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Superman Ryan Kesler needs sidekicks to step up

While Henrik Sedin wears the C for the Vancouver Canucks, there's no question about the identity of the team's heart-and-soul leader.

Ryan Kesler's performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs has certainly determined that - if it wasn't already evident after a 41-goal, Selke Trophy-worthy regular season.

He has awed many in the hockey world with the high quality of his play in Round 2 against the Nashville Predators. It has left little question that the Canucks so-called second line centre is among the best overall players in the game today.

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His last two outings, in particular, will go down as among the greatest back-to-back playoff performances in franchise history. He is an early Conn Smythe candidate.

On Saturday night, Kesler's singular determination to bring his team back from a 4-2 disadvantage against the Preds was reminiscent of Mark Messier in his prime. A wonderful skater at the best of times, Kesler seemed to be in a gear no one else could match.

Late in the first period, Kesler saw linemate Mason Raymond streaking down the ice with the puck. Well behind the play at the time, Kesler put his head down and pressed his turbo button. By the time he arrived in front of the Nashville net he had Norris trophy candidate Shea Weber draped all over him. Still, he found a way to tip a pass from Raymond behind Pekka Rinne.

In the third, with his team down two goals and his mouth down one tooth - thanks to a deflected puck that also opened up a nasty gash on his chin - Kesler whistled a shot from the point that made the score 4-3. Unfortunately, for the Canucks that's the best Superman could do.

Before Saturday's game in which a raft of Canucks mistakes allowed the Predators to crawl back into this series and possibly tie it Monday night, Kesler scored one of the prettiest goals of the playoffs. In Game 4, he skipped between Weber and defenceman Shane O'Brien and rifled a wrist shot past the Nashville goalie. The game before that he scored the overtime winner.

In the past five games, he has scored five goals (including two game winners) and added four assists. He leads the playoffs in scoring with 13 points.

"If only all of us could play like him," Canucks forward Jannik Hansen said after the team's 4-3 Game 5 loss. "If we could this would be an easy playoff."

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Kesler had gone goal-less in the opening-round against Chicago and yet won rave reviews for his play at the defensive end of the ice, especially in keeping Blackhawks star Jonathon Toews in check. But in the second round, Kesler has found his scoring touch in addition to contributing as a key faceoff man and penalty killer.

His brilliance has only served to remind Canucks fans of what a subpar playoffs the Sedins have been having so far - at least by regular-season standards. These are the Art Ross trophy winners the last two seasons we're talking about. And possibly the Hart trophy winners the past two seasons as well. You expect them to be more of a presence - or at least not hurt you when they're on the ice.

While plus-minus numbers are sometimes unfair and misleading, they can't be completely ignored. And for what it's worth, Daniel Sedin was a minus four in Saturday night's game and his brother, Henrik, a minus three. There has been speculation that Henrik is playing with some kind of injury - there always is when a star player isn't performing up to his potential.

It looks to me that the Sedins are trying as hard as they can. They don't seem to be skating any faster or slower than normal. But their lack of speed and nuanced game stands in stark contrast in these playoffs to Kesler's dazzling swiftness and ferocious intensity. Kesler has the war-beaten face of a win-at-all-costs playoff competitor. If the Sedins have playoff wounds they're not visible.

Despite the poor effort by the Canucks Saturday, marked by careless mistakes that were relatively uncommon throughout the regular season, it's difficult to see them losing this series. The Predators can't match the Canucks talent-wise. Besides, Kesler seems determined to lead his team into the next round even if he has to do it by himself.

But one player can only take you so far in the playoffs. If Vancouver expects to reach its goal of making the Stanley Cup final, Ryan Kesler is going to need some reinforcements soon.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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