These have not been the high-flying Vancouver Canucks from the regular season, but they escaped another close call in the playoffs because of a superhuman performance from Ryan Kesler.
Kesler booked his team a spot in the West final for the first time since 1994 with another brilliant effort in the series finale. This time he set up both Canucks goals in the first period in a 2-1 victory to close out the pesky Nashville Predators in six games on Monday.
Kesler displayed a tremendous amount of confidence, determination and will all series.
"I think everybody’s will in this room was high," said Kesler afterwards. He led all forwards in ice time in Game 6 at 22 minutes and 54 seconds.
Kesler, whose club will await the winner of the other conference semi-final between the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings, prefers not to talk about himself. But how can you not single him out? He finished the second-round series with five goals and 11 points, but did much more than put up outstanding offensive stats.
He blocked shots, blanketed opposing centre Mike Fisher so well that the Nashville forward registered only one assist in the six games and anchored a penalty-killing unit that was a near perfect 20-for-21 in the series.
"He was a force all series," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We used multiple people on him. We used Fisher at times, [checking centre Jerred] Smithson, defencemen [Shea] Weber and [Ryan [Suter].
"If he doesn’t play that way we’re probably going to win that game and maybe that series."
Trotz called the opening 40 minutes the best two periods of the series for his team. They were buzzing and were rewarded with five power-play chances. But the Predators power-play continued to come up empty, even with Kesler in the penalty box for an early two-minute session before he went to work offensively.
Kesler made a determined play to knock down a clearing attempt from Suter to set up Vancouver’s Mason Raymond for his first goal of the playoffs. Less than two minutes later he chipped a puck across the crease to Daniel Sedin for his first of the series and first since Game 6 of the opening round against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Kes really elevated his game through will and determination. He showed that he wanted it more than anyone," said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who had another strong game with his defence partner Dan Hamhuis.
In a game that featured sloppy ice conditions because the thermometer reached 32-degrees Celsius, the Canucks built their 2-0 lead for the first two-goal advantage they enjoyed in the entire series. That’s how close every single game was against the Predators. Five times, the Canucks surrendered leads and allowed Nashville to tie them.
But not this time. However, it did not look good when Predators centre David Legwand banked in a shot off Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo from behind the goal line for another soft goal early in the second period.
The Canucks were fortunate to escape with the lead after 40 minutes. They put only two shots on Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne in the second period and needed speedy fourth-liner Jeff Tambellini to chase down Predators forward Martin Erat from scoring on a breakaway that was the result of a broken play by the Canucks in the offensive zone. Tambellini made his Stanley Cup playoff debut. He was inserted into the lineup in place of injured forward Mikael Samuelsson.
Even though the Canucks claimed nothing earth-shattering was said in the dressing room during the second intermission, they emerged to play their best 20 minutes of the series and didn't really yield any quality scoring chances to the opposition.
"In the second, we just couldn’t execute and we couldn’t get it out of our end," Bieksa said. "It was a never-ending fire drill.
"We took it to them."