NASHVILLE, Tenn. – He wanted it – the puck, the game, the series. You could see it in the way Ryan Kesler(notes) tapped his stick looking for a pass, the way he charged around the ice with authority, the way he did the little things that don't end up on the score sheet and the big things that do.
"Sometimes you feel more into the game," Kesler explained Monday night, after the Vancouver Canucks beat the Nashville Predators 2-1, eliminating them in six games, "and obviously I wanted to make it through this round extremely bad."
Now he wants more. It's not enough that the Canucks have made a conference final for the first time since 1994 and only the third time in their history – they have escaped the second round after letting three 100-point seasons end there over the past four years. They have never won the Stanley Cup.
"We have bigger things in mind," Kesler said. "We're not going to just be satisfied making it to the conference finals."
Look at his face (a line of stitches amidst the beard under his lower lip), listen to his tone (matter-of-fact and serious) and watch his performance (worthy of the playoffs' most valuable player award to this point), and you wonder if Kesler can carry the Canucks all the way. He has had to carry them so far, especially with Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes) struggling, but he has been able to shoulder the burden.
Kesler was the difference in this series. While the Sedins combined for two goals and five assists, Kesler racked up five goals and six assists. Two of Kesler's goals were game-winners, and both of those came on the power play after he drew a penalty.
With the Predators deeper in the playoffs than ever before, Bridgestone Arena was boisterous Monday night. Country legend Charlie Daniels sang the U.S. national anthem. Someone threw a catfish onto the ice – the Southern version of Detroit's octopus tradition – and an ice girl held it aloft to cheers. The crowd tried taunting Kesler by calling him a sissy.
Kesler responded by running over Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne(notes) (he said he was pushed from behind). Then he hustled and intercepted a pass U.S. Olympic teammate Ryan Suter(notes) had intended for defense partner Shea Weber(notes), and set up the Canucks' first goal. Then he earned an assist on the Canucks' second goal, with Daniel Sedin(notes) scoring on his rebound.
Kesler still produced while doing all the usual dirty work of a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward – killing penalties, battling along the boards, pinning pucks deep. He had 12 takeaways and 16 hits in this series. He went 105-73 on faceoffs.
"He just had one of those series that is absolutely remarkable for one player," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "As I said as I was going by him [after the game], if he doesn't play that way, we're probably going to Game 7 and we might win this series. He played to a level that few people can reach."
Kesler reached this level only after years of hard work. Teammate Alex Burrows remembered when he and Kesler played in the minors during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Kesler was just 20 years old then. Burrows said Kesler was just a kid who "didn't know too much," but even though he had been a first-round pick in 2003, he "never sat on that title of being a first-rounder."
Over the years, Kesler rose from a fourth-line checker, to a third-liner who killed penalties, to a two-way player who ranks among the best in the game. He was runner-up for the Selke Trophy last season. He became the favorite to win it this season while breaking out offensively with 41 goals – 15 more than he had ever scored before.
In the first round, Kesler shut down Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews(notes), last year's Conn Smythe winner and a fellow Selke finalist, holding him without a goal until late in Game 7. Kesler earned only four assists along the way. Then he had only one assist through two games of this series before finishing with five goals and five assists in the final four games.
Kesler has factored into 11 of the Canucks' last 13 goals – and each of their last five on the road. He leads the playoffs in scoring with 15 points and has been all business.
"I think he elevated his game this series for sure," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa(notes) said. "I can't really tell you anything's been different. I'm his roommate. I spend a lot of time with him, and he just acts the same way."
It has been widely reported how Kesler has taken the energy he used to expend as a pest – agitating and chirping past the whistle – and channeled it into his play between the whistles. Kesler played 22:54 on Monday, but he seemed fresh keeping the puck deep in the Nashville end in the final minutes. The Predators managed only six shots in the third while trying to come back from a one-goal deficit.
"His energy level is extraordinarily high," Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said. "You saw how many shots they got in the third period tonight. He was still going strong when you saw their guys fading towards the end. He's just playing lights-out, and he's dragging people along with him."
It'd help if Kesler didn't have to drag people along with him.
The Sedins could do more. Daniel has six goals and 10 points in the playoffs. Henrik, who reportedly is playing hurt, has one goal and nine points. But both have been non-factors for long stretches, and both are minus-8.
The defensemen could stop turning over the puck as much as they did in this series, and Luongo could plug some leaks. The San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings have far more depth and firepower than the Predators do.
For now, though, the Canucks can marvel at what Kesler has done.
"I'm not that good in English to find a word that can say how good he was," said Burrows, who was born in Pincourt, Quebec. "Obviously all over the ice both ways – defensively, offensively, PK, power play, grinding game, faceoffs – he does it all for us. The best thing, he really wants it. That's what we need from him."
Asked if he could come up with a French word to describe Kesler, Burrows thought for a moment.
"Sensational," he said.
It's the same in English. Sensational.