The Vancouver Canucks got the best of both the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time since Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia was atop the charts, Schindler's List was the best picture at the Oscars and O.J. Simpson was simply an ex-NFL running back, not a white Ford Bronco driving maniac.
When the Canucks faced the Toronto Maple Leafs in May of 1994 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, Justin Bieber was 2-months-old.
A lot has changed in 17 years, but the quest for the Holy Grail remains the same. The Canucks are eight wins in, with eight wins to go.
There’s a reason the Stanley Cup is widely regarded as the most difficult sports trophy to win.
To capture it, a team is faced with up to 28 emotionally, physically and mentally grueling battles; each seven game series pins them with a rival for least 60 minutes at a time.
It’s outright take-no-prisoners war and in battle a general leads the way.
Cue Ryan Kesler.
Coming into the 2011 Playoffs, Alex Burrows had the series-clinching overtime winner against St. Louis in 2009 on his resume; Roberto Luongo stoned Dallas to the tune of 72 saves in a quadruple overtime thriller in 2007 and Henrik Sedin ended that same game versus Dallas, the longest in franchise history, with his biggest playoff goal to date.
Ryan Kesler had 14 points (3-11-14) in 23 career playoff games prior to this post-season and while he was consistent last year with 10 points (1-9-10) in 12 games, which includes six (1-5-6) during a four-game point streak against Chicago, he didn’t have a standout moment.
Kesler now has a standout series.
The 26-year-old from Michigan, a Canucks assistant captain currently sporting upwards of 10 stitches on his lip and chin after taking a puck to the face, is on the heels of one of the best playoff performances in Vancouver history.
Against the Predators, Kesler scored, assisted, hit, blocked, had takeaways and won heaps of faceoffs, all in the name of winning.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz described his performance as “one of the most incredible six games you will ever see;” Kesler capped it off with a two assist outing in a series clinching 2-1 win over Nashville Monday night.
To add to Kesler’s mystique, he played parts of Game 6 with just one eye – not even Chuck Norris, the Dos Equis guy or Old Spice's Man Your Man Could Smell Like can boast that.
“That was a mess,” laughed Kesler, who lost a contact lens in the third period. “I played a couple of shifts with just one and I didn’t know where the other one was and our trainer had to go get one.
“It was a little weird for a couple of minutes there.”
Put up your hand if you knew Kesler had only 50 per cent of his vision and was lacking depth perception for a few minutes.
Mine isn’t up either.
Now put your hand up if you ever doubted Kesler would turn into the beast he’s become.
Mine isn’t up either.
There were haters, though, but after a series performance like that, Kesler is king of the castle.
“I wasn’t the most liked guy here four or five years ago and people probably hated me, but to prove all those people wrong and just to prove my dad right, my dad always knew I had it and I’ve always known I’ve had it. Just to prove myself and my family right, that’s satisfying.”
So was it just a matter of finally finding the back of the net in Game 3 of the Semifinal series that got the ball rolling offensively, or what changed with Kesler to spark such a dominating performance?
His mindset, that’s what.
“As you play longer in this league and you realize you don’t have many opportunities to win a Stanley Cup. I think your will and drive…you want it… you want to compete and that evolves over time.”
Kesler credits former teammates Brendan Morrison, Markus Naslund and Trevor Linden with helping mold him into the player he is today, and the Canucks currently credit Kesler with where they are today, four wins from a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
And if Kesler has another gear, so too do the Canucks.
“Throughout the whole playoffs you need to keep getting better. The competition steps up and I think every game, every minute, every shift is going to mean something and you need to be at your best every shift.”