Playing his eighth game of the season after missing 19 with a broken foot, Kesler scored 7:26 into the first period and Cory Schneider made 19 saves to lead the Canucks to a 2-0 win against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday at Rogers Arena.
"That's what everyone wants to do in this room is contribute and I was the guy tonight," Kesler said. "I'm just another piece of the puzzle. There's a bunch of pieces and once we have them all together we're a good team."
Schneider has been the biggest piece of late, but he was just as quick to pass on the hero label, sharing the credit with his team after one of the easiest of his eight career shutouts. Five have come this season, tying him with Coyotes goalie Mike Smith and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, including four while starting the last 11 straight.
"You'll take them, but I think this is what they call a system shutout," Schneider said. "It was all about my teammates tonight, just a great puck possession game, great defensive game. They really didn't have a whole lot, maybe one or two chances, if that. Especially at the end there, a power play and they didn't get a shot. I can't say enough about how well the guys in front of me played."
If this truly was a team win, no one was questioning the Canucks are a better one with Kesler, who missed the start of the season recovering from shoulder and wrist surgeries, only to break a bone blocking a shot in his return. The Selke Trophy winning (2011) center banged in a rebound after Mason Raymond hit the post from a sharp angle at the tail end of a failed 3-on-1 rush.
"It was a nice pass off the post, he laid it up for me, got my confidence early," Kesler said. "I'm just another piece of the puzzle, there's a bunch of pieces and once we have them all together we're a good team."
The Canucks are better than that when Kesler scores. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Vancouver is 43-4-5 when he scores a goal.
They only managed two against the Coyotes, and the second one, credited to defenseman Dan Hamhuis, was actually scored by Phoenix center Antoine Vermette when he tried to feed back to the point on a late power play and instead sent it the length of the ice and into the empty net vacated by Smith for an extra attacker.
"They don't draw pictures on the score sheet, so I'll take credit," Hamhuis said.
Kesler's impact was more evident in the shot total than the score: 42-19 for the Canucks.
"Offensively this could have been one of our best games this year, as far as the number of quality chances," coach Alain Vigneault said.
It was almost as good at the other end. Schneider wasn't busy, but made his three best saves on Martin Hanzal from close range to win for the ninth time in 11 straight starts, moving the Canucks four points ahead of the idle Minnesota Wild atop the Northwest Division.
If not for Smith at the other end it could have been a romp. He kept the Coyotes in it with 40 saves, but it wasn't enough to extend a three-game win streak that had put Phoenix back into the Western Conference playoff race. The Coyotes remain three points behind the eighth-place Detroit Red Wings, but fell to 4-9-5 on the road this season, and are away for six of their remaining nine games.
"They are a really good hockey team, especially on home ice and we didn't push back enough early and chased the game after that," Smith said. "When you are facing elimination like we are, we've got to be more desperate than we showed."
The Coyotes' best push back came after Smith was run over twice. Playing his second game back after missing six with whiplash symptoms after getting hit by Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler back on March 21, Smith gave the Coyotes a chance and was in the middle of everything, including great saves off Daniel Sedin and Jannik Hansen in tight, a pair of disallowed power-play goals late in the second period, and the scrums that followed.
Alexandre Burrows was the first to push a puck – and Smith – into the net with 58 seconds left in the second, and Smith responded by giving the Canucks' forward a face wash with his blocker before the goal was waved off after a short review.
The puck ended up behind Smith again with 1.4 second left in the period, but this time it was waved off because of a distinct kicking motion by Canucks' captain Henrik Sedin. Replays showed Sedin didn't kick the puck, but did get the top of Smith's pad with his kick, and the puck, which had fallen behind it as Smith tried to corral a high point shot, was knocked. It was called off after another review – and another big scrum in Smith's crease after he was again knocked down.
"On both of them I don't know what really happened," said Smith, who was careful when asked if having the goals disallowed was enough protection. "I'm not going to comment on it, they are tough plays. As a goalie you are trying to stop the puck, your head is down and you are the most vulnerable player on the ice, but it is what it is. I have to deal with it and keep competing and make the saves when I have a chance and let the League look after everything else."
His teammates couldn't look after him on the score sheet Monday.
"He gave us a chance to get points and we didn't take advantage of it," said captain Shane Doan, who fired over the net on a clean 3-on-1 break in the third period. "You have to find a way to give yourself some offense."