times. So it should come as no surprise that the Canucks have picked up five of a possible six points during the stretch including back to back wins over Carolina and most-recently Chicago.
Do the math and you will find that when Ryan Kesler scores a goal this season the Canucks are an impressive 9-2-1. Take it a step further and go back to the start of last season and you’ll discover that when Kesler beats an opposing netminder the net the Canucks are 18-8-3. So there’s clearly a correlation between his production and the team’s success.
But in his role as unofficial team thermometer, Kesler saw his own personal mercury drop for most of January and with it his team’s fortunes plunged.
After closing out 2008 with a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 30th, Kesler went into a deep freeze going the first 11 games of 2009 without scoring.
Looking back now, it’s hardly a surprise that the Canucks suffered miserably through much of the month with just two wins in that span. And it wasn’t just a lack of production that Kesler struggled with in January.
A shutdown forward that is a big part of the Canuck penalty killing effort, Kesler saw plenty of the other teams best players scoring goal and was as befuddled as everyone else with the Canucks porous penalty kill.
Kesler is an emotional player who wants desperately to win. He’s played 290 career NHL regular season games, but has only ever appeared in one playoff contest (opening night of the 2007 playoffs vs. Dallas when he suffered a broken finger).
And with the elements he brings to the table, Kesler seems like the kind of player whose game is perfectly suited to the post-season. He has to find a way to keep his game at the high level it’s been for the past week to ensure the Canucks are there when the playoffs roll around in mid-April.
Now 24, there seems to be a maturity starting to emerge in Kesler’s game. While he’s at his best using his speed and finishing checks, he doesn’t seem to be wasting energy engaging in nearly as much after the whistle activity with opponents. He’s still able to be a difficult guy to play against, but it seems now he’s doing it at times in a game when he can have a true impact.
On January 31st, Kesler scored the tying goal in the dying seconds of the third period against Minnesota, three nights later he set up Alex Burrows for the short-handed winner with under two minutes to play. On Saturday, Kesler had a goal and an assist in the first period to put the Hawks in a serious hole and he finished off his night by scoring again to dash any hopes Chicago had when it had trimmed the Canuck lead to 6-3.
Last season, when he set a personal best with 21 goals, Kesler scored 12 of them after Christmas.
Toward the end of January it looked like it would be an uphill battle for Kesler to reach that 21-goal mark again this season.
But with five markers in his last three outings and 14 goals for the year, Kesler is once again setting himself up for a big second-half and is now on pace to establish a new career high for goals in a season.
He should have no trouble getting there if he continues to play with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra and see time on the second-unit power play.
If that happens, then Ryan Kesler – and the Canucks – are surely hoping they’ve left the winter chills behind and are heading for a hot streak with their season on the line.