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Kesler a Center of Attention in Anaheim's Quest for the Cup

by Staff Writer / Anaheim Ducks

By Adam Brady | AnaheimDucks.com

It was one moment among a thousand of them, a glimpse into just how much Ryan Kesler has meant to this Ducks team the past nine months.

During a tense sequence late in Game 2 of the Second Round against Calgary – with the Ducks desperately grasping onto a one-goal lead at Honda Center – the veteran center stepped to the forefront without even being on the ice.

“He came down the bench and said, ‘Guys, it’s one shift at a time. Calm down. Everything’s okay,’” recalled Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. “So that experience showed through.”

“To have the ability to be a closer and to step up when your team needs you the most, that’s a huge reason he performs at the highest level when the game is on the line,” Fowler says. “He’s proved that all year.”

Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler was on the bench during that time and definitely took notice. “He has the ability to settle things down when it needs to be settled,” Fowler says. “That’s why he’s such a good leader. A lot of people look at him during those times, and just by his demeanor we can tell what we need to do as a team.”

The Ducks got two more insurance goals in that third period to win going away in a series they ultimately captured 4 games to 1. “There have been a lot of moments like that,” Boudreau says. “Those are the moments that stand out for me more than scoring three goals or getting booed or any of those things.”

The 30-year-old Kesler has scored his share of goals for Anaheim – including 20 in 81 regular season games and four in Anaheim's first nine postseason games. But it’s been his ability to shut down opponents’ best scorers, win key faceoffs (his 63.7 percent rate is the best in the playoffs) and lead by example that has made him so exceptional since the Ducks acquired him last summer in a major trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

“He’s definitely got a big presence in the room,” says Ducks winger Matt Beleskey, who has benefited from playing on a line with Kesler and winger Jakob Silfverberg in the playoffs. “He’s not vocal all the time, but when he is, guys are listening. He’s got that experience from what he’s been through – the Stanley Cup Final, all that experience. That shows in the room and on the ice.”

Kesler did have to feel things out when he first came to Anaheim last fall, for a number of reasons. “You don’t want to come in the room and be a rah-rah guy right away,” he says. “I think it takes a couple months, but I’m pretty comfortable now and I do look at myself as one of the leaders on the team.”

There was also the matter of building a relationship with established Ducks leaders like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, with whom he had developed a history of (sometimes violent) animosity while in Vancouver. Perry and Kesler had more than once thrown fists in Ducks-Canucks battles, and Kesler addressed the irony of two bitter enemies suddenly becoming teammates in a piece he wrote for The Players’ Tribune last month:

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t strange how it’s all worked out. We were sitting on the team bus on the way to practice the other day, laughing about it. I told them I’d pay so much money to be on that same bus a year ago, to hear all the crazy stuff they were probably saying about me. We had a good chuckle about the nicknames we used to have for one another — most of which can’t be printed here.

“It’s my job and I take it seriously. But saying that, I joke around with the guys,” Kesler says. “I think if you asked my teammates they’d say I might be a little grumpy some days, but I do like to joke around and have fun.”

I’ll never forget the day Perry asked me if I wanted to carpool to the rink with him. Never in a million years would I have guessed that we’d be carpool buddies. I’m sure he’d say the same about me.

Beleskey says he isn’t surprised Kesler fit in so soon, especially since his new teammates had already respected him so much when they were opponents.

“I would hope our room is already pretty comfortable to come into,” Beleskey says. “But he’s so dedicated off the ice, and guys see that and respect that. He’s pretty good at throwing his shots at guys and kind of getting in there. I think it was a pretty easy transition for him, definitely for us to accept him. I hope he felt welcome right away.”

One can’t help compare the arrival of Kesler to that of Chris Pronger in Anaheim almost a decade ago, which ultimately led to the Ducks winning their first Stanley Cup title in 2007. Like Kesler, Pronger was a defensive swhiz, a formidable presence both inside and outside the rink and someone who often played the villain role in opposing arenas. Like Pronger, Kesler has carved out a reputation for being occasionally ill-tempered.

“We laugh at him when he's grumpy," Boudreau says. "But he is who he is, and that's what makes him great."

Beleskey says Kesler’s intensity is often mistaken for crankiness. “People say he’s grumpy, but I don’t think so,” Beleskey says. “I think he’s serious, that’s for sure. I think the whole grumpy thing came from the media in Vancouver. I’d be grumpy too if they asked me all the questions they asked him.”

During one particular post-practice media scrum in the days leading up to Anaheim’s Western Conference Final series with Chicago, Kesler was noticeably reticent while talking to a gathering of media in the Ducks locker room. Reporters inched closer just so their tape recorders could pick up his voice as he addressed a number of topics, including his alleged moodiness.

“It’s my job and I take it seriously. But saying that, I joke around with the guys,” Kesler says. “I think if you asked my teammates they’d say I might be a little grumpy some days, but I do like to joke around and have fun.”

“From Day 1, we expected to be here. Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve known how to win. It doesn’t matter if we’re down two or three goals going into the third, we seem to battle back and find a way.”

Indeed, Kesler put his sense of humor on display this season by playing talk show host in a series of online videos entitled “Between Two Zambonis” (a takeoff of the Zach Galifianakis feature "Between Two Ferns") in which he interviewed a handful of bemused teammates.

Kesler came up with the idea to spoof the show himself, and Fowler was his ill-fated guest on the debut episode. It opened with Kesler handing the 23-year-old a pink child’s cup filled with chocolate milk and a Ducks bib that read “Youngest Fan.” In another installment, he asked Getzlaf what it was like to be the second-best Ryan on the team.

“He doesn’t mind throwing a shot at you once in awhile, and he has no problem taking it either,” says Fowler, who like Kesler hails from the hockey-mad state of Michigan. “That’s the kind of relationship he likes to have with you. If he says something to me, he wants me to give it right back to him. There is a lot of that around this locker room, that’s for sure.”

But Kesler has been all business in these playoffs, focused on capturing a Stanley Cup that just barely eluded him in Vancouver, when his Canucks fell to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Final. He has another shot at glory with this Ducks team.

“From Day 1, we expected to be here,” Kesler says. “Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve known how to win. It doesn’t matter if we’re down two or three goals going into the third, we seem to battle back and find a way.”

Much of the credit goes to Kesler himself.

“To have the ability to be a closer and to step up when your team needs you the most, that’s a huge reason he performs at the highest level when the game is on the line,” Fowler says. “He’s proved that all year.”

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