VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Ryan Kesler would never admit that he and the Vancouver Canucks need a few days off before the Western Conference finals.
Kesler is the player who asked doctors to cut off a badly broken finger in his first postseason game four years earlier, and he is also the guy who returned to Game 5 on Saturday night against the Nashville Predators in the same period in which he was hit so hard by a deflected puck that the cut went right through his lower lip and knocked out a tooth.
So even with his swollen face turning shades of yellow and purple around the stitches crisscrossing jaggedly an inch below his lip, Kesler wouldn't say he wanted time to recover.
That doesn't mean he isn't happy to have the well-timed break. The Canucks will be well-rested when they face the San Jose Sharks or the Detroit Red Wings in the opening game of the West finals at home on Sunday night.
Vancouver is in the NHL's final four for the first time since 1994, and the Canucks will have had six days off before hitting the ice again.
"If we had to play tomorrow I would be fine," Kesler said Tuesday, one day after the Canucks eliminated Nashville in Game 6. "But going forward, these next couple of days are important for us to recharge the batteries and get the fuel tank back up to full."
And while it might have been hard to tell during his often dominant second-round performance against Nashville, Kesler probably needs the time off as much as anyone.
The 26-year-old Michigan native scored five goals, and contributed to 11 of the 14 goals Vancouver scored against Nashville. He had the primary assist on both goals in the series-clinching 2-1 road win on Monday night.
"Ryan who?" goalie Roberto Luongo joked. "He's been unbelievable. He's taken his game to a level I have never seen before in the second round."
Even the Predators took note.
After criticizing a call in which Kesler held the stick of Predators defenseman Shea Weber to draw an overtime penalty — Kesler scored the winner on the ensuing power play — in Game 3, Nashville coach Barry Trotz compared Kesler to Mark Messier before the series ended.
With two game-winning goals against the Predators and a playoff-leading 15 points, Kesler has earned a lot of praise, even if he came into this postseason surrounded by questions. His five goals and 15 points are more than he managed in 23 playoff games over his other three years combined (three goals, 14 points). He credits the improvement to increasing desire as much as improved skill.
"As you play longer in this league and realize you don't have that many opportunities to win a Stanley Cup, your will and your drive ... I think that evolves over time," Kesler said.
Kesler's playoff performance is evolving at both ends of the rink. Named a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward for a third straight season, Kesler held Chicago captain Jonathan Toews in check in the first round. He then was a key factor in the Canucks' penalty-killing unit that allowed only one power-play goal to Nashville in 21 chances. Vancouver killed 28 of 29 penalties the past seven games.
"He was driving our bus," said coach Alain Vigneault, who planned another full day off for the Canucks on Wednesday. "He took charge both offensively and defensively."
Vigneault said the Canucks will need more people to do the same in the next round, especially on the offensive side. While he credited the tight-checking Predators for the role they played in it, Vancouver only had 14 goals in six games after leading the league in scoring during the regular season. Four were on the power play, and another was into an empty net.
The top-line duo of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who have won the NHL scoring title the past two seasons, had two goals, seven points and a minus-10 rating in the series against Nashville.
"For us to move forward we are going to need other guys to elevate their game also," Vigneault said. "We need more guys to pick up their game and take it to that other level."
It's a level few thought Kesler would reach in his first few seasons after he was drafted in the first round, 23rd overall, in 2003. Pegged by many as a checking center with limited offensive upside, many even suggested the Canucks walk away when Philadelphia tendered a $1.9 million offer sheet to Kesler as a restricted free agent in 2006. The Canucks matched the deal.
Since then he has blossomed into an elite — and agitating — shutdown center, scoring 75 points last season. He cut the trash talking and penalty minutes this season at management's request and, after shooting hundreds of pucks over the summer, scored a career-high 41 goals.
"I wasn't the most liked guy four or five years ago, and people probably hated me," Kesler said. "But to prove all those people wrong and just to prove my dad right — because he always knew I had it and I've always known — is satisfying."