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X's and O's - WCQF Game 2

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
The beast feasts.

When Ryan Kesler didn’t take the ice on Wednesday morning for an optional practice, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault joked that “the beast will be ready tonight.”

He was, of course, referring to Kesler’s “beast mode” series from the 2011 postseason against the Nashville Predators. Ryan Kesler had a quiet Game 1 on Wednesday by his postseason standards, and you knew that he would find a way to elevate his play for Game 2.

Kesler is the heart and soul (and the engine, and the motor…) of the Canucks, and Friday night served as a reminder as to why. He was back to his old self, as he played perhaps his best game as a Canuck since the aforementioned series against the Predators.

Kesler was all speed and tenacity last night. He drew a penalty, and he was chirping at any Shark that came near him, particularly Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. He threw a few massive hits, in particular a late second period smash on Sharks defenseman Justin Braun.

But, most importantly, he was scoring goals again. And for a team that has struggled to light the lamp in the postseason as of late, that was a welcomed sight. The Canucks ended up falling short in a closely fought contest, but it was Kesler who made sure they were in the game from start to finish.

Let’s take a closer look at some of his handiwork from Friday night.

Kesler’s first goal:

Kesler was the primary shooter on the top power play unit last night, and it was a strategy that eventually paid off for the Canucks (as you can see here).

Henrik and Daniel play catch for a bit along the half wall. San Jose’s penalty killers are forced to switch off of one Sedin and pick up another, creating a bit of confusion here. The Sedins have made a lot of money and scored a lot of goals by confusing the opposition. They also run a successful set play from this position, and that leads to Kesler being wide open up top.

Alex Edler is pinching down towards the goal, which draws Joe Pavelski (the nearest Shark to him) away from Kesler. Patrick Marleau aggressively pursues Daniel.

This is the set play I was talking about. Daniel passes to Henrik, who curls up and skates towards the point. As he does this, Daniel sneaks into the slot with his stick on the ice. The Sedins have a few options here. One of them is the vaunted slap-pass, which they introduced to hockey vernacular a few years ago. However, three Sharks pick up on this. Daniel serves as a very nice decoy here.

Henrik feeds Kesler with a perfect pass, and he absolutely hammers the puck home right into the top corner. Antti Niemi has no chance on this one, as Alex Burrows (and about three Sharks) is obstructing his view.

It looks like the beast is still hungry, though.

This is the exact moment where Marleau realizes that he shouldn’t be pursuing Daniel so aggressively. A great example of why movement (both puck and player) is crucial to the success of a power play. Whenever the Canucks power play is struggling, a lack of movement is usually to blame. But here, four moving parts created a lot of confusion for the Sharks, and open ice for Kesler.

A great view of what Niemi could see – a blue and green number 14 jersey.

And Kesler’s second goal:

This goal was the result of hard work, good positioning, and some luck.

Chris Higgins gets in on the forecheck, but the Sharks still have control of the puck here. Victoria, BC native Matt Irwin reverses the puck to Dan Boyle, who has some time to make an outlet pass and get the puck moving in San Jose’s direction again. However, Kesler has other ideas.

Boyle sends a hard pass to Joe Pavelski, who is swooping back low in the defensive zone to help with the breakout. Pavelski is a great hockey player, but he simply misses in the pass here. It wasn’t a perfect pass (a bit too hard, and not right on the tape), but it is a play that Pavelski (or any NHL player) simply has to make. The puck bounces off of his stick right to….

Ryan Kesler. Kesler, for the second time in less than 10 minutes, absolutely hammers a slap shot past Niemi. This time there is no screen or traffic in front of the Sharks goaltender, but that doesn’t matter.

You can see why Irwin had to reverse the puck. Higgins is the deep man on the forecheck, while Kesler goes to the boards to cut off Irwin’s ability to make a play on his forehand. A textbook forecheck and it worked out in Vancouver’s favour.

Kesler did get a bit lucky with Pavelski’s blunder, but he still had to be in the right position to capitalize on the turnover. He found a way to get from the boards to the slot very quickly, and I think that may have surprised both Boyle and Pavelski a bit.

And boom goes the dynamite.

The Canucks face a 2-0 series deficit as the series shifts back to San Jose. They haven’t played bad (not at all, in fact, as they controlled the game for extended periods on Friday evening), but the results simply show how thin the margin for error is in the postseason, especially when two very evenly matched teams face off. If Kesler can carry his incredible level of play over from Game 2 into Games 3 and 4, the Canucks will find a way to get back into this series.

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