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Sharks' Joe Thornton vs. Canucks' Ryan Kesler

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VANCOUVER – Wanna go? The puck had not yet dropped on the Western Conference final, and already San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton(notes) had challenged Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler(notes) to a fight.

“Let’s start the series off with a bang,” Thornton recalled later.

Kesler just laughed. But as the official dangled the puck deliciously and the big guys jostled for position Sunday, banging heads like a couple of battering rams, both getting tossed from the dot eventually, it didn’t matter whether they had dropped the gloves or not.

The tone was set. This matchup – between Thornton and Kesler, between the top teams in the West – would be a fight from the opening faceoff. It should only get better Wednesday in Game 2 and keep developing over what could be a long series.

This is supposed to be the bigger, badder version of Jumbo Joe. Call him Mean Joe … Teal? He used to be the guy who had size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and the skills of the No. 1 overall pick of the 1997 NHL draft, but lacked the killer instinct to lead in the cutthroat world of the playoffs. Gosh, he was just too nice. Now he has a snarl.

And this is supposed to the cooler, calmer version of Kesler. He used to be distracted by all the extracurricular stuff – not necessarily fighting, but shoving and chirping and otherwise wasting his time and energy before the whistle and after it. Now he’s focused on playing between the whistles and is one of the top two-way players in the game as a result.

“It’s fun playing against him,” Thornton said. “It’s fun playing against world-class players. It makes you compete harder.”

Kesler said Thornton would not intimidate him. Thornton has a nice red playoff scruff. But Nashville captain Shea Weber(notes) had that dark black bushy thing, and in the second round, Kesler put up 11 points against the Predators and what he called “that beard.”

“Nothing’s going to scare me on the ice,” Kesler told reporters. “He can play me any way he wants to, and I’m going to put the same game on the ice.”

Thornton had a goal and an assist in Game 1, Kesler an assist. But Thornton’s goal was a gift from goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes), who left the net and put the puck right on his stick, and Kesler’s Canucks won, 3-2. These two are pretty even. Kesler has 16 points in the playoffs, tied for the NHL lead; Thornton has 13, a career high. How they handle themselves and each other should be a rich subplot, and it could be a major factor in the outcome of the series.

“They’re two elite players, two players that obviously want to win – similar skill set, size, speed,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. “They can play a skill game just like they can play a more physical game. It started off on the faceoff as a pretty good battle, and I think it’s going to continue.”

Thornton needs to take the initiative. Though both of these teams have never won the Stanley Cup, both blew 3-0 series leads earlier in these playoffs and both are trying to shed labels as playoff disappointments, Thornton carries that burden as an individual while Kesler does not.

Jumbo Joe had jumbo expectations the day he was drafted. That’s what happens when you go first overall. You start at the top and are supposed to stay there. Nowhere to go but down. The season Thornton won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, 2005-06, was the same season the Bruins gave up on him and traded him to the Sharks.

Kesler was a first-round pick, too. But he went a much more anonymous 23rd overall in 2003, and unlike Thornton, he spent some time in the minors and started out as a fourth-line grinder in the NHL. He didn’t blossom into an elite goal-scorer until this season, when he scored 41 – four more than Thornton’s career high, set way back in 2000-01.

Think of Thornton, and you think of his talent and how much more he could do. Think of Kesler, and you think of his grit and how far he has come. Thornton has the narrative of the favorite and Kesler of the underdog. As likeable as Thornton has been, as prickly as Kesler has tended to be, Kesler has been easier to love.

But Thornton has made progress, too. He said that when coach Todd McLellan joined the Sharks in 2008-09, “he opened my eyes on how to play” and his game “just evolved.” When Rob Blake(notes) retired after last season, Thornton had a ‘C’ sewn on his sweater for the first time since he was a member of the Bruins.

“Last year I thought he showed good signs of growth, the ability to lead the team,” McLellan said. “As a result, when we were looking at our vacant captaincy, he proved to us last year he was a deserving candidate. We picked him. Throughout the year, he’s had an excellent season. Many will say his numbers are down, which they obviously are. But ultimately I think the results are up when you look at his play. That may sound strange, but I truly believe he’s come a long way.”

Thornton posted 70 points in 80 regular-season games, his lowest total since 2001-02, when he had 68 points in 66 games. But he led the league in takeaways with 114, and he won 54.4 percent of his faceoffs. Unlike Kesler, he isn’t a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, but he has become a top two-way player, too.

“He’s a team-first guy,” McLellan said. “Whatever his reputation was in the past, whether it was not so good or average, I don’t see it that way. I only know him in the past three years, and I think his game’s improved. I think he’s a world-class player at a world-class time.”

Some other numbers from Game 1: Kesler led in takeaways, but only by a 2-1 margin. They tied in blocked shots, 2-2. Thornton had the edge in faceoffs, winning 67 percent of his draws, Kesler winning 42 percent of his.

Vigneault said he has never given Kesler a specific defensive assignment, that these matchups – like the one he had with the Chicago BlackhawksJonathan Toews(notes) in the first round – just happen organically.

McLellan insisted that he wasn’t trying to keep Thornton away from Kesler on Sunday, even though it looked like that at times, especially early, when Thornton played at least one shift with fourth-line wingers.

But Thornton and Kesler went head-to-head much of the night – literally on the opening faceoff – at least until Vigneault said he felt “at one point there we needed to make some adjustments.” We can only hope they will do it again and again and again. Hey, this is hockey. Who doesn’t love a good fight?

“I think Jumbo has played against some of the best players in the world so far – Pavel Datsyuk(notes), Henrik Zetterberg(notes), some of the Los Angeles Kings’ players,” McLellan said. “I put Ryan Kesler in that boat. We’re going to continue to put him out on the ice. Whoever they put out against him, Jumbo is going to have to get it done.”

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