Ryan Kesler's impact, even in somewhat limited ice time, was immediate. The star-crossed centre returned from injury for the second time this season on Monday night and despite a six-week absence from the zip of hockey, arriving in the thick of a race for the playoffs, Kesler was a force throughout Vancouver's contest against the visiting Phoenix Coyotes, an inspired effort topped by the evening's first goal.
Returning to game action after a hairline fracture in his right foot had healed, with little practice before game action, Kesler showed few signs of sloth – even if he joked after the first period, a frame during which he played just 4 minutes 18 seconds, that it felt he was on the ice for 14 minutes. Flanked by wingers Mason Raymond and Zack Kassian, Kesler was greeted by a rousing roar on his first shift and within moments whipped off a threatening wrist shot from the slot, though it went high.
He delivered hits, he drove play, he put pucks at the net, he won faceoffs: all-in an impressive return for a player who missed the first dozen games of the year (recovering from offseason shoulder and wrist surgeries), played seven games (injuring his foot in his very first game back) and then missed another 19.
Come game's end, underpinned by yet another masterful performance by goaltender Cory Schneider – a remarkable fourth shutout in 11 outings – Kesler's single goal was enough to carry the Canucks to victory, a hot squad that has won nine of the past 11 games, all of which have been backed by the resurgent Schneider.
"I'm another piece of the puzzle," said Kesler after the game. "Once we have them all together, we're a good team."
The 2-0 win – the Canucks scored an empty-netter short handed with a minute left – gives Vancouver a slightly larger cushion atop the Northwest Division, lifting the team to 50 points in 39 games, with rival Minnesota at 46 points in 38 games.
Kesler's goal came 7:26 into the game. Alex Edler intercepted a puck in front of Schneider and, in stride, carried it ahead before whipping a pass to Kassian. The erratic 22-year-old winger brought the puck down low near Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith but didn't have much of a move to make, with a Coyotes defenceman blocking his options. Kassian whipped it back to Kevin Bieksa, who whiffed a shot at the net and Raymond managed to get a stick on the rebound on the left side of Smith, the puck squeaking behind the goaltender and touching the opposite post before Kesler whacked it in – a huge smile breaking wide on his face, beaming like spring sunshine in Vancouver.
The goal was emblematic of Vancouver's play on Monday, when the Canucks had the pressure on the Coyotes all evening – outshooting the visitors 42-19.
Kesler, the 2010-11 Selke Trophy winner as best defensive forward in the league, was in a humble/share-the-praise mood on Monday. His return – and the addition of Derek Roy from Dallas – suddenly gives the team solid depth at centre, and among forwards, something that was lacking – such as their last game against Phoenix 2 ½ weeks ago when defenceman Keith Ballard was deployed as a winger. Now, Kesler noted, "We're deep up front."
As for the goal itself, Kesler's second of the year, he deflected any glory, calling Raymond's shot "a nice pass off the post," and the goal itself "just happened."
Still, it was a debut/return that has to buoy the hopes of Vancouver fans, who have seen the team ebb and flow through this season. For Kesler, who played 15:51 (compared with an average of 20:05 last year), it will take a few games to truly hit stride. During his first, abbreviated return, Kesler said he didn't really feel in the flow until his seventh, and final, game. That said, his performance Monday – the goal, eight pucks flung at the net, three hits, nearly two-thirds of faceoffs won – seems like he's been on the ice all the time along.
Kesler was the headline on Monday night – but Schneider remains the story for Vancouver. The backup-turned-starter – definitive starter – has his groove back.
On Monday, he benefited from strong defence but Schneider was solid on the several times he was tested. His run in the past 11 games comes after he delivered uneven play as he split time with Roberto Luongo over the season's first 28 games.
Schneider was also in a magnanimous mood. The Canucks, from the start, were the dominant team. Through the first 11 minutes, Phoenix managed just one shot, as Vancouver peppered the impressive Smith with 13. Schneider, after the game, credited his blanking of the Coyotes as a "system shutout" – all players contributed to the final result.
The latest streak – to repeat: four shutouts in 11 outings – has lifted Schneider's save-percentage to 0.928. The figure, ranked among goaltenders with at least 20 starts, ties the 27-year-old for first in the league with Boston's Tuukka Rask, another backup-turned-starter (though without the former starter looming). Schneider's work has shot the Canucks to No. 4 in the power ratings on NHL.com, a ranking in which Vancouver a month ago wasn't even in the top 16. The latest rankings outright stated that Schneider, if he stays hot, will be a contender for the Vezina. A turnaround that would have sounded naively hopeful if someone had ventured in early March that it would come to pass.
With Kesler back, this is now the team that will make the push to, and possibly through, the postseason. But the real tests won't come for some time. The Canucks are in the midst of a long run against mediocre teams and now embark on a five-game trip, the first three games of which are against the three worst teams in the conference. The biggest challenge on the trip will be St. Louis, which currently stands in seventh.
It won't be until later April, at season's end, when Vancouver takes on tough teams, Chicago and Anaheim, and then comes the playoffs. At the least, Kesler – if he stays healthy – will be in full flight by then, after a fast takeoff on Monday.