Ryan Kesler has been back on the ice for the Vancouver Canucks for four games, a week. It has been hardly a brilliant stretch of hockey for the team. Kesler has been burners on, yes, but erratically impressive, and at times not impressive at all.
In Dallas on Thursday night, with the Canucks leading 4-2 in the third period, after going into the period tied 2-2 with the Stars, Kesler bobbled the puck right in front of his own net, letting it slip away, and Brendan Morrow banged it in to get the Stars within one. Kesler saw the goal from his knees, his face lifted, frustrated.
Given that Kesler dealt with an extended convalescence to heal an injured left shoulder and wrist, starting with surgeries last summer – and missed the first quarter of this shortened season – missteps can be expected. He has been strong, too, often playing well defensively and eating up minutes against opponent's best players – and has three points in his four games back, including an assist on the Canucks' first goal on Thursday.
Against Dallas, Kesler's mistake was absolved, as the Canucks held on to win 4-3, sucking up the last two minutes on a keep-the-puck away on a power play. The win lifted their record to 9-3-4 and was the first W since Kesler's return.
Kesler's first game was last Friday in Vancouver, when the Canucks blew a 3-1 lead to the Stars, losing 4-3, with Kesler on the ice for the last two goals. Then there were two shootout losses, so Thursday night's win, for Kesler and the team, was a welcome salve for a short losing skid.
After the game, Kesler said he felt flashes of his old self percolate, and maybe even starting to coalesce, but it will take more time. And he was relieved his third-period mistake didn't cost his team.
"It was a tough bounce on that last one, completely my fault, bad luck, whatever you want to chalk it up to," said Kelser in the locker room. "But I thought tonight, on the whole, my game's coming around. I felt -- I saw glimpses – I felt like I was coming into my own again."
For Dallas, it is the opposite, knocking the fledgling team to 8-8-1, and on Thursday the team again missed injured goaltender Kari Lehtonen, instead leaning Cristopher Nilstorp – playing his third NHL game. Nilstorp booked his third loss.
Vancouver, without Kesler, opened the year 8-2-2, but even if Kesler's return has been uneven, he has filled what was something of a gaping hole. One of the clearest indicators was the Sedin twins.
When Kesler plays, he is a defensive stalwart, generally taking on the best players the other team has to put on the ice, so the Sedins are free to ply their trade against weaker competition. When Kesler was gone, and the Sedins often had to take on other team's first lines, take a look: In 12 games, the Canucks fared well, but the Sedins were so-so. Daniel had 10 points in the dozen games, and Henrik eight, and not a single goal.
In the past four games, with Kesler on the ice, the Sedins have combined for 14 points. On Thursday, Henrik scored what proved to be the winner, a give-and-go with Alex Burrows, with Daniel booking the second assist. The play in this case came against the Stars' first line, so it's not as if the Sedins can't play against the best, but it helps the twins that Kesler is back.
Before the game, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said there has to be patience for Kesler, and also the newly returned David Booth, who played his second game Thursday. The two step into a season in full thrall.
"We're going to give them time to find their game," Vigneault said.
But in a shortened season, time is tight. The win in Dallas buoys Vancouver, but it is the first of three games in four nights and is part of a four-games-in-six-nights roadtrip, which began with a whimper Tuesday in Chicago.
A bigger test than Dallas comes in Nashville Friday, and then there's Detroit on Sunday. Kesler will have to find his true form, fast.